As American Sniper picks up steam at the box office (and courts controversy along the way), revisit a conversation with the man whose story inspired the film+ READ ARTICLE
In late 2011, just before his book American Sniper came out, TIME did a lengthy interview with Chris Kyle. Portions of that interview made on onto the back page of the magazine for the 10 Questions feature. Other parts of the interview were edited into a video that lives online.
But Kyle had more to say — about his shooting methods, his favorite sniper movies and his faith. Here is the full length transcription of that interview, edited only for clarity and repetition.
Mr. Kyle, thanks for coming.
Thanks for having me.
So you’ve got this new book American Sniper. Don’t special operations forces guys usually not talk about their stuff?
Yes. It is kind of frowned upon.
So why did you decide to do the book?
Well, because I’m not trying to glorify myself. In fact, when we started the book I didn’t want to put the number [of kills] in there. I wanted to be able to get it out about not the sacrifices that the military members make, but the sacrifices that their families have to go through about the single mothers now raising their children and doing all the day-to-day house chores. But then also stories about my guys who deserve to be out there. They didn’t get the Medal of Honor so you don’t know about them, but they died heroes and people should know about them.
You had four pretty much back-to-back deployments. And you saw a lot of fighting. Do you feel that you have dealt with a psychological fallout of all that yet? It’s only ’11.
It definitely makes it hard to come back from that to learn to be a civilian now, and there’s different rules being a civilian. Everybody gets battle stress; maybe not PTSD, but you get a little stressed from constantly being in combat, but then you come home and you recharge your batteries.
As you speak, the Americans have pretty much just pulled out of Iraq. There are now officially no American soldiers there. Are you optimistic about the future of that country?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m glad they’re out. We should have declared victory awhile back and gotten everyone out of there. Let them prove now that they can run it. We’ve trained them and we’ve done what we needed to do. In fact we spent all the American money to rebuild them. Now it’s their time to prove it.
In your book you say actually that you don’t give “a flying F” about what happens to the Iraqis. Is that still your feeling?
I still feel like, sooner or later, we’ll have to go back.
You think we’ll have to go back?
I’m sure we will.
Because it’s not all done?
They’re crooked. No matter how bad you think of our politicians, those people over there are worse. It’s honorable to lie to someone’s face instead of to look bad.
So let’s talk a little bit about being a sniper. What are the qualities that a successful sniper needs?
It’s definitely not patience, because I’m not a patient person, but it’s professional discipline. Just being able to sit there and have the professionalism to observe everything. And it’s not just being a monkey on a gun—anyone can pull a trigger. But’s it’s observing the area. Knowing the culture. Knowing exactly what’s going on. Being able to pick out an oddity. You know, someone’s not acting right, so that draws your attention to them, and then you start really trying to define exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Anything as far as observing movement, shades, You know, anything that shines back at you. Trying to pick something out that’s out of the ordinary.
I thought you’d say, you have to be a good shot, but that’s not the most important thing about being a sniper?
I’m not the greatest shot there is. In fact, I almost failed out of sniper school. I’m the luckiest guy right now, but there’s definitely a lot better snipers out there. I just happened to be the one that was put in there, got lucky enough to see plenty of combat, and been able to take the shots. But observation is probably the most important skill.
It’s interesting that you should say lucky, because a lot of people would feel, ‘I don’t know how lucky that is, to have to be there and kill all those people.’ Let’s talk, because this is the bit that the vast majority of us has no experience in, about actually killing people. What goes through your mind when you’re shooting a guy?
Well I mean you’re not sitting there trying to analyze him and trying to figure out you know if he has a family or what kind of person is he. You’re there to protect your own guys, and I’m not there just trying to rack up numbers and see how many people I can kill—I’m trying to protect all the troops. So the more people that I can protect, that means there’s more people I have to kill. Cause every time I kill someone that means he can’t plant another IED or he can’t ambush a convoy. So I’m not going out purposely trying to kill someone, and the first time of killing someone, you’re not even sure you can do it. I mean you think you can, but you never know until you’re actually put in that position and you do it, and then you’re double-thinking yourself, like can I really do this? Am I going to be OK? And then you’re asking your leadership, Am I clear and hot to be able to do this? Am I going to be in trouble? You know, this guy’s really bad. And then you’re worried when you get home, are the politicians going to hang you out to dry and put you on trial for murder?
You write about that first time as being quite—all these things are going through your mind. Does it ever become more routine?
I’m not over there looking at these people as people. I’m just over there trying to do a job, trying to keep my guys safe, and you just view these guys as the terrorists that they are. You see the actions that they do. And I call them savages in the book, but if you see the way these people act, you don’t know how any civilized person can do what they do. So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it.
Snipers sometimes talk about a hunger for a kill. Is that something you felt? The hunger for the kill? Often when you got on the rifle and you just relieved a guy and you killed somebody, the others would say, Oh you lucky bastard. Was it luck or hunger or what [that made you so successful]?
Well I mean if you’re out there, you definitely don’t want to be just sitting there. I mean same reason when I said I was lucky to be in combat. When you sign up, you sign up because you want to go to war. Or at least the SEALS, we do. We don’t sign up to go be the best just so we can sit at home, walk around the bars and say, Hey, look at me, I’ve got a trident on. I’m a SEAL. We do it because we want to go to war. And then when you go to war you don’t want to just sit there. I mean what’s the point of deploying if you’re just going to sit there? You want to actually do your job or bring me home. So when your guy, it’s his turn to be on the gun, he wants to do his job. I mean we know the whole country was full of bad guys, and then our guys are constantly getting killed day after day, so we want to do something to make it safer.
The first kill that you write about in the book, you actually kill a woman and she has in one hand the hand of her toddler, and then in the other hand she has a grenade. Was that the hardest of the kills you had to do?
Probably. It was difficult. I mean first of all it’s a woman, and there is a child involved. But just like the story played out in the book, I had to do it to protect the Marines, so, do you want to lose your own guys or would you rather take one of them out?
In another story that you tell there’s a gentlemen, an enemy combatant, with a RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] and you floor him and then of course somebody wants the RPG so they come and pick him up and then you shoot that guy, and then they send a child to pick up the launcher, and you decline to shoot the child. Is there some line in the sand for you?
No. It also depends on our Rules Of Engagement and at the time anyone with an RPG, or any kind of a crew-served weapon, which meant machine guns or anything, mortars, that you could kill them on sight. That day I just couldn’t kill the kid.
How young was he?
Probably 10. 12. Something like that. I’m not sure. He’ll probably grow up and do it too as an older kid, maybe have to fight us, but at the time I just didn’t want to do it.
Do you have a favorite gun? Or is it more purpose-driven thing?
It’s purpose-driven. I mean, on my deployments, the .300 Win Mag [Winchester Magnum] did become my favorite, until we started getting a .338, but I would look at imagery, try to figure out what my longest shot would possibly be, and if it was you know a thousand or more, I would take my .300 Win Mag cause of the capabilities of the weapon system. So that for the most part that was the weapon that I would take, and then I would also have my M4, the patrol rifle I would take with me.
Sometimes you stopped being a sniper and went down on patrol, which I guess people must have taken a dim view of back at command, because you’re trained to be a sniper and you’re kind of valuable for that.
Well that was for Fallujah to where they had a problem with it, and that was just cause the Marine Corps put out a request for forces, and in that request that asked for SEAL snipers. I was sent and attached to the Marine Corps as a sniper, and that’s how I was to be employed. So it was not favorable for my head shed that you know nobody was coming out on the streets anymore that I decided to get down on the streets and help the Marines go through the door. But, as a SEAL, you’re never a master of anything. You’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Cause being a sniper, I don’t solely go out there and just sit on the shooting range and shoot my sniper rifle. I still have to keep up with my diving and jumps and do my patrolling and pistol work, everything else, so part of my job is also being down there on the ground. I was the point man and navigator, so I knew what was going on. I was usually number one man through the door with my guys, so, and I wanted to help out the Marines. I got tired of seeing them go into a house and then as they were coming out they were carrying one of their own out.
Do you have two sets of heads: your I’m-back-in-America head and your I’m-at-war-head?
Two different people. You turn it on and turn it off. You’re a little more aggressive when you’re at work and then when you come home you relax and try to be the different person, and my wife always said that when I came home from work I’d take my cape off and put in on the door, cause I’d stub my toe or break my toe or something at home, but at work I was fine.
Does your wife still have to say your name before she gets back into bed?
It’s not as bad. But that was even before I was in the military. I’ve always been extremely jumpy when I’m asleep.
And the reason your wife has to say your name before she gets back into bed?
I will come up swinging. Depends on how tired. If I’m out cold then you can ring the doorbell and I’ll be asleep.
I guess everybody who’s done what you do gets asked this, but do you have bad dreams?
Yeah, everybody has bad dreams, right?
Do you get bad dreams that specifically refer to the fact that you were a sniper?
Sometimes you do. Sometimes you might read a book or watch or TV or something will jog your memory and you think about it right before you go to bed and something will come up.
And you wake up and it’s gone. It’s not something that bugs you?
No. I mean I’m not a messed-up person. I don’t have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]; I’m fine. Every once in a while you might have a dream or remembering an event that you were involved in and then goes away.
Are there any kills you regret?
No. Not at all.
Because you felt like it was either you killed them or they killed other Americans?
When you’re at home do you get out your gun much?
I do. Well, part of my job is training, so I have to make sure that I stay on my fun when I’m training, especially sniper course. Someone will eventually challenge me to a shoot, so I at least want to be able to compete with them when I’m out there, and if I’m telling them they have to do something a certain way, I want to be able to do it myself and prove that it does make a difference.
I’ve read tales on the very reliable Internet of snipers leaving their first kill alive so that their buddies come in to help them and the sniper can shoot more evil-doers. In the sphere of war, do you think this is OK?
I think so.
So you would do it?
I never have. You don’t have to leave them alive for someone to come help them. Especially with the Muslim faith, if they die they need to be buried before either the sun goes down or the sun comes up. So they’ll come get the body.
But the rules of engagement don’t necessarily let you shoot the guys who come unless they’re armed, right?
Right. Well I mean they can’t be just coming to pick up a body. If that was the case, thousands of kills. If they’re just coming to pick up a body that’s fine. Now, there were times during the ROEs did state that the guy’s bad, anyone who comes to his aid’s bad. But they know our ROEs better than we do, so they understood, and during that time they would not come out and help.
I’m guessing they learned them the hard way.
I’m sure they did.
So which of the sniper movies do you think are the most accurate that you have seen? Shooter? Enemy at the Gates? Rambo?
Ah, shoot. I like Enemy at the Gates. As far as accurate? I don’t know. I mean it’s all Hollywood.
Are there any that you watch and you just go, That is ridiculous?
Oh, most of them.
How have technology and digital communications changed the way that snipers work since that Finnish guy, I think his name was Simo Häyhä, killed all those Russians?
I’m not just out there shooting. Now I’m going in early, ahead of my guys and I’m the forward observer now. I’ll take a picture and send it back over satellite, back to my guys so they can see real time the target that they’re fixing to hit or the way the people are where they’re standing, where the guards are, their different routines. Or if I actually have the high-value target that we’re going after, I can take a picture and send it to them so they know exactly who they’re looking for.
So you take a picture, send it and they go, Yeah, that’s the guy we want. Take him out?
Right. But most times for something like that, there’s the follow-on force coming in to do an assault, to actually grab the guy, take him back. So I’m there trying to give them heads up, give them their Intel brief before they get there, to let them know the routes coming in, which ones are safe, which one I wouldn’t take, different obstacles that might be in their way.
There’s actually been quite a lot of Navy SEAL and sniper books out since this war, which is unusual. Why do you think that so many special operations forces guys are coming out from the cover of darkness?
It’s popular right now. It’s very popular. We always make fun of all the guys saying, Oh, you’re going to take your trident and sell it, huh?
Is it because of SEAL Team 6?
No. I don’t think it’s just 6. Six has the most notoriety of all of them. They definitely have you know a more high-valued job, not downplaying what the rest of the SEALs do at all, which I was never 6 anyway, so.
But it does seem like this tradition of ‘we don’t really talk about what we do’ is kind of being laid by the wayside.
I think a lot of it with the media being embedded overseas, there’s a lot more stories of SEALS coming out anyway, so the public is a lot more knowledgeable. When I first went in I didn’t even know what SEALs were, and then I thought, Wow, they do that and no one ever hears about them. They got to be awesome. I want to go do it. And now everyone knows what SEALS are. Everybody either knows a SEAL or knows someone who is a SEAL, or knows someone who knows someone, and then there’s also a bunch of frauds who are out there saying they were SEALs.
You were not a fan of the journalists embedded among military. Would you like to explain why?
Right. Back in World War II, if they would have had the media embedded then, there would have been so many war criminals. The fact is Congress should decide, if they’re going to send us to war, O.K., you give me the go-ahead. We’re going. Now the generals and the admirals are going to decide. Are we going in to win or are we just going in to play patty cake and do your little rebuilding and kind of hang out. Politicians shouldn’t have any say over what happens after that. Let’s go in. Do our job. Now, there will be crimes that happen, and those do need to be punished. I’m not saying that we need to just say alright, let’s go in, do what we got to do and shit happens. But the media does cause more tension and a lot more problems than they do good.
You say in your book that most Americans can’t handle the reality of war and the reports journalists sent back didn’t help us at all, which actually sounds a lot like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.” Is that how you feel? Are you on Jack’s side in this one?
Yes, ma’am. For the most part the public is very soft. You live in a dream world. You have no idea what goes on the other side of the world, the harsh realities that these people are doing to themselves and then to our guys, and there are certain things that need to be done to take care of them.
So you don’t think there’s any value at all in… Wasn’t the problem with Vietnam that the American people lost faith in the war and therefore pressured the politicians to get the troops out probably early, in the military’s eyes?
No. The problem with Vietnam was the politicians never wanted to win it and they wouldn’t turn the Americans loose to actually do it, cause we could have won that war. The troops on the ground had it done. Now when the politicians start hamstringing you by making up these ROES, the rules of engagement, and changing how you play cause they’re sitting in their fat ass in the air conditioned room on a leather chair smoking a cigar and having a drink while I’m out there getting shot at, that doesn’t belong out there. And then the media comes in and during Vietnam the army was putting out their own spin, which, it was found out that they were lying about a lot of things, so that hurt, and then the public realized that the army was putting out their propaganda that was full of lies. And between the politicians not letting the military win it, and then the army/media putting their own spin on things, and then the American public… I mean, good stories for the most part don’t sell. You need something that has tragedy to really get someone’s attention to turn it on. I mean, most of these movies that you go to watch are not Disney anymore unless you got kids. You’re out there to see some violence.
So you weren’t over there to protect American rights, like a free press?
We weren’t over there to protect America’s right to do anything. We went in to help free some people, to form a democracy for them, to liberate them. And then I was over there fighting for my guys. I was fighting because my country told me to, and then I was fighting for my buddies and my family.
The war has cost $824 billion so far and roughly 4,484 American lives, and then who knows how many Iraqis, and two of those lives were very good friends of yours, Marcus Lee and Ryan Job. In your opinion, was it worth it?
I think it was worth it. Now it’s never worth it when you lose a guy. I’m not trying to devalue their lives and say that, Yes, this whole thing was worth their life, but going over there we did the right thing. It’d be a lot cheaper if we didn’t stay over as long, and if you make us come in, we shouldn’t have to pay to rebuild.
You were investigated at least one time, for a kill. Would you like to explain about that?
Well there was one that was outside of Habbaniyah, where a convoy was coming along and a guy was maneuvering to go hit the convoy. He was going to ambush him. Well I shot him. And then his wife came out, a whole crowd came out. They got the body, because at the time the ROEs did not allow me to shoot anybody else, even if they did pick up that weapon. So I had to let everybody go, and they moved the body. She started screaming and crying. The army sent investigators out there, a tank commander. He went out and the woman was saying—right there on the street, right where I shot him—she was saying her husband was just walking down the street carrying a Koran. And at that time he was saying, OK well what happened? She said, Well an American shot him. I know it was an American. I saw him—his uniform. So the army captain pointed up at my building where I was hidden, and he said, Did it come from the direction? She said, Yes, yes. That’s him. Which at the time I wasn’t wearing a uniform, so she couldn’t see me. I was covered with the jacket and everything else and I was two rooms deep. I had my screens up. You couldn’t see in, not even if you were standing in front of the building. So the woman was lying. The army pulled me and said that I could not leave the base to go on any more missions for a while until the investigation was done. And it pissed me off. They were going to take the word of a woman who was out there lying that I’m just out there killing innocent people. And then [the army captain] gave up my position.
You don’t generally have a lot of respect for what you call “the head shed.”
In the military, being enlisted, we like to give the officers crap, and we always frown, make jokes at them and tell them you know I actually work for a living and make fun of them saying they make a million dollars a year, which they don’t. But no, I have had some outstanding officers who I loved working for and they were outstanding, brave one who did the job and did it right. In the book, it does come out that I had some of them that I did not like at all. Thought they should have been on the other side of the war, but that’s not true throughout the whole chain of command. That was just certain people in it. Now when you start getting up higher the chain in command up home here, that’s when you start getting the bureaucracy and the politics come in. That’s when I don’t like that.
You’re a SEAL, but you don’t actually like the water. Do I have this right?
Yes, you do.
One would think you maybe should have joined a different branch. Was the name SEAL not a bit of a giveaway there would be water?
If I see a puddle I will walk around it. I hate the water. But during BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training] you’re, for seven months long, you’re cold and you’re wet. Every time we get in the water, it’s not like you’re out in the Bahamas and it’s crystal clear and you’re just enjoying yourself. It’s usually cold. It’s pitch black; you can’t see your hand in front of your face and things bumping into you, you have no idea what they are. That’s out of my element. I mean, I’m the prey in the water. I don’t like that.
In asymmetric warfare like we practiced in Iraq where one side has much better weapons, much better training, much better organization and much better funding, did you ever find it possible to respect any of your adversaries?
There were some. The hardened fighters who were well trained. I mean it’s a lot easier to respect someone like that who’s actually going to give you a challenge and they’re going to put on the uniform and want to come fight you. It’s a lot easier to respect that instead of someone who’s going to dress like the public, blend in, and use women and children as shields.
That is the nature of asymmetric warfare though, that they are sort of almost forced to use women and children as shields, because understanding the rules of engagement, they know you wouldn’t shoot.
So that must be a very frustrating situation.
You prefer just to fight a real fight.
Yes, ma’am. Then I can pick out my targets.
You talk in your book a little bit about your faith, which is interesting. You have a God, country, family set of priorities, and in my understanding of the Christian faith, we are all created in the image of God, and we are all fallen from that image, and then we have been redeemed. Given that we are all created in the image of God, do you see no conflict in your faith because the guy that you’re going to shoot is not any different in God’s eyes to you? That you’re both sons of God?
Well even in the Bible, God sent the Jews to war. I am not going to murder someone, but if it is in war, I do not think God has a problem with that.
You actually say in your book that you think God might have some things to talk about with you.
Oh, I know he does. I have sinned my entire life, so we definitely have things we’re going to have to sit down and talk about, or I get a talking to about, but shooting those guys is not going to be one of them.
Your conscience is completely clear.
But if people did start out with the impression before they read your book that a person who has killed upwards of 150 other people was a violent person, maybe a bloodthirsty person, I’m not sure that the book would free them from that feeling. How would you respond to that?
I really don’t care what they think of me. I mean I’ve got my family. I’ve got my friends. I’m not trying to make new friends. If you actually spend time with me you’ll find out I’m just a fun-loving guy. Now, yes, I have been trained to be a little more aggressive if I need to be, but I don’t go around thumping people as I’m walking by.
You do talk about an awful lot of bar fights.
Yes, ma’am. And it’s a lot of easier to do it when you’re active duty and the Navy’s willing to help you out of problems. If there’s no consequences for your actions then you can do a lot more. But being a civilian now, there’s consequences to my actions.
What was the hardest part about coming home?
Well the first deployment, it was coming home and seeing that everyone’s doing their life as normal. The world just kept turning, and it seemed like no one was paying any attention to the fact that guys were overseas dying for us, and then the fact of being in the crowds again. When I came home it took a little bit of time. You just kind of hang out for a few days before I could go out and be in crowds again. And you have to act completely different. It’s not more, I mean… You’re not going to be walking around with your M4 slung over you anymore.
You have the God, country, family priority list, and your wife has the God, family, country priority list, and that became something of a point of conflict, to the point where she was very disappointed that you redeployed after she became pregnant with your first child. Would you redeploy again? Under what circumstances?
If my wife did not give me the talking to, then I probably would still be in. I would deploy again. My feeling is as long as I am able-bodied, I should be out there fighting that war instead of sending someone in my place.
And what is it that your wife said that made a difference?
She was going to take the kids and go to her parents, and I could not lose my family.
Do you think that that is a common problem among…?
Definitely. Even when we’re home, you know, doing your training before you deploy, you’re not at home. You’re all over the states doing your different training activities, getting ready to deploy. So you don’t get to see your family. I am thankful now I’m out. I have a great relationship with my kids and my wife and I are awesome now, so it has brought something new to me. I lost the teams and I lost the guys, but I gained my family.
And what would you advise other people facing redeployment?
Don’t get married.
Really? Your wife’s going to read this in Time magazine, you know that right?
Oh, she knows.
How many tours of duty should we ask of a guy with a family?
How many he’s willing to give. I’m not saying how many, or giving rules you got to be putting on someone. Each individual’s going to be different. Some of the wives, they’ve gotten used to that way of life now, and sometimes it’s easier when their husband’s gone. So they have two separate lives, but they’re married. And a lot of people then have problems when that guy finally gets out of the military and then he’s home now, and then all of sudden daddy wants to be in charge again and it causes problems at home.
So kids don’t tend to take orders as well as others?
I’m not saying so much as the kids as the…
Wives don’t take orders at all.
That’s hard, especially if you’re a SEAL. You’re an alpha male. When you come home, you want to be the one in charge, and if your wife’s been the one in charge, leading the family, taking care of all the day-to-day activities, it’s hard for her to give it up and trust that you’re going to be able to take it over. She knows how the kids are operating, you know what they think, how they’re feeling, the best way to get things done, and now she’s going to probably watch over your shoulder to make sure, see how you’re doing it until she finally trusts that, OK, you can handle it.
If you never got to kill another person again, would be OK with it?
I’m fine. I don’t have to kill to live.
But you were good at it.
I was decent at it.
Well you were the most “decent at it” of anybody apparently in the current engagement.
Like I said though, I was lucky; every time I deployed it was into harm’s way. It was a conflict and heavy battles.
What if killing people turns out to be the thing that you were better at than anything?
I know that’s not true. I’m a better husband and a father than I was a killer. I mean I got a job now I’m pretty good at. I’m pretty comfortable with not having to kill anyone. Now, don’t take deer hunting away from me.
Chris Kyle, thank you very much.