There has never been a better moment to launch a literary examination of how American history has been shaped by the guns we've used. Or maybe the time has never been worse. The gun, symbol and reality both, has become in past months the most divisive agent in the ongoing debate about who we are and where we're going as a nation.
It is beyond germane that the author's life and recent death – at the wrong end of the weapon he mastered and revered – concisely summarizes both sides of a vexatious argument and, for good measure, puts a fillip of anguished irony on top. Chris Kyle had not yet finished writing this paean to the instrument with which he was murdered last February. He had no way to know that with American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, he was inscribing his own memorial, one that will always in some way remain incomplete.
By now only someone who has been on a long vacation in a foreign land with sorry connectivity (here we exclude Iraq) is not acquainted with Kyle, decorated Navy SEAL and the deadliest sniper in US military history (160 confirmed kills and likely far more than that); bestselling author of last year's "American Sniper"; the subject of extended articles (including a somber e-single by Anthony Swofford, a former Marine sniper uniquely positioned among journalists to consider Kyle's life and untimely death); and soon to be played by Bradley Cooper in a Spielberg film. He was not exactly bigger than life, but his outlines were more distinctly inked than nature usually draws. His death is only now adding chiaroscuro to the image of a superhero.
From boyhood he owned and loved guns, for hunting and general boy-play – "I love lever-action rifles... I lusted after [brother Jeff's] Marlin .30-06 when we were kids. I had a fine bolt-action .30-06, but his lever-action Marlin looked to me like a cowboy gun, and in my mind that made it the best" – and it is this enthusiastically sensuous regard for the object that permeates "American Gun."
The allure of the weapon, its efficiencies and action and sound and smell, is inseparable from its terrible power; it belongs to that class of manmade phenomena a friend of mine has termed "charismatic objects." These are fast and dangerous, elegant and complex, functional and art. At its heart the gun (or the motorcycle or the airplane) embodies a paradox: its satisfactory utilization calls for a still focus, the world distilled to here and now, but the fire that results from such Zen purity has been stoked with the full knowledge of its awful purpose.
The psychic heaviness of the piece is an analogue to its physical heaviness (and guns are always heavier than you think, notwithstanding Kyle's frequent observation that this or that gun is "light"; weight is obviously relative for a man who has undergone the ruthless physical conditioning of SEAL training and who has "humped" guns hither and yon for most of his life).
His glee in shooting – describing it, recounting others' doing it, and especially the results of doing it, death as ultimate hobby – is palpable, and almost childlike. He mentions that the AR15's full rack of custom options (grips, sights, trigger systems) have made it "a Barbie Doll for guys" but as usual does not comment on the implications: No matter how much cash you spend to bust the doors on Barbie's closet, no one could die from it. "American Gun" is a book for sympathizers, not questioners.
The scope through which Kyle here sights on the history of America is the one most emblematic to him: the good guys blasting away at the bad. So we had a bunch of wars, a few loose cannons, as it were, like Prohibition-era gangsters and would-be presidential assassins, and the rest is law and order. It's not all of what happened in the past 337 years, but – and this is the fulcrum of the high-stakes debate now swinging back and forth in the legislative and lobbying arenas (one and the same, argues one side) – for folks of Kyle's hawkish proclivities it seems like pretty much all we've accomplished.
Kyle owns that his ten chosen forearms are personal favorites and could be argued, but he knows his guns. In fact, he's fired many of them and describes doing so to fine effect: his list, spanning the Revolution to twenty-first-century global conflicts, comprises the American long rifle, the Spencer Repeater, the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, the Winchester 1873 Rifle, the M1903 Springfield, the M1911 Pistol, the Thompson Submachine Gun, the M1 Garand Semi-Automatic ("the gun that saved the world" in the hands of the Allies), the .38 Special Police Revolver, and the M16 Rifle.
He announces right up front what to expect from his approach to the account: "I aimed to talk history with the bullets flying" – no "stodgy textbook" this. The book reads like the Colt 1911 shoots: "The spent shell pops out quicker than you can see it. A new one pushes up from the magazine inside. Aim, and fire again. Nothing to it." In other words, "so sweet."
And so we are in the presence of a battlefield tour guide who has the uncanny ability to conjure the long-vanished line advancing up the empty rise before us, to make us smell the tang of black powder in the air, and most of all to imagine the otherwise unimaginable heroism of those who put their own lives last, with their guns first.
The book starts with the story of a sniper (in 1777) and especially relishes highlighting storied descendants of his ilk: Sergeant York, the commandos at Dieppe, and by extension all those who profess Kyle's own religion. It is not a subtle one. "I don't see too much gray," he explained in his first book. Killing someone? "It's no big deal." Intense fighting: "I [DELETED] love this." But in Kyle's book, literally and figuratively, annihilation of life is more than all right so long as the target is black-and-white. That which makes it so clear? Evil. The man who holds a gun is judge, jury, and executioner in one. The case in war, to Chris Kyle, is already closed.
Kyle's widow, Tara, now carries the flag for her husband. In her foreword and afterword, the word evil appears often, as it did in her husband's first book. It is a good justification, but a poor explanation. It is the metaphoric bullet in the sniper's Mk11.
The full detail is only now coming to light of the mentally unstable vet that Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield were trying to help but who instead killed them at a firing range. Tara's rendering of her husband takes on, in that light, a distressing and almost tragic cast. She sketches Kyle as a man who had found new purpose after giving up a life devoted to killing, in aiding others who had suffered from doing just that. Much of the money he made from "American Sniper" was given to veterans' relief; he had co-founded a foundation to provide fitness equipment to disabled vets. Most of all, he believed in the healing power of shooting guns. Perverse, ironic, paradoxical: yes, abundantly. And no, too.
Chris Kyle was both a victim and a celebrant of the gun's terrible potency: its double nature. If you love its life-giving side, you risk its life-taking one. In war as in peace, no one gets to choose.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: "The Perfect Vehicle," "Dark Horses and Black Beauties," and "The Place You Love Is Gone," all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.