Within the last two weeks, I’ve read two Navy SEAL books: Marcus Luttrell’s Service: A Navy SEAL at War and Chris Kyle’s American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
The books have a lot of similarities, separate from the fact that both are books about SEALS seeing service in Iraq during and before the Anbar awakening. Luttrell and Kyle are both Texas boys (who, unsurprisingly, are friends); they both value the triumvirate of Country, God, and Family, although not necessarily in that order; they both have a superhuman capacity for exertion and suffering, which is a necessity for a SEAL; they both describe the devastating long-term effects on their bodies from constant training and battle, hardships they willingly endure because they love their jobs and their country; and they both are fiercely, almost fanatically devoted to the SEALS.
What’s different about the books, and what makes it worthwhile to read both, is tone. Despite being a Texas good ol’ boy, Luttrell’s view of the SEALS is almost reverent. His SEALS don’t come across as choir boys, but they are remarkably close to the PG-rated, family-loving, lite beer-drinking SEALS in Act of Valor. After his Afghanistan ordeal, Luttrell’s subsequent service in Iraq comes close to a martyrdom, as he struggles against debilitating physical injury in order to be out there with his Teams.
Kyle adores the SEALs, but has no reverence. These are hard charging men who drink, brawl, and haze each other with cheerful, impartial brutality. When they’re off duty, and have nothing else to do, they play computer games and watch porn. These are the R-rated SEALS. These are men who naturally have testosterone infusing their testosterone. I have a suspicion that they’re closer to the real deal than are Luttrell’s SEALS, who seem to have come out of central casting, circa the John Wayne era. Kyle clearly loves war. He’s no sadist, but there is pleasure for him in defeating an enemy he describes as “savage” and “barbarian.”
I’ve been wondering about the different approach these two men take to describing their comrades. Are Luttrell and Kyle so different in personality that they simply see their team members through a different filter? Or are they writing for very different audiences? Luttrell gained national prominence because of his experiences in Afghanistan, whereas Kyle may be more of a military phenomenon. This means that Luttrell has to appeal to — and is selling the SEALS to — a broader spectrum of Americans than Kyle.
The books are a perfectly matched set (and you know how I love my matched sets), so I recommend reading both. Combining Luttrell’s more cerebral approach with Kyle’s earthier stories gives a well-rounded view of the brave and slightly insane (in a very good way) men who willingly engage in uncomfortable, brutal, and dangerous warfare so that the majority of Americans can live out their lives in comfort and safety. I have inordinate admiration for these men, but I do get the feeling that you have to be as tough as they are to function around them.
Also, both books offer a good insight into the chasm between actual fighting in the field, and the political fighting at home that so often handicapped them. Frustration is the name-of-the-game for front line fighters who have the enemy in their sights and are constrained by almost arbitrary rules of engagement. The theory behind the rules of engagement is to leave a loving population behind. But war is not loving, and things would probably have gone better if the government had trusted the troops a little more, and allowed them to wage a quick, clean-ish war, rather than a slow, enervating war.