Brow Beat

Why “In the Crosshairs” Is a Triumph of Storytelling

Eddie Ray Routh, a suspect in the killing of Chris Kyle
Eddie Ray Routh, suspect in the killing of former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

Photo by Reuters/Handout

This past February, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran named Eddie Ray Routh traveled to a rifle range in Glen Rose, Texas, where he shot and killed his two companions. One was Chad Littlefield, 36, a facilities manager for an oil-services firm. The other was Littlefield’s friend Chris Kyle, 38, whose résumé made the murders into national news: He was an ex-Navy SEAL, best-selling memoirist, private security consultant, onetime bodyguard to Sarah Palin, and a sniper so deadly that Iraqi insurgents—whose numbers in one city he’d depleted by at least ninety-one men—nicknamed him The Devil of Ramadi.

After leaving the military, Chris Kyle had devoted himself not only to book tours and private-sector contracting, but also to helping ease the rocky transitions of fellow veterans back into civilian life. Eddie Ray Routh had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder—he’d begun talking nonsensically to relatives, sleeping erratically, fearing government surveillance, and threatening to hurt himself and others—and Kyle had invited him to the rifle range as part of an ostensibly therapeutic road trip. Some time between 3 and 4:55 p.m. that day, Routh opened fire and fled in Kyle’s Ford F-350. According to Routh’s sister, Routh, having lost his grip on reality, suggested to her before he was arrested that he thought he was in hell, and told her that he’d killed the men “before they could kill him.”

Yesterday, The New Yorker published “In the Crosshairs,” Nicholas Schmidle’s deeply reported 13,000-word investigation into Kyle’s murder and the events surrounding it. Schmidle’s piece offers an example of nonfiction storytelling at its most engrossing and—in quiet but powerful ways—surprising. (If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to do so before going any further here.) Kyle’s story comes with ample intrigue baked in, of course, because of his facility with a high-powered rifle and the minor celebrity it won him. Schmidle—a New Yorker staff writer who came to prominence with his August, 2011, account of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound—manages to deliver in the intrigue department, but his greatest achievement with “In the Crosshairs” is how he invests the piece with the pathos, ethical complexity, psychological depth, and poetic resonance of a finely wrought piece of fiction. By the end, this account of two lives colliding senselessly on a Texas shooting range becomes much more: a meditation on trauma, repressed and irrepressible; a tragedy in which our sympathies are prevented from settling into any predictable configuration; a vortex in which heroism and horror bleed sickeningly into one another. (Disclosure: I do not know Schmidle, but I have written for The New Yorker.)

Schmidle makes a crucial, perhaps counterintuitive, narrative decision up top. He could have opened with the murders, then jumped backward in time, loping toward the present with the reader’s knowledge of the coming violence hanging portentously and propulsively overhead. Instead, Schmidle starts on a day in 2006, atop a building in Ramadi, with a scene that both establishes Kyle’s bona fides and gives us a prolonged glimpse of the scarring violence he witnessed during his numerous tours. From there, as Kyle re-enters civilian existence, we grow steadily more invested in his story—Schmidle tells us, for instance, that Kyle only left the SEALs after his wife issued a them-or-me ultimatum, and that he felt resentment toward her for it. Eddie Ray Routh’s name does not appear until we’re 5,800 words in, and the day of the murder does not arrive for nearly five thousand words after that.   

In part, this structure reflects Schmidle’s confidence that the story’s sub-headline (Chris Kyle, a decorated sniper, tried to help a troubled veteran. The result was tragic.), in combination with the case’s recentness and notoriety, supplies all the suspenseful momentum necessary—not to mention that the reader will be tugged forward by an intrinsic fascination with Kyle’s line of work. (Once, we learn, he killed two insurgents riding a moped with a single shot.) But the choice to withhold the murder till the piece is nearly done also means that we first encounter Routh not as a killer, but as an extremely troubled—and, in Schmidle’s telling, deeply empathic—young man. While working as a guard at Balad Air Base, Routh laments his prisoners’ poor living conditions; in a call to his father from Iraq, he suggests obliquely and fretfully that he killed “a kid” during a patrol; after a humanitarian deployment to Haiti after the January, 2010, earthquake, where he meets people struggling to make do with nothing, he becomes obsessed with wastefulness. This indicates something about the kind of story Schmidle has decided to write. It isn’t a crime story, but, rather, a profile that becomes two profiles that conjoin, and terminate, violently.

In weaving his profile of Kyle, Schmidle starts to complicate our view of him early on—in many regards, he is an off-putting protagonist. In the fifth paragraph it emerges that he had a proudly pat view of the Iraqi conflict and its moral stakes: We learn that he “tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross,” that “he ‘hated the damn savages’” he fired upon, and that he once told an army colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” (Kyle, as he recounts the story in his memoir, made this comment while being interviewed about killing a man he claims was carrying an AK-47, but whose widow insists was holding only a Koran. “I guess I was a little hot,” Kyle says, not-quite-apologizing for the Koran remark. The inquiry is soon dropped, Kyle writes, the kill deemed “good.”) Later, Kyle seems to take to telling tall tales in which he casts himself as an above-the-law gunslinger—killing would-be carjackers here, setting up his sniper rifle atop the Superdome after Katrina and firing on “armed residents” (neither event seems to have happened). And yet we also learn of Kyle’s hard and heartfelt work to procure donated exercise equipment for veterans, the way that they regarded him like a big brother, uniquely attuned to what they’d seen and done at war, and the way that his vigilante yarns may have been the sublimations of a deeper, ravaging turmoil: “It was possible to see these stories as evidence of vainglory,” Schmidle writes. “It was also possible to see them as attempts by a struggling man to maintain an invincible persona.”

Schmidle piles up Kyle’s contradictions to the extent that, when the bundle of psychic scar tissue and barely stifled violence that is Eddie Ray Routh finally appears, he seems like an organic outgrowth of Kyle’s story, rather than some meteorite destined by nothing more than dumb fate to strike him down. In important and deliberate ways, Routh is presented as a sort of mirror-image of Kyle. He sees the world as sick, in need of help, rather than populated by “savages.” Whereas Kyle crows about killing people with Korans, Routh frets about the three-square toilet-paper rations Balad prisoners are subject to; whereas Kyle is icy-veined and breezy in the face of killing, Routh calls his dad, worked up, after an encounter with violence; whereas, in Kyle’s telling, his formative “humanitarian deployment” involved shooting Katrina victims, Routh’s involves bearing profound and unshakeable witness to the suffering of the Haitians to whom he distributes food; whereas Kyle sees firing guns in hunting trips with fellow veterans as a means for healing the PTSD incurred by firing guns at war, Routh threatens numerous times to turn his father’s guns on himself—to heal his PTSD by blowing his head off. The effect of this mirroring is to open up the possibility that both men are, on one level, the victims of forces bigger than themselves.

By the end of the piece, Routh comes to function—on a symbolic level—as the dark excess of Kyle’s bravado worldview, its violent and insupportable contradictions made manifest. It bears stressing that Schmidle provides an unsettling context for Routh’s actions at the rifle range without excusing their unhinged heinousness, and that he allows for this symbolic symmetry to register without ever reducing Kyle or Routh to a mere symbol. The irony of the story is cruel and layered enough as is: A war hero destroyed not on the battlefield, but on the home-front, by another man who couldn’t put the battlefield behind him, either.