How American Hero Worship Obscures Real Veteran Issues
As of this upcoming Memorial Day Weekend, the Clint Eastwood-directed film American Sniper remains the highest grossing “war movie” in box office history (topping Saving Private Ryan during it’s theatrical run a half decade ago in 2014–15) and stars Bradley Cooper as real life sniper legend Chris Kyle, a man viewed by many as a quintessential American hero but one who still leaves a disturbing pattern of warped truths and fabrications three years after his untimely murder in 2013.
Based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, American Sniper tells the story of a devoutly Christian man who winds up becoming the deadliest sniper in American military history during multiple combat tours in Iraq as a member of the famed Navy SEALs. Kyle’s real-life story has a Paul Bunyan-like flavor, a legend which continued to grow after his military service ended, one guided by American individualism and an embodiment of the most cherished attributes of a seemingly bygone era, when Americans won wars with bravery and a steely willingness to do the heavy lifting others in the world wouldn’t or couldn’t do.
Run Kyle’s name through any online search and you will see a plethora of testimonials to his courage and expert skill buoyed by a larger than life persona. To his supporters, Kyle is simply a legend, one of the greatest Americans to ever wear a military uniform. While the book depends completely on Kyle’s often blunt point of view (it is an autobiography, after all), Eastwood the director chooses to show the messier complexities of Kyle’s life and his time in war, most notably the array of challenges and many painful days he faced upon his return to civilian life. All told, Eastwood portrays a far more conflicted and somber Kyle than the sniper himself does in his own book.
As with thousands of other combat veterans, the sight is not pretty, as he becomes nearly crippled by the effects of PTSD, compulsive alcohol consumption and his own isolation. In 2013, at age 38, Kyle’s life came to an unceremonious and shocking end when he was shot and killed by a fellow war veteran he recently befriended while at a Texas shooting range (Kyle’s friend Chad Littlefield was also shot and killed at the range that day). He left behind his wife, two children, and a vast number of friends, admirers and fans. His funeral was held in a sports arena to accommodate everyone who attended. Kyle’s legacy is notable not only for its impressive and compelling scope but as a poignant example of the problematic gray area which exists within contemporary American hero worship.
Kyle was present for many of the Iraq War’s most pivotal moments. The war’s opening phase in 2003. Fallujah in 2004. Ramadi in 2006. Sadr City in 2008. He saw it all, often through the scope of his weapon, one which earned him 160 confirmed “kills” with nearly one hundred more unofficially listed in his logbook. He eventually came home, returning to his family to start a new life, intent on putting his war days behind him.
He started a military training company, Craft, and served as a bodyguard for Sarah Palin at one point. He also began reaching out to fellow veterans during this time in a variety of low profile ways. Kyle’s life changed course once again with the release of his 2012 autobiography. The book (co-written with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice) became popular not only because of its main subject but for its raw tone and brutal honesty. American Sniper rose above the usual, run-of-the-mill military accounts by offering readers Kyle’s opinions on a wide variety of subjects.
The book was a hit. Soon, he was invited to be a guest of honor at numerous events, embarked on hunting expeditions with famous personalities and notable politicians, taught shooting clinics, became the subject of many written feature articles, appeared on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, participated on the celebrity contest “Stars Earn Stripes” (an NBC television show which was ultimately dumped by the network after one season) and generally carved out an identity as the Great American Badass.
He loved to tell stories. And people loved hearing them. On the satellite radio program “The Opie and Anthony Show”, he bragged about punching out Jesse Ventura because he overheard him badmouthing the Navy SEALs. Once this story became public, Ventura sued him for defamation of character, and “The Body” won a hefty financial settlement in a court decision rendered after Kyle’s murder. This curious schism between what Kyle claimed and what a court actually found to be true (or at least doubtful enough to award a financial settlement) proved to be anything but an isolated incident.
This week watchdog website The Intercept scoured military records to find that Kyle greatly exaggerated the number of medals won during his military service. Using Kyle’s official separation document (known as a DD214) the website cites Kyle used higher medal counts for his service in his autobiography than official records show him actually earning. Did Kyle simply lose track of these numbers? Possibly but very unlikely. Kyle was a precise, methodical man, one who knew his “kill count” and very exact details about his service. Why would someone exaggerate an aspect of their own life that needed no such inflation? Kyle’s post-war life reveals much about the man who made a living being an American hero.
Outside of Kyle’s own autobiography, there are two articles about Kyle from 2013 which I consider canon for understanding his life in all its complexity. One is Michael J. Mooney’s revealing piece “The Legend of Chris Kyle” (D Magazine) and the other is the superbly done New Yorker article “In The Crosshairs” by Nicholas Schmidle. Aside from offering some warm measure of reassurance that great journalism hasn’t gone completely to the ash bin of American media, these articles give the most complete picture of Chris Kyle in all his truthful, and at times mythological, glory.
Mooney’s story opens with one staple tale of the Kyle legend, a morning in Dallas in 2010 when he was confronted by two armed men intent on stealing his truck. Mooney writes that Kyle lulled the would-be carjackers into a false security by telling them he was getting his keys for them as he leaned over, instead grabbing his Colt 1911 and shooting both of the men dead on the spot. After being briefly detained by police, it was established just who Kyle was and his elite military status, a discovery that prompted his release. After this story was revealed to the public, the event cemented Kyle as a public defender of the coolest order. He reported getting emails from law enforcement officials and others across the country hailing him as a “hero” for “cleaning up” the streets.
However, as Schmidle notes, there is ample reason to doubt this ever happened. For one, there were no witnesses. This is a minor point in some ways as it is not unusual in remote crimes or attempted robberies to have only one first hand account. But more significantly, there is no record of Kyle’s brief detention by police. The only source for Kyle’s story is Kyle himself. In more than one interview, even local sheriffs pressed to comment on the story’s validity admit his story is highly unlikely. The idea that two men would be killed on a road in Dallas and nobody other than Kyle knew about it, or that no official record of the incident of any kind exists, is outlandish at best. Mooney committed a key reporting error: using a single-source account for the lead in his story. And he didn’t even try to hide the fact, writing essentially that Kyle was the only source he needed to verify its authenticity. As President Reagan reportedly once said, trust but verify.
Another odd story Kyle allegedly told took place over some late night beers with some other SEALs who were part of a discussion for a military website. Kyle said he and another sniper went down to New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and “took out dozens” of looters in the city from the rooftop of the Superdome. Once again, there is no doubt Kyle possessed ample skill for such a task. He probably could have taken out hundreds of people if given the time and targets. The point is that there is no record, at all, of this ever happening. None. America is a country that loves its conspiracy stories, but the idea that a man could shoot dozens of people from a New Orleans rooftop and nobody — not a single person — reported such activity is not only bizarre; it’s absurd.
After declaring profits from his autobiography would be solely donated to veteran-related charities, records show quite the opposite picture; very little of the bestselling book’s profits went to anything other than Kyle himself. This isn’t necessarily wrong. After all, Kyle had every right to profit from his story for the financial gain of both himself and his family. But why announce otherwise and not follow through? It doesn’t mesh with the image Kyle portrayed. Moreover, why tell outlandish and unverified stories about acts of heroism at home when you already did the work of several heroic lifetimes in combat? Kyle didn’t need anything to enhance his already staggering legend. But for whatever reason, it appears he did anyway.
Conversely, as Schmidle points out more than once, Kyle had no shortage of friends and associates who desired to be in his company. According to many who knew him, Kyle had a wicked and accessible sense of humor and was rarely starstruck by anyone (he supposedly asked Natalie Portman “what she did for a living” when meeting the actress, which reportedly made her like Kyle even more). He was just at ease with homeless veterans as he was shooting guns with Texas Governor Rick Perry or chatting on television with Conan O’Brien. He was clearly not interested in political correctness and was brutally honest in his expressing his staunchly conservative views on American wars, the Second Amendment and a range of other topics. He was loved by family and everyone who met him.
He helped many of his fellow veterans get their lives back on track by reaching out to wealthy businessmen he knew through his book fame to get projects off the ground. Kyle’s murder was tragic, plain and simple. His death undoubtedly took away one of the best connections and friends the veteran community ever had. He left behind his wife and two young children. His parents will outlive him. Kyle served his country in the most dangerous conditions anyone in the civilian world could imagine.
In his brilliant book War (later adapted into the landmark Afghanistan War documentary Restrepo), Sebastian Unger writes that America should think very carefully before asking young people to fight its wars, because they will do it and give everything they have in the process. But then they will come home. We cannot, therefore, be upset at what we see when that happens if we decide to ignore their needs. Junger concludes the first goal should be to not fight wars in the first place, and if so, be prepared to do everything necessary for those who fight them upon their return home.
One can easily see Kyle not only got used to combat but actually began to identify with it in a perverse sense. Even like it. This is not uncommon among combat veterans. There is an unexplainable usefulness to participating in combat, a raw purpose and brotherhood only those in who have fought in wars can understand.
American Sniper brings Kyle’s rich story out of the small but passionate niche comprised largely of military enthusiasts into the country’s larger mainstream culture, one eager for an unabashed, unapologetically American tale of triumph in an uncertain time. The film is being used by many as a one-size-fits-all testimonial to the virtues of unabashed patriotism. I am not sure that was Eastwood’s intention, but it doesn’t really matter, because popular entertainment is anything to anybody, ripe for any end the user chooses.
Some reactions to criticism of Eastwood’s film are laced with vile hatred and obscene, reprehensible comments. Do a deep dive through Twitter or the comments section of any Kyle-related article from the time of the film’s release and you will get more than you bargained for, including threats of rape, wishes for said critics to be beheaded by ISIS, pleads to have those who criticize American Sniper or Kyle himself to be executed. Being called merely unpatriotic never sounded so tame.
It’s insane and disheartening. Those who make these abhorrent comments have a worship problem at the very least. They are worshiping Kyle and his life rather than seeing it in it’s most useful, pure form. Kyle’s flaws are just as important and instructive for us as his successes are. There is no question Kyle lived a life bigger than most will never know. He did some heroic things in battle, documented acts of courage for which he should be applauded, and devoted a great deal of his time and effort to help his fellow veterans when he returned home. But he was also a human being, one with substantial PTSD symptoms and a severe penchant for alcohol abuse and a decidedly stubborn world view. He was unquestionably treated preferentially by law enforcement on more than one occasion. The latest development detailing his bloated medal count is not a crime but still disconcerting. And if his stories of killing here at home are true, he acted above the law. And if they are not true, he was a liar.
Kyle is deserving of our upmost respect in many areas. But he should not be worshiped. One wonders if he would even want worship treatment, anyway. Who knows. But here’s the larger problem with blind American military worship today: it often comes from an insincere place of convenient respect with calls for “supporting the troops” everywhere, a slogan adopted by countless people who barely know the real story of American wars or why they were fought in the first place. Many certainly do not know the daily struggles of those who fought in these wars. If you need proof of this, ask someone when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ended. I am willing to bet they don’t have a clue either way. But they support the troops.
This doesn't work. It is intellectually dishonest no matter how earnest its motivation. Worse, it actually gets in the way of real help veterans need. Thousands of veterans kill themselves each year. Thousands. Homelessness is rampant among the veteran population. Alcohol and drug abuse is high among veterans. Domestic violence. Divorce rates. All up among the veteran population. This is what is important. Supporting our troops is a noble and worthwhile, even necessary, effort. But bumper sticker patriotism afflicts this country today in the worst way and is the weakest and most useless form of assistance to our troops. Our veterans can only drink so many free coffees or accept awkward thank you’s from strangers.
These gestures are not inherently wrong. But they are far from sufficient. The reasons people serve in the military are as varied as the men and women who fill their ranks. One size does not fit all. Pay attention to elections. Vote earnestly. Be a vigilant citizen. Be a productive citizen. Question your government. Do not accept whatever you are told without thinking. These are the things veterans need, and want, us to do. Eastwood is a great director and American Sniper may well be a great film. Liking the film, however, does not make you a patriot. Nor does criticizing it make you unpatriotic. Perpetrating foolish parameters of patriotism is perhaps the biggest insult to Kyle in the end. More importantly, it’s hurtful to veterans everywhere who still live among us, most all of whom will never have a film made about them.