How We Talk About Chris Kyle
It’s possible to be both a hero and a liar.
Though the man was real, Odessa native Chris Kyle has become entrenched in folklore. The late U.S. Navy SEAL had 160 confirmed kills, which made him the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Kyle and his platoon spray painted the trademark skull of comic book vigilante “the Punisher” onto their uniforms, and Kyle had adopted the insignia in various ways: you can see him proudly sporting it on Conan. The fictional Punisher, whose name is Frank Castle, is a former marine who clearly suffered from PTSD and took justice into his own hands. Here’s Chris Kyle on what it is he sees in the Punisher:
He’s a real bad-ass who rights wrongs, delivering vigilante justice…
… We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him.
That’s what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol— a skull— and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to f— with you.
But his hero wasn’t perfect. The Punisher often took things into his own hands, operating in the gray spaces of morality. Kyle, too, seemed to have deemed himself judge and jury on numerous occasions outside of his military service. He claimed to have punched former Navy SEAL, wrestler, and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura in a California bar because he was allegedly “bad-mouthing the war, bad-mouthing Bush, bad-mouthing America.” Ventura contested this altercation, and even said the two had never met. This led to a defamation lawsuit against Kyle, which was not dropped after his death in 2013. And in 2014, a court ruled in Ventura’s favor to the tune of $1.8 million.
Separately, Kyle claimed in conversation with other SEALs that he and another sniper perched on top of the Superdome in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Kyle bragged that he shot 30 people, but the story has been largely discredited by military personnel.
In 2010, Kyle claimed to kill two armed men who were attempting to carjack him at a gas station south of Fort Worth. “So consider this story confirmed from the man himself,” D Magazine’s Michael J. Mooney wrote in a blog post. “In every sense of the word, Chris Kyle was a true American badass.” But during a recent episode of the Longform podcast and in his own lengthy hagiography of Kyle, Mooney says he drove along Highway 67, where the event supposedly transpired, and asked people at each gas station he could find if they had heard of the story. He asked law enforcement in the area. He asked the Department of Public Safety. Nothing concrete turned up. Nor did anything turn up for the New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
And now, yet again, Kyle has been caught in what can at best be described as an embellishment or clerical error, and at worst could be a case of stolen valor. The Intercept reported that though Kyle had stated he received two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars for valor, military records obtained by the blog say he only received one Silver Star and three Bronze Stars. A number of anonymous SEALs who spoke with the site did not contest Kyle’s heroism on the battlefield, but “saw the inflation of his medal count as significant because they consider battlefield embellishments to be dishonorable.”
Stolen valor, or lying about military honors with the “intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit, fraudulently,” is a federal offense. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, and after it was deemed unconstitutional and a violation of free speech by the Supreme Court, President Barack Obama signed a revised version of it in 2013.
This probably isn’t surprising in the current climate, but the question of whether Kyle embellished or not has already taken on a political bent. According to former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the accusations against Kyle stem from a “leftwing media attack” by “little more than a click-hungry website.” Perry wrote an opinion piece for Fox News on the matter, in which he said the Intercept “took aim at the reputation of a bona fide American hero,” and he also miraculously claimed that the “arch-liberal” in the Oval Office could share some of the blame. But Perry’s view that any attack on Kyle would be to attack an emblem of American heroism (and one waged by Democrats) is undoubtedly shared by many. Because Kyle, in a way, has become a Rorschach test of political leanings.
For example, we can debate whether or not the biopic based on Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper, succeeds as the piece of quiet, contemplative high art it aspires to, but at its core, it’s an anti-war film that attempts to balance heroism, the ugliness of combat, and how soldiers adjust at home. This is completely lost on its largely liberal critics. Bill Maher hated the film. Seth Rogen likened it to a made up Nazi propaganda film spliced into Inglourious Basterds. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s criticisms of American Sniper are essentially a takedown of the Bush Administration and of Clint Eastwood’s choice not to make the movie more documentarian. New York magazine’s David Edelstein called it a “Republican platform movie.”
Even though the film has been appropriated by the GOP, the idea that American Sniper could be a “Republican platform” film could not be a more fundamental misreading. But because it was a film about a war hero, liberal critics immediately jumped all over it. The takes on the movie, both professional and personal, from conservatives and liberals alike are bountiful. At this point, it seems like they say more about who we are, how we think, and how we see ourselves more than who Chris Kyle was or represents.
It is entirely plausible to become both a war hero and a liar. The truth is, Chris Kyle, like the rest of us, was complex. But reality will continue to be lost on his ardent supporters and detractors alike. Yes, he’s an American hero. But it’s entirely possible that he shares another commonality with his comic book hero, the Punisher: moral ambiguity.