Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Colonel, USMC (ret.) was fond of promising, “Show me a hero, and I’ll prove to you he’s a bum.” He didn’t except himself from this rule. Commanding a Marine Corps fighter squadron in the Pacific, Boyington destroyed 26 Japanese aircraft, a feat that made him an ace five times over and won for him both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Both before the war and after, Boyington was a belligerent, blackout drunk whose excesses cost him marriages and jobs. All of this he confesses in Baa Baa Black Sheep, his 1958 memoir. The “Black Sheep” in the title refers not only to the nickname of his squadron, VMF-214, whose crest is marked by a black sheep and bar sinister, but also – implicitly – to the author’s reputation.
Boyington’s words bear repeating now, as our endless national conversation fixes itself onto the character of the late Chris Kyle, the ace Navy SEAL sniper whose own bestselling memoir, fittingly titled American Sniper, Clint Eastwood has adapted into a blockbuster film. The least of it is that Kyle’s opinions – “I hate the damn savages,” he writes, of Iraqi insurgents – mark him for critics no more temperate than himself as an “American psycho” and “a raging dumbass.” In 2014, a federal court ruled that Kyle’s story about beating up former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura had been both false and actuated by malice. In the eyes of the law, Chris Kyle was a vicious gossip.
According to Kyle’s account, Ventura had, at a wake for Michael Monsoor, a SEAL who later received a posthumous Medal of Honor, remarked that the SEALs “deserved to lose a few.” Taking understandable umbrage, Kyle blacked Ventura’s eye. Ventura filed a defamation suit. Though, before the trial began, Kyle was shot to death, allegedly by a fellow Iraq War veteran, eyewitness testimony persuaded the jury to rule for Ventura, 8-2.
Kyle’s motives for inventing such a story are impossible to know. Recounting the episode in the first edition of American Sniper, where he assigns Ventura the pseudonym “Scruff Face,” Kyle further damns him for opposing the Iraq War – something Ventura actually did. Was embarrassing Ventura with a tall tale Kyle’s way of paying him off for promoting views he found wrongheaded or potentially dangerous to the lives of fellow SEALs?
Conceivably. But that can’t explain Kyle’s two stranger sea stories. A New Yorker profile describes Kyle claiming to have shot New Orleans looters from the roof of the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Denying that any West Coast SEALs had been deployed to New Orleans at the time, a spokesman for Special Operations Command said that Kyle’s version of events “defies the imagination.” Kyle also told a D Magazine interviewer that he’d shot two would-be carjackers outside of a gas station. When police learned who he was – from a Defense Department official whose number Kyle himself supplied – they cancelled the investigation. No surveillance tape of the incident has ever surfaced. No police have gone on record corroborating Kyle’s account.
Kyle’s record 160 sniper kills, on the other hand, are well documented. No one has ever called them into question. If his stories about punching Ventura and purging the Big Easy of looters and thwarting a robbery are false, what’s the worst that could be said about him? In plain English, that he was a BS artist. At the time Kyle told the Katrina story, he was busy building Craft International, LLC, which trains its clients in military tactics – among them, sharpshooting. So maybe Kyle’s New Orleans stories were nothing more mysterious than good, old-fashioned self-promotion.
Our permanent glut of scandal could have reset my moral compass, but these don’t sound like the world’s worst character flaws. Jesse Ventura can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but even off the battlefield, Kyle seems to have been a very decent soul, making plenty of room in his post-discharge existence for altruistic acts. Through FITCO Cares, he helped provide disabled vets with workout equipment. FITCO director Travis Cox says that Eddie Ray Routh, Kyle’s alleged killer, had originally been an object of his charity. Routh appeared to be suffering from PTSD, and Kyle had believed a trip to a shooting range would prove therapeutic.
Some months ago, in the Atlantic, a former infantryman named Alex Horton wrote that most Americans were unable to take accurate measure of returning veterans’ virtues and vulnerabilities. We tend to sort them into types — “the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran” – ignoring the fact that many can be a little of each. George McDonald Fraser has Flashman remark that human faults can be military virtues. Chris Kyle’s apparent turn for yarn-spinning complicates the picture even further. It reminds us that military people can do dumb things that don’t reflect their specialized training or combat experiences. They can do the very same dumb things that any of us can do.
Military recruiters often advertise service as a transformative experience, which it surely is. But the extent and strength of this transformation can be exaggerated in a society like ours, where, over the past decade, no more than one percent of the population has been serving on active duty. In his essay, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” James Fallows points out that, as long as the draft was in force, Americans could laugh along with wry service comedies like Mister Roberts, The Phil Silvers Show, and McHale’s Navy. “The collective achievement of the military was heroic,” writes Fallows. “But its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life.”
It’s a nicely balanced outlook, whatever your views on foreign policy might be. Though I haven’t seen the film adaptation, I can recommend Chris Kyle’s memoirs as a means of cultivating it. Kyle comes across as brave, dedicated, and self-sacrificing – to a fault. He admits loving war, and, in so many words, finding it easier than marriage. Though some of the quotes most often held against him have been pulled out of context, you don’t get the sense that empathy came very naturally to him. If ghostwriters Scott McEwen and Jim De Felice preserved Kyle’s syntax faithfully, well, Siegfried Sassoon he wasn’t.
Yet his attachment to his fellow service members – even those who aren’t SEALs — is profound, and his willingness to push outside his own comfort zone in order to meet his family’s emotional needs is as heroic, in its own way, as his battlefield exploits. Imagine if Pat Conroy’s father had been so willing.
Working from the premise that no man is a hero to his valet, Thomas Carlyle coined the term “valetism” for the mean-minded habit of discrediting heroes by calling attention to their flaws. If Pappy Boyington was a valetist by conviction, the myth-busting and muckraking potential of the internet has made it practically impossible for the rest of us not to become valetists by default. And maybe that’s a good thing. As long as we take it for granted that every hero will have his (or her) bummish side, we won’t have to choose between placing them on pedestals and knocking them down. We can enjoy the luxury of admiring them from a critical distance – though what distance might be critical for a sniper I’m afraid to ask.