No Heroes, No Cowards, Just Dead And Broken People

Kyle seemed to consider himself a cross between a lawman and an executioner. His platoon had spray-painted the image of the Punisher—a Marvel Comics character who wages “a one-man war upon crime”—on their flak jackets and helmets. Kyle made a point of ignoring the military dress code, cutting the sleeves off shirts and wearing baseball caps instead of a helmet. (“Ninety per cent of being cool is looking cool,” he wrote.) Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism. He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross, wanting “everyone to know I was a Christian.” When he learned that insurgents had placed a bounty on his head and had named him al-Shaitan Ramadi—the Devil of Ramadi—he felt “proud.” He “hated the damn savages” he was fighting. In his book, he recounts telling an Army colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” – Nicholas Schmidle, “In The Crosshairs,” The New Yorker, June 3, 2013

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Years after those alleged killings, Kyle had another story to tell. This one referred to the vacuum of authority in New Orleans following Katrina, when the city slipped into chaos. According to the New Yorker and severalmilitary publications, Kyle and a few other SEALs drank late in San Diego late one night in early 2012. “The SEALs began telling stories, and Kyle offered a shocking one,” the New Yorker reported. “…He and another sniper traveled to New Orleans, set up on top of the Superdome, and proceed to shoot dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos.” The magazine said one conversation participant said Kyle “claimed to have shot thirty men on his own,” while another said Kyle and the other killed 30 between them.

When the New Yorker’s Schmidle called the U.S. Special Operations Command for confirmation, he didn’t get any. Then one of Kyle’s officers told the reporter, “I never heard that story.” – Terrence McCoy, “The ‘Unverifiable’ Legacy Of Chris Kyle, The Deadliest Sniper In American History”, Washington Post, July 30, 2014

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Kyle’s legal difficulties emerged from a subchapter of American Sniper titled “Punching Out Scruff Face.” In it, Kyle describes beating up a former Navy SEAL (“Scruff Face”) after the SEAL claims American soldiers deserved to die in Iraq. Early drafts of the book identified the SEAL as Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota and famed professional wrestler, but Kyle’s publishers removed the name for fear of a lawsuit. Nonetheless, in a radio interview following the book’s release, Kyle admitted that “Scruff Face” was Ventura, and he repeated the claim soon after on The O’Reilly Factor.American Sniper shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, becoming a smash hit for its publisher, HarperCollins, selling more than 1.5 million copies by July of 2014.

There was, however, a problem: The Ventura story wasn’t true, and Ventura meant to prove it. So he took Kyle to trial, suing him—and, after he died, his estate—for defamation and unjust enrichment. In the United States, defamation cases are extremely difficult to win, thanks to the First Amendment. When allegedly defamatory statements pertain to a public figure, the plaintiff mustn’t just prove those statements were false. He has to prove the defendant made those statements with “actual malice”—that is, knowledge that they were false or with “reckless disregard” for their falsity. Very few defamation plaintiffs can make it over the high bar of actual malice.

Ventura made it. On July 29, 2014, a federal jury returned from six days of deliberations to award Ventura $1.845 million in damages—specifically, $500,000 for defamation and about $1.345 million for unjust enrichment. – Mark Joseph Stern, “American Liar: Why Jesse Ventura Is Likely To Collect Millions From Chris Kyle’s American Sniper“, Slate, January 20, 2015

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A Texas jury found a former Marine guilty of murder late Tuesday in the killings of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield.

Eddie Ray Routh showed no reaction as a judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole, an automatic sentence since prosecutors didn’t seek the death penalty in the capital murder case. They jury rejected Routh’s insanity defense. – Jacob Rascon and Phil Helsel, “Eddie Ray Routh Found Guilty Of Murder In ‘American Sniper’ Case,” NBC News, February 24, 2015

I have refrained from commenting on the whole Chris Kyle/American Sniper/Eddie Routh trial because, well, I really didn’t think commenting would make a bit of difference one way or another.  While I found the whole “coward” name-calling ridiculous and ignorant, I also found the rush to raise Kyle to some kind of mythical status also ridiculous and ignorant.  Was Kyle a hero?  It seems on more than one occasion his quick action saved the lives of American troops.  That certainly qualifies as a heroic act in my book, whether done from 1500 meters or 15 feet.  When I first heard news of his death, I thought, “Wow.  That doesn’t show a lot of common sense, taking a person known to be unstable and living with PTSD to a shooting range.”  That he did so out of a sense of camaraderie and obligation to help his fellow veterans is certainly notable; that he thought shooting a gun would be beneficial to someone for whom gunshots probably triggered horrible responses demonstrated a lack of judgment bordering on the stupid.  Perhaps it’s just the whole gun-culture mindset, combined with the military mindset.   Perhaps it was other things.  All I know for sure is Chris Kyle and another man are dead, and a young man who, if you read the whole New Yorker story linked above, was far more in need of hospitalization than he was a trip to the shooting range, will spend the rest of his life in prison, although I doubt he was “guilty” in the sense of being criminally responsible for his actions.  The minds and lives of those with severe PTSD are as strange and dangerous a place as anyone might care to venture; our military and veterans health care system continues to be ill-equipped to deal with the widely varied affect of the disorder, which has led to suicide being the lead cause of death among currently serving service members and veterans of our recent wars.  That military culture creates conditions in which those who live with this pain do not seek help certainly doesn’t help, either.  The end result is tragedy.

By noting above the Chris Kyle might have embellished his record a bit – shooting a couple car-jackers; sniping looters in post-Katrina New Orleans – is not to smear his reputation.  Those are his stories that have proved to be false.  I note them, rather, to make clear my position: Chris Kyle, perhaps less severely yet no less clearly, lived with his own Post Traumatic Stress.  His marriage was rocky.  He drank to excess.  He picked fights for no reason other than “to not look like a pussy.”  Taken individually, perhaps, these might lead to all sorts of other conclusions.  Taken together, however, it seems evident that Chris Kyle, the man, was working just a bit too hard to keep up with Chris Kyle, “The Legend” who killed 160 people in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Embellishing a couple stories, including one in which he managed to legally defame a former Navy Special Forces service member, well, who hasn’t told fish stories?  I pass no moral judgment upon Kyle for telling “stretchers”, as Tom Sawyer called them.

Rather, with the conclusion of both trials that focused so much attention upon Chris Kyle, I wanted to offer my own view: This is why we do not go to war without real justification.  We don’t send troops willy-nilly to “do something”, whether it’s in Libya, Syria, or anywhere else.  We certainly shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bullied and pushed and frightened in to supporting wars without end, not counting the cost.  War has high costs, in lost lives and money and property and years of productive living and national reputation.  Most of all, regardless of “sides”, war wounds even those who return home without a scratch.  Young men watch their friends killed, sometimes in horrible ways.  Young women stare down the barrels of their rifles, only to see children as their targets, knowing that it might be necessary to kill those children.  We prepare our young adults for the necessity of remaining on mission even under the harshest conditions imaginable, following orders without question or comment because not to do so will cost lives.  How is it possible, however, to prepare anyone to live with the consequence of watching another human being fall because a bullet from my weapon pierced that person’s body, doing untold damage?  How is it possible to prepare anyone for the destruction and death, the smell of blood and vomit and shit and decay, the decreasing value of any human life because all people become potential targets in modern warfare?

Chris Kyle, Eddie Routh, Chad Littlefield – they are casualties of our wars no less than those who returned home in flag-draped coffins, or to homes and families who want desperately to help but cannot.  I would submit that, despite the truly courageous actions of our combat veterans in our recent wars, in the end we are left without heroes or villains.  We are left with people, men and women dead and wounded in body, heart, and soul.  Our obligation is not to make the dead our plumbline for our lives; our obligation is to heal the wounds even of those who insist they have none.  The best legacy we can leave Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield – and Eddie Routh, too – is to be more vigilant and careful with the lives of those who willingly don a uniform.  It is up to us to make sure their lives are not considered less important than the political legacy of our leaders.  In that way, I suppose, some of us might be heroes, in a small way, saving lives that might otherwise be lost for no real, or at least defined or definable, reason.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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