Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
Few these days will admit to supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion, especially given that we now know that it helped give rise to ISIS. But the forerunner and current ally of ISIS was al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI], bad people defeated by sometimes reluctant heroes in places the Baghdad-centric media avoided. I know; I have both celebrated and suffered with them. And I now suffer disgust at how Clint Eastwood used one of them—deeply troubled and flawed—and denigrated the others for a box-office and Oscar bonanza.
I was embedded twice with SEAL Team Three, American Sniper author Chris Kyle’s unit, as a photo-journalist in Task Force Currahee. At that time it was deployed to what was the headquarters of AQI and perhaps the most violent part of most dangerous city in the world, during what’s now known as The Battle of Ramadi. My first firefight was with ST3; like everything else these days you can watch it on YouTube. Ramadi claimed the lives of the first four SEALs to die in Iraq; my two journalist predecessors were both shot by snipers; an IED claimed my own public affairs “handler,” Marine Maj. Megan McClung. I escaped injury during both embeds, but my previous one in Fallujah led to a horrific noncombat injury and seven surgeries.
All of which is to say that I’ve got a stake in making sure that the story of the warriors I knew is told the right way—the truthful way. Which brings me to “American Sniper.”
The most financially successful war movie ever made, and nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture (it won one), “American Sniper” is a spectacular, wonderfully-scripted, well-acted film. And an awful one. Allegedly based on Chris Kyle’s best-selling book, almost all of the movie’s overlap is with the nonmilitary aspects of the text, such as his relationship with his wife. When it comes to Kyle’s Iraq experience, the film directly contradicts the book in important ways, most notably in turning a psychopathic killer and liar into an uber-patriotic warrior with superhuman abilities.
In the movie Kyle is clearly distressed by the need to kill, especially when the victims include civilians and you can see them close enough to count missing teeth. But here’s what Kyle wrote in his book: “I loved what I did, I still do … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”
You could accept the movie portrayal that he loved protecting his fellow soldiers until that very last word. But killing people as part of your job—as it was part of mine as a paratrooper—doesn’t allow you to consider it a thrill ride. Taking a human life is so against our nature that some scholars believe the vast majority of trained American soldiers in past wars have been unable to do it, rather only providing suppressive fire, at best. One of my friends from Ramadi is so haunted by the four men he killed—three while I was with him—that he tattooed their skulls onto his arms and still has nightmares. Elite training and experience enable you to kill; they don’t make it a carnival ride.
When I saw the SEALs kill, there was nothing but a grunt acknowledging that the target was eliminated. With the 101st Airborne, it was “Way to go!” as in, “Job well done in stopping people trying to eliminate us.” There was lots of joking around during lulls, but never about the nasty business of trying to kill. Leave that fantasy with Rambo and Arnaud movies. The only whoop of joy I heard, I recorded, the narrow escape of 101st Specialist Robert Killion from being sniped (with myself right behind him). I’ve got that on YouTube, too. Indeed the conversation just preceding, though a bit humorous, consists of him wanting it made clear that the man he’d just shot was clearly armed.
Given the plethora of Iraq and Afghanistan autobiographies, biographies, and other books that appeared before Kyle’s, it’s doubtful you’d ever have heard of him but for that claim on the original jacket cover, “The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.” That assertion in turn is based on Kyle’s claim of 160 “confirmed kills,” out of what he says to have been about 255 total.
Virtually every article on Kyle repeats the 160 assertion, including even one labeling him a “fabulist.” So does his Wikipedia entry. The source is always the same: Chris Kyle. The Army “does not keep any official, or unofficial for that matter, record of confirmed kills,” as Wayne V. Hall, an Army spokesman, told NBC News. Nor does U.S. Special Operations Command, under which the SEALs operate, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. “If anything, we shy away from reporting numbers like that,” McGraw said. “It’s so difficult to prove. And what does it mean?”
Further, if you go by “claimed kills,” Kyle’s 255 are bested by those of Vietnam Marine Carlos Norman Hathcock II, who asserted 300 or more. Kyle says Hathcock was his personal hero, and he fit the bill, having sustained terrible burns while rescuing other Marines from a vehicle that struck a mine. So if we assume both Kyle and Hathcock were telling the truth, there goes the sine qua non of Kyle’s book.
There’s also more make-believe in the book concerning Kyle’s sniping prowess. He claims it earned him the moniker “The Devil of Ramadi,” with a massive bounty on his head. In fact, snipers routinely had bounties on them, but for $20,000. That for Kyle the prize went up to $80,000, or even six figures, is just another part of Kyle’s self-created mythos. The other make-believe in the book concerns Kyle’s sniping prowess. He claims to have pegged a man with an RPG from 1,920 meters (in the movie the guy becomes a sniper). Who knows? Like the body count, it remains unverified. Supposedly the shot was witnessed by a lieutenant.
This doesn’t mean Kyle wasn’t an outstanding sniper. “Dude was very effective and rarely went more than three days without punching some guy’s clock,” a SEAL associate told me, saying he’d seen Kyle’s online record books while visiting Ramadi. Dick Couch, in his 2009 The Sheriff of Ramadi wrote that when he asked whom was “the best of the SEAL snipers,” it was Kyle (identified by a pseudonym because he was still in the service) who kept coming up. But there’s no evidence for anything else Couch wrote of Kyle, including the “Devil of Ramadi” moniker.
Aside from the numbers and the Devil stuff, Kyle’s book seems fairly accurate. What came after is a different matter. Shortly after his book’s publication in 2012, Kyle began telling lies that were outrageous, easily falsifiable, and contradictory. You’ll see some reprinted tens of thousands of times because journalists are just repeating each other. But the ultimate source is always the same: Chris Kyle.
Thus there was the attempted carjacking by two men at a Texas gas station in which he allegedly killed both assailants, but no medical examiner or police or sheriff’s department could confirm the incident. Two bodies with gunshot wounds just disappeared. Kyle allegedly went to New Orleans with a friend following Hurricane Katrina and picked off looters. But this time it wasn’t just two bullet-ridden bodies that disappeared, but as many as 30.
Dallas journalist Michael J. Mooney, who has done as much as anyone to perpetuate the Kyle mythology, including writing a short book, stated “He survived six IED attacks, three gunshot wounds, two helicopter crashes, and more surgeries than he could remember.” Others claim Kyle suffered two gunshot wounds. Couch says that in Ramadi Kyle “was still being treated for a gunshot wound he received in Fallujah two years earlier.” Serious stuff. Yet the man’s own book mentions no wounds, nor was Kyle awarded the Purple Heart.
Then there’s the incredible betrayal of trust of the claim that he was donating his proceeds from the book to families of deceased war vets, which Kyle either invented or at least went along with while still alive. Even a New Yorker article often cited to show Kyle’s fibbing fell for it. Kyle’s publisher still maintains the story, and possibly invented it. In fact, as National Review reported, “Out of the staggering $3 million that American Sniper collected in royalties for Kyle [now estimated at about $6 million for the franchise], only $52,000 actually went to the families of fallen servicemen.”
Finally, there’s the infamous alleged Jesse Ventura punch-out, in a crowded bar. With police present. For a public figure in the U.S. to win a defamation suit is nigh impossible because the threshold is placed so high, demanding proof that the defendant knew the statement was false or exercised reckless disregard for the truth. In lay terms: “a super bald-faced lie.” Yet Ventura did win. And while the jury could have made a nominal award of just one dollar, it handed Ventura a whopping $1.8 million. This finding was made for a widely-loathed plaintiff against the estate of a highly sympathetic widow. Finally, a federal judge denied Mrs. Kyle’s appeal, finding that “substantial evidence” supported the verdict. Add to all of this that Ventura himself is a former SEAL, although qualifications have changed since; Ventura was 60 at the time of the alleged assault; it was a sucker punch. Even were the story true, why tell it? That’s why it’s called pathological lying.
What was behind Kyle’s fables? We could write them off as simple self-promotion, and maybe they were just that. But that explanation may be too facile.
I believe Kyle suffered a form of PTSD civilians never hear about, a form of separation anxiety that I suspect almost all combat vets suffer—myself included. Combat feels like the most real, the most meaningful thing in the world. Then suddenly you’re among civilians who wail if they can’t get the latest iPad the day it comes out. You feel like an extraterrestrial and for the rest of your life nothing can ever match those awful thrills. (Just being a paratrooper killed amusement parks for me.) In one of many ways in which the book contradicts the movie, Kyle didn’t leave the SEALs because he was fed up with the violence and killing. He loved the SEALs and he loved snuffing people. He quit to save his marriage. The tall tales may have been his way of dealing with that.
Whatever Kyle’s demons, though, those who’ve exploited him—like Clint Eastwood—don’t have an excuse.
Eastwood’s SEAL Slanders
Enter now Eastwood’s “embellishments.” We’ve covered one, Kyle’s ambivalence towards killing. Another creation was normal for Hollywood, the massive pyrotechnics that movie-goers love, and the battles and villains that didn’t exist. But Eastwood’s third falsehood was his systematic denigration of Kyle’s comrades in order to elevate Kyle himself, to make the jocular label “legend” into The Legend.
The standard Hollywood stuff is pretty harmless. In the film AQI places bounty signs around the sector town bearing Kyle’s Crusader tattoo and referring to “The Devil.” Various articles make references to similar signs. But in the book Kyle says they were supposed to be of him but AQI used the face of a fellow SEAL sniper by accident. (Yes, I do know how strange that sounds.) In any case, I saw no signs, nor did the aforementioned soldier. Neither version makes sense if you know that when we left the relatively-secure camp (albeit regularly hit by mortars) we had literally only inches of skin exposed. Nobody could have seen a tattoo, and for nonfriendlies it would have been virtually impossible even to recognize a face.
Kyle’s one reference in the book to being called a legend said that it was a joke of some other SEALs. I never heard it while I was there; nor did others from Task Force Currahee whom I consulted. It would be like living in Gotham City without having heard of Batman.
Likewise, Kyle is given an antagonist in an Olympic-medal winning enemy sniper, who in the book was the RPG gunner. Another Kyle target, called “The Butcher,” enjoys aerating little kids’ heads with a power drill. Both appear to be based on real people, but Kyle writes that he never saw the alleged sniper, nor does he make any reference to The Butcher.
Yet it’s the diminution of other Americans, especially those with whom I served, that boils my blood. In the book, Kyle says that at one point in the Fallujah fighting he thought he could be of more use to the Marines on the ground, and joined them—an implausible claim but not an immodest one. In Eastwood’s version, though, Kyle practically whips off his Clark Kent glasses to save an otherwise doomed unit. Instead of “Send in the Marines!” it was “Send in the SEAL to SAVE the Marines!”
The members of Seal Team Three don’t come off much better. While they’re eating and joking with a local, Kyle dismisses himself to “wash his hands” and quickly discovers a major weapons cache, evidence that their host is in league with The Butcher. Kyle also comes across as the unofficial leader of the SEALs, constantly grabbing the initiative when they seem hesitant or even afraid. In the movie’s final battle, they even curse him for making them a magnet for an overwhelming number of attackers, sarcastically calling him, yes, “The Legend.”
All members of ST3 were heroes on a Hollywood level. “Those SEALs fight like machines,” I later wrote. It was the most decorated SEAL team since Vietnam. But the two standouts were Michael Monsoor and Marc Allen Lee. Monsoor somehow appears in about half my photos of the SEALs and “Mikey” is the only name uttered in my full video. A few days before my second Ramadi embed, Monsoor was the lookout man in a parapet. He remained standing while the others, SEALs and Iraqis, were prone. With a lucky toss, a grenade entered a small portal above them. It bounced off Mikey’s armor and rolled. Only Monsoor could have avoided the blast; instead he threw himself atop it. He was 25.
For this action Monsoor was awarded the Medal of Honor. Over a year later I watched President Bush give it to his shell-shocked parents. They died the day he did. I still get weepy when I rewrite his story. But our Mikey is never even mentioned in the movie. No competition is allowed for “The Legend.”
Eastwood’s ultimate victim, however, was SEAL Marc Allen Lee. Lee’s death at age 28 hit me particularly hard: he was the first of many I served with to die in combat. Like Monsoor he was watching my back. Lee was shot in the mouth during the evacuation of another SEAL who was initially blinded and later die of his injuries, Ryan Job. But in the movie, guess who basically single-handedly rescues Job? You got it, “The Legend!”
And it just gets worse.
In the movie, Lee’s mother Debbie, playing herself, reads a profound letter that Marc sent shortly before his death. “When does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means by which consumes one completely?” he wrote. He criticized the rising level of hate in America and much of Americans’ attitudes’ generally. “My point of this is how can we come over here and help a less than fortunate country without holding contempt or hate towards them if we can’t do it in our country?”
Lee was a complex person who didn’t fit the simple “sheep, wolf, sheepherder” paradigm that Eastwood established early in the film. (Which, again, appears nowhere in the book.) Lee was the ambivalent killer that Eastwood wanted Kyle to be, and also appears to have questioned the U.S. military presence in Iraq. So Eastwood made Lee into a hybrid of a sheep who carried a machine gun. On the way back from the funeral in the movie Kyle’s wife asks what he thinks of the letter. “That letter killed Marc,” responds Movie Kyle. “He let go [gave up], and he paid the price for it.”
Yet in the book Kyle called Lee a “gung-ho warrior.” Lee’s wife finally went public just before the Oscars, telling Fox News “The movie was completely inaccurate in portraying who Marc was” and asking people to actually read the whole letter. She added that she wished he’d been omitted from the film.
“None of the guys (besides the one who was in the movie) were pleased about how American Sniper portrayed our combat ops and particularly Marc Lee,” a member of ST3 who’d been in Ramadi with me said via e-mail. “The screen writer, Jason Hall, may get himself choked out for that if he ever decides to show his face in Coronado again. Disgraceful.” (Coronado, California is home to ST3 and other SEAL teams.)
Writing off the record, he said it was “tricky” trying to criticize the movie without embarrassing Kyle. The SEALs do protect their own.
What Eastwood did was as cynical a twist as you can find in Hollywood. He’s the older man who deserves to be decked. (Besides, wouldn’t you suffer a broken jaw for more than $300 million in box office receipts?)
“Glory is something that some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting it to find them,” wrote Lee in that letter. Sadly, for whatever reason Kyle came to chase it obsessively. As to the other SEALs with whom I had the honor to share the terrors and thrills of combat, or a drink after Monsoor’s Medal of Honor ceremony? They stumbled upon it, courtesy of orders from their Commander-in-Chief and AQI’s decisions. But be there any glory in war, they deserve it.
None of them deserved to be shredded by Clint Eastwood’s box office IED.