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The Chris Kyle Question

By Jack Kerwick


I confess to having been more than a bit shocked, and even mystified, to have recently found myself on the receiving end of some wildly baseless attacks by people, Iraq War devotees, who accused me of “tearing down” the late Chris Kyle, the subject of Clint Eastwood’s latest blockbuster film, American Sniper.

I have written three articles on Kyle.  Unlike those who have derided him, I at no time and in no way uttered a single syllable to slander the man.  In fact, I have conceded his heroism.

This isn’t enough for some, particularly those who ache to vindicate the scandal that is the Iraq War and the foreign policy vision to which it belongs. As I’ve written, for them, as for their “libertarian” critics, Kyle is a prop for their ideology, perhaps the one last attempt to prove to the American public before 2016 that the Iraq War was both just and necessary.

Thus, acknowledgment of Kyle’s heroism is insufficient: nothing less than unadulterated hero worship is called for.

Hero worship, especially when it revolves around a government agent—in this case, an agent of the United States military—is dangerous to a free people.  It’s dangerous because the hero then fills the entire range of our vision, eclipsing all other considerations—including, most importantly, moral and legal considerations.

I’ve pointed out that Kyle was a braggart.  Yet he bragged not just about his exploits in the military; he bragged about those violent confrontations about which he lied. 

(1)Kyle said that while at a Texas gas station, he shot dead two men who attempted to carjack him.  Supposedly, when police officers arrived and ran Kyle’s license, the license check gave them the phone number of the Department of Defense. The officers were then informed of Kyle’s identity as the skilled sniper that he was. There was no arrest—even though, according to Kyle, the whole event was captured on video.

I have claimed that this incident never occurred. One angry critic castigated me for having failed to do my due diligence and insisted that had I done my research (as he allegedly had done) I would’ve discovered that I am sorely mistaken.

Michael J. Mooney, a writer for DMagazine (in Dallas, Texas), wrote about this with Kyle’s cooperation.  Mooney apparently believed Kyle—in spite of the fact that, to his admission, he was unable to confirm anything that Kyle said: no video surveillance, no police reports, and no coroners’ reports on the dead carjackers.  “Consider this story confirmed by the man himself,” Mooney remarked.

Fortunately, Nicholas Schmidle of The New Yorker—the same writer who distinguished himself on account of his feature on the killing of Osama bin Laden—did a little more homework than Mooney was willing to do.

Schmidle wrote a sympathetic, yet honest, piece—“In the Crosshairs”—on Kyle and some of his comrades-in-arms back in June of 2013.  He supplies reasons to doubt Kyle’s account of this carjacking-gone bad.

The alleged incident was said to have transpired on a stretch of highway bounded by three counties. Yet the sheriffs of these counties assured reporters that there was no such incident.

Sheriff Tommy Bryant, of Erath County, said that he could “‘guar-an-damn-tee it didn’t happen here.”  Greg Doyle, the sheriff of Somervell County, was just as adamant that the story was a hoax.  Before asserting that he “‘never heard’” of it and found it “‘kinda shocking,’” he stated bluntly: “‘It did not occur here.’” Sheriff Bob Alford, of Johnson County, pulled no punches either: “‘If something like that happened here I would have heard of it, and I’m sure you all at the newspapers would have heard of it.’”

Schmidle adds but another reason to be skeptical about Kyle’s account. A “SEAL with extensive experience in special-mission units” told Schmidle “that the notion of such a provision [a direct line to the Department of Defense] being in place for a former SEAL driving a private vehicle was ‘bullshit.’”

Taya Kyle, when (much later)asked by a reporter for the Dallas Morning News about this event and the press’ inability to verify it, replied thus: “All I can say in response to that is that people enjoy taking rumors and try to paint a picture of what they want it to be.”  She added that she doesn’t recall her husband ever mentioning this “in public” (but he did mention it—to DMagazine’s Michael Mooney).  When then asked whether Kyle ever mentioned it to her privately, she responded that she’s “been sticking to what he decided to share publicly and share only those things.”

Only blind hero-worship explains how, in light of these considerations, one can continue to maintain that Kyle gunned down two carjackers (But even if he did, how can anyone who claims to value liberty, to say nothing of a person who is said to have fought for “our liberties,” take heart in hearing that a man, because he was once a combat soldier, can determine when he is permitted to kill as a civilian?  How can the lover of liberty be untroubled believing that the national government coerced local government agents—police officers—into allowing a double-killer to ride off without any further questioning or paperwork?).

(2)Kyle claimed to a bunch of people that he and another sniper were commissioned to shoot, from atop of the Superdome, armed rioters in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina mess in 2005.

Nicholas Schmidle spoke with three people to whom Kyle made this claim.  One person said that Kyle boasted of killing 30 rioters himself.  Another said that Kyle said that he and his fellow sniper killed 30 people collectively.  The third commented that she could recall no specifics regarding the conversation that she had with Kyle.

Brandon Webb, who served with Kyle on SEAL Team Three and is the editor of SOFREP, a website covering special operations forces, invited Kyle on a radio show to discuss life as a special operator.  Webb originally posted an article regarding Kyle’s alleged time as a sniper in New Orleans on his website.  According to Schmidle, he eventually took it down, concluding that it was “dubious.”

A spokesman for Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, told Schmidle: “‘To the best of anyone’s knowledge at SOCOM, there were no West Coast SEALS deployed to Katrina’.”

One of Kyle’s officers insisted that he had “‘never heard that story’.”

And a “SEAL with extensive experience in special-mission units wondered how dozens of people could be shot by high-velocity rifles and just disappear; Kyle’s version of events, he said, ‘defies the imagination.’”

Not unlike the carjacking episode, all of the evidence points to one verdict: Kyle was untruthful about his time as a sniper in New Orleans.

(3) Among the most famous—notorious—of Kyle’s claims is that he knocked out Jesse Ventura when the latter began running down the Iraq War while expressing his desire for the deaths of more American soldiers who were deployed there.

Ventura was in Coronado, California in order to address a graduating class at the nearby naval base.  Kyle was there for the funeral of a fallen SEAL.  Both, according to Kyle, were in a bar when the fight happened.

In his memoir, Kyle writes that he initially asked Ventura to keep his comments to himself.  When the latter only got more belligerent, Kyle said: “I laid him out. Tables flew. Stuff happened.  Scruff Face [Kyle never referred to Ventura by name in his book] ended up on the floor.”

It wasn’t until Kyle went on his book tour, and on “The Opie and Anthony Show,” specifically, that he first started identifying Ventura as “Scruff Face.”   He continued doing so while on the “conservative” talk radio and Fox News routes.

It was then that Ventura sued Kyle for defamation.

A.J. Delgado, writing for, not Alex Jones’ Prison Planet, Slate, or some other leftist or fringe “libertarian” site, but National Review On-Line, does as excellent a job as anyone of separating out the “myths” from the facts of what followed next.

Legal experts generally, Constitutional experts specifically, assumed from the outset that Ventura had virtually no chance of winning.  Not only are defamation and libel suits notoriously difficult to win given the First Amendment, they are even that much more difficult when it is a public figure who is leveling the suit. Ventura had to prove not just that the stories told of him were false; he had to convince a jury that Kyle knew that what he stated was false or that he acted “recklessly” in regard to the falsity of his statements.

But given that, by the time the case went to trial, Kyle—a distinguished war hero—was dead, and that his widow was sure to cry on the stand—she did, and on more than one occasion—the odds were stacked further against Ventura.

Still, of a jury of ten, eight jurors ruled in his favor and awarded Ventura over $1.8 million for defamation and “unjust enrichment.”

One of my critics charged that the jury was “split.”  Technically it was, but if 80 percentfour out of five—Americans were in agreement over any issue, only the most cynical of ideologues would say that the country was “split.”

This same critic elsewhere argued that juries can be mistaken, hence implying that this jury got it wrong.  Delgado’s response is decisive:

“Yes, juries sometimes get it wrong. (Though, statistics show, not often….) But common sense would tell you that Ventura’s case must have been exceptionally strong and Kyle’s case extremely weak if the jury held in favor of Ventura. Defamation is notoriously hard to prove, and juries do not easily find against a young widow (who cried on the stand multiple times) or a fallen war hero, let alone both.”

Another critic asserted that this is a case of “he said, he said.”  Delgado notes that this is simply not true.  “There were multiple witnesses, called by both sides.  Clearly, the jury found Ventura’s witnesses believable and not Kyle’s.”

Among Ventura’s witnesses, incidentally, were former Navy SEALS, including Terry “Mother” Moy, the owner of the bar in which this fight was supposed to have occurred (Tellingly, those, like my critics, think that the Vets and war heroes with whom they agree should be beyond criticism while those Vets and war heroes—like Ventura and his witnesses—with whom they disagree can be blasted, and even slandered, without end).

One of my critics, like several on Fox News, wax indignant over Ventura’s suing Kyle’s widow.  Again, for the truth, we must turn back to Delgado who reminds us that Ventura sued Kyle in 2012 before the latter was murdered—and after Ventura demand for an apology and a retraction from Kyle was denied.

Since Kyle’s wife is the executor of his estate and profited immensely from her husband’s book—over $6 million as of last summer, months prior to the release of the film, American Sniper—the lawsuit had to shift to his estate. Delgado notes that Kyle’s widow is a “multi-millionaire” who is scarcely going to hurt financially because of this verdict.  The $500,000 for defamation will be paid by libel insurance. The remaining $1.3 million for “unjust enrichment” will be paid for easily enough given all of the millions in rights and royalties from the sales of her late husband’s book, to say nothing of his life insurance policies.

Delgado remarks that the claim that this judgment is “cruel or [imposes] a hardship on a destitute widow is ill-informed and disingenuous.”

But the point is that Ventura first took aim at Kyle.  And—here goes another one of my critics’ myths—Kyle did indeed take the stand in his own defense.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Kyle gave a videoed deposition in 2012.  As the jury watched it, the defendant’s credibility gradually started to slip.  Kyle admitted that “tables” did not go “flying,” and claimed to not recall who told him about the injuries—a damaged head and a black eye—that he originally boasted of delivering to Ventura.

That Ventura was awarded damages for “unjust enrichment” means that the jury found that Kyle and his estate profited from the lies that Kyle told about Ventura.  Delgado directs skeptics to the words of Kyle’s publisher to confirm that sales for the Harper Collins book most definitely increased astronomically once Kyle revealed “Scruff Face” to be Ventura.

Marino Eccher, a reporter from Minnesota who covered the trial, relayed the testimony of Kyle’s publicists.  The story of Ventura, one said in an email to Kyle, “is priceless.”  Another characterized it as “hot [,]hot [,] hot!” Eccher reports: “In another email, an executive said a planned talk show rebuttal of Ventura’s denial would be ‘a nice little bonus hit for us.’  A publicist said ‘the so-called incident has helped the book go crazy,’ according to emails excerpts read in the [Kyle’s] deposition.”

There is no reason, other than Kyle’s own word, to believe his tales about carjackers and armed rioters in New Orleans.  There is even less reason to believe what he said about Ventura.

(4)There is a final claim that Kyle made that, perhaps most tragically of all, has since been exposed as untrue: Kyle claimed that the proceeds of his book went to the families of fallen soldiers.

A.J. Delgado notes that while Kyle, his publicist, and several other publications advanced this line, it simply ain’t so. “Of the staggering $3 million that American Sniper collected in royalties for Kyle, only $52,000”—that’s 2 percent—“actually went to the families of fallen servicemen.”

Kyle’s widow said that “gift-tax laws” precluded her and her husband from giving more than $13,000 each to two families from the prior year.  When questioned by Ventura’s lawyer as to why they just didn’t start a non-profit organization, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that she replied that “she had not had the time to set up such a non-profit.”

Delgado is correct when she expresses incredulity that neither Chris nor Taya Kyle managed to find the time to find families in need. “Surely it’s quite easy to locate the families of fallen servicemen.”  She is further correct when she blasts the Kyles and their publisher for “strongly implying, and allowing others to claim unambiguously, that they were giving all the money away when this was clearly not true.”

One particularly angry critic of mine expressed being “perplexed” as to why anyone—like, presumably, yours truly—would want to “tear down” Kyle.  I, for one, am not interested in tearing down anyone. Nor have I done anything of the kind.

But this critic actually makes the case for why it is of crucial importance to separate truth from myth: Once we are swept up in hero-worship—or maybe its idolatry—reason, facts, logic, evidence, and, most importantly, considerations of fundamental fairness and decency are all too easily swept away.

Delgado makes this point while focusing on the law.  Americans “are showing a disturbing level of either support or disregard for the legal system—based solely on what they think of the parties involved.”  This, she warns, “is a dangerous approach,” and contradicts “the fundamentals of justice to decide how you feel about a case based on how much you like the plaintiff or defendant, rather than the facts.”

Hero-worship—the inability or unwillingness to think beyond our clichés, stock phrases, and feelings—can and has resulted in evil.

This, ultimately, is why we must sort out truth from myth.