Much of the recent media debate around American Sniper concerns the legacy of Chris Kyle, the SEAL in the title, who may be a hero, a cold-blooded killer, a loudmouthed liar, or all three. In fact, Kyle—the real man and the dramatic character—seems to be the latest in a long history of men I call military braggadouches.
Everyone who has worn a uniform knows a braggadouche. Everyone who's worn a uniform has probably been a braggadouche at some point. Being a noted braggadouche isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many of them aren't cowardly, unlikeable, or dangerous at all. Few need to exaggerate the difficult work they've done or the horrible events they've seen.
But it's a natural tendency to enlarge one's exploits in the retelling, whether over a brew at the VFW or in a HarperCollins contract negotiation. And it's an easy step, goaded by self-righteousness and the adoration of uninitiated strangers, to take one's martial braggadoccio to a very douchey place indeed, where the braggart insists on the supremacy of all his opinions and fantasies—social, political, racial, diplomatic.
Here's a brief history of the archetype, one that transcends cultures and politics. Here is the braggadouche in all his fallibly human varieties.
"THIS IS SPARTA." "FINE, THEN WE'LL FIGHT IN THE SHADE." "MOLON LABE." There's no question that these guys were good at every aspect of combat—fit, toned, disciplined. As well you should be when you are raised in a totalitarian slave state where, from age seven to thirty, all the men were trained for battle. That is, the men who were not left to die in infancy for being weak or malformed.
Why are they remembered? Because they won? Not so much: Their most famous campaign, the battle of Thermopylae against Persia immortalized in the snuff-porn fantasy cartoon 300, was a suicidal slaughter of little strategic consequence, and by 371 B.C., Sparta's waning military had been destroyed by neighboring Thebes.
But the Spartans bragged and quipped. A lot. Future philosophers and rulers liked the idea of a stoic culture dedicated to death before dishonor, and Plutarch collected the Spartans' timeless one-liners. Two millennia later, popular armchair war-crimes fetishists like Victor Davis Hanson and Frank Miller pine for the good ol' days of hoplite phalanxes and stabbin' cultures.
Pyrgopolynices, aka "The Braggart Soldier"
Not long after Sparta hit the skids, the playwright Plautus penned this Greco-Roman stage drama that's mostly about a forbidden romance prevented by the foolish, grating Pyrgopolynices, an allegedly great warrior who gets his ass kicked at the end by an old man and a cook. "Take ye care that the lustre of my shield is more bright than the rays of the sun," the loudmouthed captain orders his servant, so that "it may dazzle the eyesight of the enemy."
Though fictional, the bragging captain becomes immortal as a dramatic stock character: the self-aggrandizing soldier who can't live up to all his tall tales. Shakespeare, too, recognizes the resonance this swaggering " ancient pistol" type has with his audiences.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Calling this privateering schemer a soldier is a bit of a stretch. But for a well-to-do ally of Queen Elizabeth, the pugnacious Raleigh sure bitched a lot. He famously composed a long poem, "The Lie," about the many falsities that propped up corrupt noble society. "The truth shall be thy warrant," he wrote. A few short years later, he wrote a braggy load of crap about his explorations titled "The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado)."
In fact, his journey to South America was inauspicious, but Britons back home received him as a triumphant hero with a plan to enrich the Crown with treasures from a nonexistent city of gold. Raleigh's inability to deliver the goods (along with his attacks on Spanish targets) may have contributed to James I's decision to behead the impetuous explorer.
But let's not be too hard on Raleigh. The age of exploration and early colonialism was replete with braggadouches on land and sea. He was just keeping up with the Columbuses and Drakes.
George Armstrong Custer
In fairness, the Civil War was full of assholes. But Custer really was a cut above. "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry," he wrote about the assault he led his men on during the battle of Gettysburg—even though the charge cost his unit more men than any other Union brigade in the battle.
And that was years before he criticized President Grant for pursuing peace with the "savage" Indians, then got his entire Seventh Cavalry massacred at Little Big Horn. Seriously, what a tool.
Charles George "Chinese" Gordon
Within a few weeks in December 1883, the British public went from despair over an Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the Sudan to touting an obscure semi-retired general as the possible savior of their empire. Gordon had been little noted before for his control of operations in China and Egypt, but his manipulation of media and politicians persuaded the government to send him to Sudan. "No one was more capable than Gordon, with his facile speech and his free-and-easy manners, of furnishing good copy for a journalist," cheeky biographer Lytton Strachey wrote of the "Eminent Victorian."
Gordon was tasked with evacuating the British soldiers and citizens from Khartoum. But convinced that God had sent him on a mission for glory, he decided instead to fortify the city and "smash up the Mahdi," the rebellious Muslims' leader. A year later, the rebels stormed the city, massacred as many as 10,000 inhabitants, chopped off Gordon's head, and dumped his body down a well. "I am quite happy, thank God!" he wrote his family in a final letter, adding, "I have tried to do my duty." The British government could be forgiven for disagreeing.
One of the most decorated Marines in American history, Smedley Butler earned two Medals of Honor. This guy could fight. He could also talk. And talk. There were several occasions of cantankerousness when his distinguished military career was probably saved only by the intervention of his father, a second-generation congressman and chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee.
After retiring and running unsuccessfully for the Senate, Butler went on the talking circuit, arguing that war is a racket. (Sure, now you tell us.) "I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers," Butler wrote. "Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints." Which may have been true, but it hadn't troubled him enough to expose the truth while he'd had a career to worry about.
George S. Patton
Even Patton's official homepage calls him "intemperate" and "one of the most complicated military men of all time." Yes, he was good at outflanking and killing Nazis, which he bragged about almost as much as he bragged about slapping shellshocked subordinates and polishing his ivory-handled revolvers.
After breaking through German lines to support encircled Allied troops at Bastogne, Patton declared his actions "the most brilliant operation we have thus far performed, and it is in my opinion the outstanding achievement of the war." Certainly, it was more brilliant than his opinions on "drunk" Russians, African Americans ("a colored soldier cannot think fast enough to fight in armor"), and Jews ("these people do not understand toilets... a lost tribe—lost to all decency").
It's a testament to American society's post-World War II militarization that an active general could nearly lose the Korean War overnight, then challenge a president's authority, punch holes in the country's global diplomatic efforts, and risk a nuclear conflict with China, and still emerge more insanely popular than the president who ultimately fired him.
MacArthur's squirrely end to his long, accomplished military career—and his subsequent flirtation with conservative politics—laid the groundwork for future generations of Americans to be cowed into complacency on matters of war and peace by military men, even the ones who are myopic insubordinates.
If there's a model for the modern braggadouche, it's Dick Marcinko, founding captain of SEAL Team Six and one of the first special operators to parlay his experience into a series of bestselling books and a conservative talk radio show. His Rogue Warrior series set the standard for swaggering sea stories full of bravado, brags, and diatribes against the weak and the liberal.
He also spent a year and a half in prison for defrauding the government over purchases of hand grenades, and even his own lawyer admits that many SEALs consider Marcinko a profane, self-important, flamboyant "boastful braggart." You can play him in a video game now, because America is great.
It's one of life's little ironies that a nearsighted insurance agent who washed out of ROTC has done more than any veteran to profitably perpetuate the modern American mythos of mighty, moral warriors hamstrung by cowardly backbiting politicians and bleeding-heart peaceniks.
Nobody has wanted to be military as much as Clancy, whose novels are still must reads for aspiring service members and spooks. He got away from his conservative political roots after 9/11, siding with some outspoken ex-generals against the Bush administration and Don Rumsfeld's sunny view of military operations. But that didn't stop Clancy from profiting off terrible ghostwritten patriot-pulp like his Op Center franchise to the very end of his life in 2013.
Some criminal sociopaths go to jail for a long time. Some get TV shows.
There aren't many Rhodes Scholars who became four-star generals. Thanks to Wesley Clark, there aren't many who'll be remembered as something other than an ass-covering partisan flack. Clark bumbled his way through the Bosnian and Kosovar military campaigns with one eye in the mirror and another on his resumé. He glanced up briefly to claim victory and investigate his political prospects.
Since his own crash-and-burn as a presidential candidate, he's trotted in front of the TV cameras to lend an air of military legitimacy to the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which means we'll probably get to see him say something self-aggrandizing and stupid again between now and November 2016.
By all accounts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyFZEw…a decent, quiet soldier who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam, Stone's made three fairly bad Vietnam movies since, including the very semi-autobiographical Platoon. He also has become a sort of poster boy for embarrassingly naive causes, from trumpeting JFK assassination conspiracies to lamenting Jewish influence in America to embracing fast-talking, self-loving idiots like Hugo Chavez, Viktor Yanukovich, and Julian Assange. It's enough to make you beg him to shut up and go back to directing, but then you realize you might get another Alexander or Any Given Sunday.
A SEAL acquaintance of Chris Kyle's and a Sarah Palin groupie, Luttrell's red, white, and blue worldview makes the songbook of Toby Keith seem gently nuanced. His bestselling, fame-making memoir, which is ostensibly about how God saved his life one day on an op (while letting 19 other men perish), includes these pearls, listed by one critic and Afghanistan vet:
...Iraq had WMD's. (This book was published in 2007)
...Iraq had Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban fighters.
...the military upper brass personally called on Luttrell and his fellow SEALs to save Afghanistan from Taliban invaders, in 2005, because Navy SEALs are the greatest, toughest, most skilled war fighters in the entire military. (Seriously, he wrote this.)
...twins can literally read minds. (He's not joking.)
When not arguing that he should have killed some civilian goatherds to avoid giving away his unit's position, Luttrell spends his time hunting, making endorsement deals, and offering Fox News long expositions on the foreign policy failings of Barack Hussein Obummer.
Chief Petty Officer Kyle's rifles saved countless Marines and soldiers in Iraq. They also took the lives of anywhere from 160 to 255 Iraqi "military-aged males" and one woman, most of whom were hopefully combatants. But the debate over Kyle's legacy centers less around his actions than the cause he served, which he defended in simplistic, vigorous terms. There is also his low opinion of Iraqis and Muslims, which is shared by many veterans of that conflict.
Kyle's credibility has also taken plenty of hits: He was successfully sued for defamation by fellow military braggadouche Jesse Ventura for the story he tells Bill O'Reilly above, claiming to have punched Ventura for being loudly anti-war at a teammate's wake. Rumors also circulated that he told teammates of killing as many as 30 looters during the hurricane Katrina aftermath, and of killing two alleged carjackers at a Texas gas station. Both stories have been thoroughly debunked.
A teller of simple tall tales about his martial prowess, but an accomplished and conflicted warrior nevertheless: Kyle's legacy seems more complicated, and more common, than either left-wing critics or right-wing champions are willing to grant. Such is the power of the braggadouche.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]