We all know Navy SEAL Chris Kyle as the American Sniper — a real-life hero for the post-9/11 generation of warfighters. His exploits as a sharpshooter, larger-than-life love with his wife Taya, and untimely death at the hands of a fellow veteran have all the makings of a classic war epic: a legend.
Did he exaggerate his military accolades and distort his military record? Certainly. But history will likely forgive those lies because Kyle is, in some ways, the hero that modern-day service members need — an idealized version of everything a soldier could be.
Kyle has already been immortalized as a part of the collective experience of war, and thanks to mass media, he was interred into the annals of military history. When service members and civilians alike share the tale of Chris Kyle, they envision the Clint Eastwood version, the deadly marksman with a big heart, because that’s the person that we need — an expert sniper, exemplary American, and a legend we can aspire to become.
Kyle’s modern legend is part of a tradition that has carried on since the dawn of recorded history. The earliest known piece of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 2000 BC, opens with the legendary Sumerian king battling with wildman Enkidu. From Athena to Odysseus and Chesty Puller to Ray “E-Tool” Smith, wartime heroism has been inextricably linked to the evolution of legend. Soldiers, in fiction and nonfiction alike, are preserved by history as venerable warfighters, warriors whose abilities and bravery exceeded that of what is expected of the common man, and their tales have been passed down from generation to generation.
War may be society’s oldest, most constant source of legends. But why does the military need them now?
“The folklore serves several purposes, but I think the most important function is that it builds solidarity; it builds cohesion, whether it’s a folk song, or a dance, or cadets posing at West Point,” James Deutsch, a folklorist with the Smithsonian Institution, told Task & Purpose. “Customs are the things that help unite and bond members of that particular group, and legends serve the same purpose. It’s what you as a member of that group have in common with other members of that group.”
Solidarity is a key function and feature of discipline within any military organization. It’s embodied by the uniformity, the codification of rules, and the rigorously-enforced customs and rituals held sacred by each branch. They can range from the broad, like the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134 on “good order and discipline” to the specific, like Hell Week for Navy SEALs, but both are deeply personal: They are what connect us to those around us, beyond the traditional alignments of geography and creed.
That desire to foster fellowship in the military is itself dependent on legends passed down through history. As Deutsch said, though the technology with which we fight wars has changed, the human experience of war has deviated very little throughout history. The maintenance of legends from generation to generation not only gives you common ground to stand on with your peers, but ties you to the history of the experience of war.
And that’s a lesson that inspired Sgt. Tyler Mendelson to spin a new legend of his own. After enlisting in the Marine Corps in 2010, the Poughkeepsie native, now a student at Emerson College, has always had an interest in film. But it wasn’t until he served as a Marine that he realized the power and relevance of legend in contemporary culture.
“I realized there's so many stories that haven't been told that I think would make excellent movies and books,” he told Task & Purpose.
Through Kickstarter, Mendelson sought to crowdfund his very own World War I legend (“I just feel like, along with Korea, it's just one of those wars you barely see anything about,” he joked). Dubbed The Hun, the project focuses on the Meuse Argonne Offensive, which was the last major offensive of the first world war. In the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeastern France where this campaign took place, Attila the Hun also fought an epic battle against the Romans in the fifth century — a battle Mendelson saw reflected in his own experience in Afghanistan.
That allusion, Mendelson said, is incredibly symbolic of the unchanging human experience of war. It’s akin to coming full circle. “They had a battle basically in the same area, and coincidentally the Germans in World War I were nicknamed ‘The Hun,’” he added. “I just thought that fit perfectly together.”
But it’s not just the connection to a greater narrative of valor, bloodshed, and destruction that makes legends stick within the military community. War stories become a necessity because they allow soldiers to make sense of things that otherwise seem senseless, according to poet and military mother Pam Rago.
“It’s this intense dangerous life-and-death kind of space, and things happen incredibly quickly, and they’re over before they started,” she told Task & Purpose. “I think it’s a way of replaying that and making sense of it.”
War stories become a necessity because they allow soldiers to make sense of things that otherwise seem senseless.
Rago suggests that with military legends, soldiers from all generations can read, hear, or watch a story play out and put themselves in the epic hero’s combat boots, because they are similar to their own. Moreover, she added, it can help you to rationalize what you’ve experienced. And the fictionality of legend and folklore permits that to a much greater degree than a news story, memoir, or biography.
Consider World War II veteran Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22. The pilots from the Air Force’s 256th Squadron constantly find themselves in the paradox of “damned if you, damned if you don’t,” an idea so thoroughly and aggressively belabored throughout the book that it pushed “catch-22” into the English vernacular. Even though the the concept stemmed primarily from Heller’s attempt to work out the hypocrisy of life as a fighter pilot — in order to fly a plane, you must be insane, but if you are deemed insane, the U.S. military won’t let you fly its planes — it became universalized in its fictionality.
That’s what makes legend such an integral part of the warfighter narrative and what makes individual legends worthy of being passed down from generation to generation: they’re believable, relatable, and timeless, even when they’re not totally true. “Fiction gives the opportunity to look for higher meaning, if there are themes that have woven themselves through a character’s life or a country’s life,” Rago added. “You can take information and infuse it with something greater.”
But military legends also arise from a need for common discourse. According to Tad Tuleja and Eric A. Eliason, the authors of a book called Warrior Ways, the greater narrative of a society doesn’t always fit the perspectives of soldiers, so they’ve invented their own.
The pair draw attention to the legend of “Jody,” or “Mr. Steal-Your-Girl-While-You’re-Deployed” from World War II. Soldiers took a character from a popular blues songs called “Joe de Grinder,” who was notorious for stealing the ladies of inmates and soldiers, and shortened his name to “Jody.” The media’s staid narrative suggests that when soldiers are away serving their country, their dutiful wives remain at home, and no one ever tries to destroy the sanctity of a military marriage, but in reality, soldiers often fear being cuckolded by civilian men, and recognize that they themselves do not always remain faithful on deployment. Jody then has become a part of the military lore. Everyone knows someone who has cheated or been cheated on during service. It’s a common theme.
“In terms of military stories, if you read or hear them, what you find is that writers who have been soldiers are informed by the true things they experience, but fold it into the larger epic literature,” Rago said.
All military stories seem to carry an air of legend, with even the truest accounts blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Vietnam veteran-turned-acclaimed author Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, captures how the intentional embellishment of the truth, when done well, only enhances a story’s value, making it timeless, legendary.
“The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts, and the nape of the neck, and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through, and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human,” O’Brien told NPR in 2010.
And unlike with legends, the staying power of nonfiction is in history itself. This isn’t legend, but Gen. Douglas MacArthur stood in Terowie, Australia, in 1942 speaking of the Philippines and uttered the phrase "I came through and I shall return." Then, on Oct. 20, 1944, MacArthur made his way ashore onto the Philippine island of Leyte, and declared “People of the Philippines, I have returned!” over the radio. That is legendary.
“In nonfiction, your purpose is to report in some ways on what happened, what that person did, what happened in that battle, how many people were ambushed,” Rago said. “I think in nonfiction you want to get some kind of accurate representation, as much as possible, from different perspectives.”
But there is an element of fantasy within legends that make them worth retelling in a way that nonfiction stories don’t typically.
“Soldiers tend to like both kinds of stories,” according to Libby Turner, an English professor at Binghamton University. “One aspect of the legend that is very appealing is that it’s entertaining and exciting, they give you the sense of a larger, mysterious world.”
...the military needs legends because they give meaning to all the seemingly senseless things you’ve done and all the horror you’ve seen
And that need for something more, Deutsch said, is what gave us myth, legend, and fairytale, for as long as storytelling has been a part of the human experience. Consider the wild men of no man’s land from World War I, which I chronicled in an earlier story for Task & Purpose, which has endured because of its most relatable elements: the despair and desire for escape the inhumanity of war:
During World War I, beyond the wire and away from the confines of the trenches lived the wild men of No Man’s Land. These soldiers — stragglers from seven armies that clashed on the battlefields of Europe — came together as a band of deserters to make a home in the desolate space between their warring countrymen, slipping into abandoned trenches to scavenge for loot and food to stay alive. In the first global war, they became soldiers with no nation.
The most gruesome accounts of the so-called wild men suggest they were flesh-eating savages, while modern evocations say they might have renounced the title of soldier altogether to simply become “human beings caring for one another, no matter what uniform they were wearing.” In that literal and metaphorical space of No Man’s Land, legends of nicety and ghoulishness were born, and while some are rooted in history, others are pure fiction.
“The war, at the time was unbelievable, the scale on which people were killed,” Deutsch told Task & Purpose. “It was beyond human understanding that such killing would have taken place on that type of scale. Out of that horrifying experience comes this terrifying legend. It really conveys the madness, the chaos, the senseless horror, which is true of all legends.”
Rago echoed this sentiment, adding that the military needs legends because they give meaning to all the seemingly senseless things you’ve done and all the horror you’ve seen. Otherwise, how could you put your life on the line for your country? Thanks to legends, the answer is simple: because people have done so since the beginning of war, since the earliest days of humanity.
“War stories, like any stories,” Rago added, “get told in different ways, from different perspectives, and the point of any story is to help make sense of what happened.”
Though every individual soldier has his or her own experience in battle, they are all pieces of a greater, singular narrative on the collective experience of human war. Soldiers who have the honor of being preserved in legend are made immortal over time. And perhaps the promise of enduring after death is what gives soldiers the courage to sign their names on the dotted line, not knowing if they will live or die.