Everybody Gets A War Story

By Jay Kirell


People love hearing war stories. It’s why people who go to a war zone come back and tell them.

Some people also love telling war stories.

Take Brian Williams for example.

Or Bill O’Reilly.

Or Chris Kyle.

Or Joni Ernst.

They’ve told war stories.  Not necessarily truthful war stories, but war stories nonetheless.

Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor – or former anchor anyway, having been suspended by the network – was caught repeatedly telling tall tales about a helicopter event in Iraq.

O’Reilly, the Fox News commentator and ratings juggernaut – was recently revealed to have completely fabricated a story about being on the ground during the British war in the Falkland Islands.

Kyle, former Marine sniper and subject of the blockbuster movie American Sniper, claimed in his book to have killed multiple people with his sniper rifle in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Ernst, former Iowa National Guardsman turned US Senator, has come under fire for claiming the title of ‘combat veteran’ even though her 14-month deployment was mostly spent in Kuwait and Ernst herself was a lieutenant colonel in charge of a transportation unit that never actually came under fire.

The question begging to be asked from this sudden explosion of false war narratives is…why?

Why make up stories about a war that obviously must have thousands of honest, truthful, amazingly captivating tales?

Well, to answer that, let’s tackle the first two individuals, Williams and O’Reilly:

Brian Williams

Bill O’Reilly

Not veterans themselves, these two fell into the familiar trap of being so close to a war they could almost taste it, but not close enough that they were in any real danger.  Williams has been to Iraq, Afghanistan and other “hot zones” of military activity for years.  He probably has dozens of honest stories to tell.  The fact that he chose to repeat a fake one, not just once, but multiple times, screams insecurity.

I mean, I could take Brian Williams at face value and believe he was just trying to honor the veterans he’s met.

I could, but I won’t.

Brian Williams wasn’t trying to honor veterans by telling fake war stories.   He was doing what everyone does who tells a war story – fake or not – trying to make his audience go ‘woah.’

Because in all honesty, if you spend a great deal of time in a war zone and you don’t come back home with at least one amazing story to tell, it must feel like a waste.  Nobody is going to want to hear about the time you thought you were in a firefight, but it was just spare rounds going off in the burn pit.  So eventually those spare rounds going off in a burn pit become a dozen Taliban fighters.  Or perhaps the helicopter that was an hour ahead of you on the flight path that got shot at suddenly becomes the helicopter you were traveling in.

Which makes for a much better story around the bar.  A much better story brings with it more attention and possibly praise, which feeds the teller’s ego and leads to more war stories, which leads to more attention and praise, and the cycle gets repeated.

That’s Brian Williams in a nutshell.  By all accounts, a good man who got caught up in telling stretched-truth war stories for his own personal satisfaction and ego.  Did he deserve to be suspended?  Definitely.

Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, is just a mess.  Back when he used to be something approaching a journalist, O’Reilly covered the war in the Falkland Islands for CBS News.  Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, recently uncovered various conflicting statements O’Reilly has made over the years on his nightly show with what he wrote about his time covering the war in his 2001 book The No Spin Zone:

In a 2013 episode of “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox, the host described being “in the Falklands.”

“I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete,” O’Reilly said, according to Mother Jones.

“And the army was chasing us,” he said. “I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off, you know, but at the same time, I’m looking around and trying to do my job, but I figure I had to get this guy out of there because that was more important.”

Mother Jones noted that O’Reilly’s book, “The No Spin Zone: Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous in America,” contained “no references to O’Reilly experiencing or covering any combat during the Falklands war.”

Probably because no American reporters ever set foot on the Falklands Islands during this time.

So what was the reasoning behind Bill O’Reilly’s tall tales about the war?  It’s hard to say.  Ego certainly seems like a logical choice.  Anyone who has ever watched O’Reilly for more than 15 minutes has probably marveled at his ability to always make any story, any time, about himself.  Another reason might be simple convenience.  I imagine O’Reilly never expected anyone to look into his past statements and compare them with his book for discrepancies.  And considering we’re talking about the Falkland Islands here, not Vietnam, he probably expected nobody would care what he said about a war America wasn’t even involved in.

Which leads into a point that’s rather sentient when speaking about war stories.

Only 1% of Americans have served in war the past decade.  Obviously even fewer have been national media correspondents who’ve been sent to war zones.  That’s a very small number of people from which to collect stories about the wars and who can verify the truth of anyone else’s accounts.  If you have even the slightest shred of credibility (ie, you were actually there in country and your job is a journalist) your stories are honest until proven discredited.

An advantage Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams played until they were called out by others who were either there or who had a large enough dossier on these stories to start fact-checking them.

But when actual vets are caught in lies, or mistruths or fuzzy statements, things get a little more complicated.

Chris Kyle

The late Chris Kyle is unable to defend himself against charges that he made up parts of his memoir-turned-hit ‘American Sniper’ – specifically the parts dealing with the aftermath of the war and him coming back to the US. In his book he claims to have taken his rifle and gone to the top of the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina and killed some looters and other people.

Nobody will ever be able to verify these claims, but you don’t have to be an America-hating commie to call bullshit on an obvious bullshit story.

Chris Kyle was a liar.  It’s actually been proven.  He lied in his book about getting into a bar fight with former SEAL and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.  Ventura took Kyle to court in a defamation suit, where the owner of the bar said the incident never happened and Kyle fabricated events to “promote his book.”

Actually, the more one looks into what was *IN* Chris Kyle’s book – instead of focusing on the movie version starring the much more charismatic and likeable Bradley Cooper – the more one finds that Kyle told a lot of lies.

* he claimed to have shot two carjackers….later rebuffed by the town sheriff where the incident allegedly occurred.

* he claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq….a delusional claim that would have made news around the world if true.

* he claimed to have donated 100% of the proceeds from his book (nearly $3 million) to the families of soldiers killed in combat…when in reality it was closer to $50,000 and 2% of the proceeds.

Kyle, apparently, had a talent for two things in this world – shooting and lying.  Maybe some of what Kyle wrote in his book was true, but it begs the question why would the most decorated sniper in US history lie?  Surely he had more than enough true stories to tell, right?

Yes and no.

Chris Kyle probably had many true stories of his four tours in Iraq.  He killed at least 160 people.  I’m sure his book contains a lot of accurate accounts.  It just so happens he mixed in a few whoppers.


Maybe when he sat down to write his book he didn’t feel that heroic.  Most of his lies seem to be of the “hero-saves-the-day” variety.  He stopped a carjacking, stopped looters, found WMDs, gave money to needy families, ect.  Perhaps he was trying to re-write the narrative of his life over the past decade to make it more what he hoped it would be when he enlisted.

160 confirmed kills has to severely mess somebody up.  I have two unconfirmed kills and I think about them every day.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a middle school auditorium’s worth of kills on your conscience.

Or maybe he was just a liar and liar’s lie.  Especially liars who have a book to promote.

Or a campaign to run.  Just ask Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.

Joni Ernst

Now, this might be a little controversial.

Joni Ernst is *not* a combat veteran.

Joni Ernst is a pogue (or POG) who spent 20 years in the National Guard and has a single 14-month deployment to Kuwait on her record.  She never engaged in a firefight and her primary job was a company commander of a logistics unit.

Being in the same country where a war is going on does not automatically make one a combat veteran.  If it did, literally every single person who served in Iraq or Afghanistan would have either a Combat Infantryman’s Badge or a Combat Action Badge – the medals that actually denote getting into “combat.”

By Ernst’s own admission: “I am very proud of my service and by law I am defined as a combat veteran. I have never once claimed that I have a Combat Action Badge. I have never claimed that I have a Purple Heart. What I have claimed is that I have served in a combat zone,” said the Iowa Republican, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Of course, any service should be respected on a certain level.  It’s not easy to travel halfway around the world, to leave your job, your family, your regular 9-5 life.

But that makes you a veteran.

Just a veteran.

You can’t call yourself a combat veteran, Senator, if the only time you’ve ever fired your rifle in your 20-year career is at the range.

You can’t call yourself a combat veteran, Senator, if the  “combat zone” you spent over a year in comes complete with a Burger Kings, KFCs, dance halls and game rooms.

You can’t call yourself a combat veteran, Senator, if your life has never actually been in peril from someone shooting at you, or trying to blow you up, on a semi-regular basis.

Well, I mean, technically you *can* call yourself that, so long as you have absolutely no respect for actual combat vets and don’t mind stretching the limits of what “combat” means.


Ultimately, stretching the truth when it relates to telling war stories is as old as war itself.  People do it for the same reasons they lie about anything – they stand to benefit in some way.  Williams wanted to get in good with the veteran community and get the attention that goes along with telling a good yarn.  O’Reilly wanted to look like a tough guy and pad his resume a little with some “war” correspondence.  Kyle wanted to promote his book and probably rewrite the narrative of his service, and Ernst wanted to win a senate race.

Individually, none of this really matters.  War stories are just that – stories.  You either believe them or you don’t.

Nobody ever died because of a war story.

It’s the lies we tell before the war starts that are the real problem.

(On edit – Joni Ernst held the rank of captain at the time of her deployment.  She currently has the rank of lieutenant colonel.)

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4 Comments on “Everybody Gets A War Story”

  1. ahbonenberger
    February 20, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    Great piece – a little harsh on the combat vet / vet distinction, which I struggle with sometimes. I earned my CIB in Afghanistan, the old fashioned way, and tend to agree with your logic (if you haven’t been in combat, you’re not a combat vet, being in a combat zone doesn’t count). On the other hand, what’s the combat *patch* for? One ends up having a really particular, specific definition system that only people like us understand:
    1) Combat Vet
    2) Veteran deployed to combat zone
    3) Veteran deployed, not to combat zone (from the stories I’ve heard, the 82nd’s deployment to Haiti post-earthquake has got to be one of the worst / most horrifying military deployments of all time – like being deployed inside a concentration camp for 2 months while bodies rotted on the street – is that easier than getting rocketed on the border of Pakistan?)
    4) Veteran

    In a context when most people probably don’t know the difference between Army and Marine infantry.

    So – yeah, I understand and accept the distinction. And I’m frustrated when politicians like Ernst and Clinton and Blumenthal cynically lie to embellish their credibility as leaders. On the other hand, knowledge of combat doesn’t seem to actually make one a better leader, politically or otherwise (witness the disgraceful positions most of our fellow veteran politicians have taken toward our current policy in the Middle East). Ultimately I feel that the real problem with the people who want to represent us lies elsewhere – it’s not that they’re liars, most of them lie, routinely. It’s that they want power. And that’s a systemic flaw.


  2. jaykirell
    February 20, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    I was always under the impression the patch just noted you had been deployed, not that you served in combat.


  3. ahbonenberger
    February 20, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    Good question – deployment patch or combat patch. I only heard of it referred to as a combat patch, and heard that the criteria to wear the patch was that one had been in a combat zone for at least 30 days – the junior officer coconut network was/is about as reliable as joe’s rumor mill, so take that for what it’s worth (nearly nothing)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jcmindset
    March 9, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing


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