When Val Kilmer Claimed To Understand War Better Than Veterans

May 5, 2022Mac Caltrider
Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer once claimed he knew what it was like to take a life because he’d played characters who’d done so. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Actors are often known for their unorthodox behavior. Just look as far as this week’s MetGala and you won’t need any more convincing that actors aren’t like the rest of us. Wild outfits and peculiar lifestyles are nothing new when it comes to Hollywood, and among Tinseltown’s strangest personalities is none other than Val Kilmer of Top Gun: Maverick

Kilmer is as eccentric as they come, and in a 2005 interview for Esquire magazine, the Top Gun star went so far as to make the bold claim that he understands the horrors of the Vietnam War better than the soldiers who actually endured them. 

Private 1st Class Michael J. Mendoza fires his M16 rifle into a suspected Viet Cong occupied area of Quang Ngai, Vietnam. US Army photo by Robert C. Lafoon.

American journalist Chuck Klosterman took the bizarre interview with Kilmer and wrote a brilliant essay aptly titled “Crazy Things Seem Normal … Normal Things Seem Crazy.” In it he describes how the Juilliard-trained movie star is kind, dedicated, and a little odd.

“He seems like an affable fellow with a good sense of humor. […] But he is weird,” Klosterman writes. 

Klosterman goes on to recount a conversation with Kilmer in which the movie star claimed to have such a deep capacity for empathy that portraying characters who’ve incurred traumatic experiences took an equally taxing toll on his own psyche. He claims that by accepting the role of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, he was able to fully appreciate what it’s like to kill someone.

Val Kilmer as the infamous gunslinger ‘Doc’ Holliday in Tombstone. Screenshot from Tombstone.

“It’s not like I believed that I actually shot somebody, but I absolutely know what it feels like to pull the trigger and take someone’s life,” Kilmer said. 

At worst, Kilmer’s strange claim is naive, but it’s his belief that he understands the effects of war better than Vietnam veterans that rubbed readers the wrong way in 2005. 

“A guy who’s lived through the horror of Vietnam has not spent his life preparing his mind for it. Most of these guys were borderline criminal or poor, and that’s why they got sent to Vietnam. It was all the poor, wretched kids who got beat up by their dads, guys that didn’t get on the football team, guys who couldn’t finagle a scholarship. They didn’t have the emotional equipment to handle that experience. […] I can more effectively represent that kid in Vietnam than a guy who was there,” Kilmer said. 

Orman Osborn carrying an M60 machine gun across a stream, 1st Infantry Division, Vietnam, 1968. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Kilmer faced immediate backlash for his disparaging remarks and quickly issued an apology. But more striking than his condescending view of veterans is the fact the Top Secret! actor truly believes he has a more comprehensive understanding of what war is like than those who’ve fought in war.

Kilmer’s ideas are so strange, they’re hard to consider offensive. When one remembers the Iceman’s record of bizarre behavior — like the time he ate a giant locust on the set of Tombstone for no good reason — it becomes even more difficult to get riled up by the wild things he says. But for all his misguided statements about veterans, Kilmer makes one helluva fictional naval aviator. He is set to reprise his role as Iceman later this month in the new movie Top Gun: Maverick

Read Next: How Val Kilmer Used Artificial Intelligence To Speak Again in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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