Ideas

Why we fear and admire the military sniper

Since long before ‘American Sniper,’ we’ve had deeply conflicted feelings about the man who shoots to kill

The new Clint Eastwood film, “American Sniper,” is based on the life of now-deceased Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

Paul Moseley/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram Via AP

The new Clint Eastwood film, “American Sniper,” is based on the life of now-deceased Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

CHRIS KYLE, the Navy SEAL in the new film “American Sniper,” is a guardian angel: He picks off Iraqi insurgents from afar, saving his comrades before they even realize they were in the enemies’ sights. In real life, Kyle, who wrote the 2012 memoir on which the movie is based, is confirmed to have killed at least 160 enemy fighters, many in exactly this scenario, and it’s possible that a similar number of Americans owe their lives to him.

Kyle is the dark hero of Clint Eastwood’s movie, which opened today in Boston. But that is an upgrade to military snipers’ historical reputation, even among those fighting on the same side. In past wars, snipers’ fellow soldiers and Marines have viewed them with suspicion, turning cold shoulders to the men widely perceived to have the coldest hearts in the US military.

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Snipers, who make up only a small percent of men in combat units, are in some ways the opposite of ordinary infantrymen. Modern combat training has taught soldiers to aim and fire their weapons, but there is some evidence that until recently the average soldier rarely fired his weapon accurately or killed anyone. Snipers, by contrast, aim to kill with every pull of the trigger. When other soldiers kill—especially with artillery or air strikes—their victims are often too far away to see clearly; snipers watch through scopes and can sometimes see the blood spill and the victim collapse as he dies. Together, these differences have made nonsnipers view snipers as homicidal, soulless robots flagrantly violating the rules of fair military play.

But one consequence of the last decade of war has been to modify the bad reputation of snipers, which Clint Eastwood’s film seems ready to wash away for good. There’s a tension in the title—a proud “American” next to the still-menacing word “sniper”—but experts on the history of military snipers and our treatment of them say the military has undergone a cultural shift around this tactic of war. One thing worse than having a sniper on your side, after all, is facing one who’s working for the enemy.

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Back in Vietnam, our own people called us ‘Murder Inc.,’” says Jack Coughlin, a retired Marine sniper and author of “Shock Factor: American Snipers in the War on Terror.” “They thought we were psychopathic killers. But the whole point of our existence is to be there on overwatch to minimize the threat to our own men.”

Snipers for the United States military are, without question, exceptionally efficient killers. According to one estimate, in Vietnam it took an ordinary infantryman 25,000 rounds per confirmed enemy kill. Snipers killed once every 1.3 rounds. A recent report from Afghanistan claimed that two US Special Forces soldiers killed 75 Taliban with 77 rounds. Exceptional snipers count their victims in the hundreds—the Finnish World War II sniper Simo Häyhä registered over 500, the most ever—whereas in most wars, ordinary soldiers often kill no one at all, and in many cases never even fire their weapons. Snipers often become the stuff of legend and nightmares for enemy soldiers: In the 1990s in Chechnya, Russians traded stories of the White Stockings—beautiful Estonian female biathletes, paid by Chechens per kill. They allegedly aimed for the genitals, and took heads as trophies. (No White Stocking was ever captured, so it’s likely that the group was only a legend.)

This sort of comfort with gruesome violence is something snipers are known for. They don’t have the luxury of averting their eyes while someone else does the killing. “They can see their victims, even the wrinkles around the eyes,” says Neta Bar, an anthropologist who studied snipers in Israel in the early 2000s. “But then they’d have to stay in their hiding spot for the rest of the day and see the victim’s wife and kids crying over the body.”

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In addition to natural human revulsion at killing, snipers have had to overcome social conventions that stigmatize attacking people by surprise. The military historian Martin Pegler traces this attitude to a more gentlemanly age of war: “It was an officer-class attitude,” he says. “The British thought shooting an enemy from great distance in cold blood was unacceptable, in a way that blasting them to pieces with artillery was not.” Snipers, who were generally enlisted men, tended to aim for officers, which compounded the feeling of unfairness; killing above one’s class rankled some of the more status-minded soldiers. Pegler says snipers in one British Army unit in the 1980s were called “The Leper Colony” because of their colleagues’ aversion to socializing with them.

The reluctance to snipe goes back to the earliest days of sniping, in the late 18th-century. (It was about this time when the specialty got its name, after the game-bird known as the snipe, which required expert marksmanship to hit.) During the American Revolutionary War, a Scottish marksman named Patrick Ferguson spotted an American officer on horseback and reckoned he could shoot the man half a dozen times. He decided not to, he later said, because “it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” That individual was George Washington, and Ferguson acknowledged that he did not regret letting the enemy commander get away.

Up through World War II, snipers were so loathed that they were generally executed on sight, rather than taken captive. Only in the last two decades, experts say, have snipers’ reputations turned from reviled to heroic. For the United States, that transformation owes something to the particular geography of the Iraq war—not rural and heavily covered with foliage, like Vietnam, but urban and multi-level. “Everybody hates snipers until you go to combat,” Coughlin, the Marine sniper, says. “This was a city environment, and that’s like Disneyland for a sniper.”

Retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, an authority on the psychology of killing, says another reason for the change is that snipers have simply been integrated better into the larger military. In Vietnam, he says, “we didn’t have many snipers. The sniper was a tool we pulled out of the box and used, then shoved back in the box.” Now, ordinary infantry have sophisticated gunsights that can make every soldier with a rifle capable of shots that might have been accessible only to snipers a few decades ago. “Long-range shots were very rare then. Now they are very common.”

Today, the sniper is a trained professional who generally plies his trade with pride. Eastwood’s film is in some ways a public acknowledgment of the resuscitation of the sniper’s reputation.

During World War II, snipers were often country boys blessed with perfect sight, who were experienced at hunting deer. Now the military trains snipers over the course of months to conceal themselves and stalk targets, making sketches of buildings sometimes days beforehand. Coughlin, the Marine sniper, has trained over 75 snipers, and he says the best marksmen are often those who have never fired a weapon in their lives. “They don’t have any ego, and you don’t have to train bad habits out of them”—like poor timing, body position, and ability to compensate for wind.

Grossman adds that having an all-volunteer force makes it much easier to convince soldiers and Marines to kill. “That’s now the norm of this war,” Grossman says. “Getting a random kid to kill is hard. But getting a volunteer warrior to kill someone who is preparing to do harm to others—that’s easy. Chris Kyle wasn’t particularly troubled by shooting the enemy.” After his first kill in Iraq, Kyle wrote in his memoir, he felt he “could stand before God with a clear conscience.”

‘Everybody hates snipers until you go to combat.’

Jack Coughlin, retired Marine sniper and author 
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Some snipers share that comfort with killing-at-a-distance. For his book “Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper,” Martin Pegler interviewed many snipers who spoke only with reluctance, because of the ambivalence of other people about their work. One of the top US snipers eventually talked to him (“I lured him with beers,” Pegler says), and he claimed not to have suffered any guilty feelings over the hundred-odd men he had killed.

One of the top British snipers, however, had lost sleep. “That is a man,” Pegler says, “who lives with ghosts.”

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

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