The Problem With America’s Dark Obsession With The Military Sniper

While on an operation Dec. 21 through Dec. 24, 2010, with 2nd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, an attached group of snipers often appear out of the shadows.
U.S. Marine Corps photo

To the average civilian, the story of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle is one of a warrior destined for greatness. The self-described “American sniper” racked up 160 confirmed kills over his decade-long career, earning a reputation as a superhuman marksman who displayed “unparalleled bravely and skill” during the critical Battle of Fallujah, according to his Navy evaluation report from March 2004 to March 2005. His exploits, chronicled in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 hagiography American Sniper, embody the American ideal of the sniper: Silent and unseen, the pinnacle of lethality, and the embodiment of American military power wrapped up in a one-man executioner. The common refrain among veterans of the Marine Corps Scout Sniper school is that snipers aren’t born, but made — and the Global War on Terror produced the deadliest one since the Vietnam War.

Service members and veterans know that Kyle’s story is far more complicated than the caricature embraced by civilians. The autobiography upon which Eastwood’s heroic portrait is based glosses over Kyle’s more callous and cold-blooded tendencies (“I wondered, how would I feel about killing someone?” he wrote. “Now I know. It’s no big deal.”). A May 2016 report by The Intercept revealed that Kyle inflated his vaunted service record in American Sniper, “battlefield embellishments” seen as grossly dishonorable by his fellow Navy SEALs despite his actual heroism in combat (the following July, Navy downgraded his medal count). Kyle was a talented marksman, but he was also a liar; stripped of body armor and absent a rifle scope, the perfect marksman is just an imperfect man.

Despite this, Americans still valorize Kyle as the hero soldier of the Global War on Terror five years after he was shot and killed at a Texas shooting range in February 2013 — the country’s Foremost Warrior more than any other soldier in recent memory and a martyr who gave his all to protect Freedom and Liberty and all that other neat stuff. But when cast against the history of the U.S. military sharpshooter, the cult of the American sniper built around Kyle helps reveal a darker side of martial pride in the post-9/11 world.

A very modern military marksman

The sniper was an instrument of American military might for more than two centuries before Kyle ever stepped foot in Iraq. One of the first confirmed sniper kills in U.S. military history occurred in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War, when Continental Gen. David Morgan tasked rifleman Timothy Murphy with neutralizing British Gen. Simon Fraser during the Battle of Bemis Heights in October 1777. Fraser “was rallying the British troops during the battle” when Murphy shot and killed him from over 300 yards away, explained historians Gregory Mast and Hans Halberstadt in their 2007 book To Be A Military Sniper. “He was worth a regiment of troops, and removing him from the battle was instrumental in the American victory.”

Despite our modern love for eagle-eyed sharpshooters like Murphy, the lone sniper was far from a heroic figure during the early years of the U.S. military. The Western military doctrine of the 18th century embedded in the nascent Continental Army discouraged shooting military commanders unawares, so far that many commanders would execute snipers on sight for their perceived treachery well into the early 20th century. The principle was simple, according to Mast and Halberstadt: “gentlemen simply did not shoot other gentlemen.” This doctrine is perhaps best captured by Maj. Patrick Ferguson, the British infantry officer and Scottish marksman who famously declined during the Revolutionary War to shoot a high-ranking Continental officer during the Battle of Brandywine. That target, unbeknownst to him, was Gen. George Washington.

An artist's conception of Revolutionary War rifleman Timothy Murphy hanging in the Fulton Public Library In Oswego Country, New York Mohawk Valley Library System/Fulton Public Library

“The sniper has always been there, since we were picking off lines of British soldiers between Lexington and Concord,” retired Marine Corps scout sniper Jack Coughlin, a veteran of campaigns in Somalia and Iraq and prolific author of sniper-centric fiction, told Task & Purpose. “But every sniper goes into the role understanding that you’re not going to be well-liked until you’re needed.”

It wasn’t until the Civil War that the sniper formally entered the U.S. military. In 1861, the Union Army formally tasked marksman and gunsmith Hiram Berdan to specifically train and equip snipers assigned the 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters regiments. Once “Berdan’s Sharpshooters” routed Confederate artillery units on the battlefields of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, the true benefit of the sniper — abject terror — became clear to Americans tacticians. The fielding of dedicated marksmen by the Russian and German militaries during World War II revealed an urgent capability gap for U.S. combat troops, and as the Pentagon adjusted to the United States’ post-war role as global superpower, the Army made (weak) attempts to develop specialized training with a short-lived sniper school at Camp Perry, Ohio, in 1955.

It was the Vietnam War that finally saw the U.S. military’s full embrace of the sniper. In 1966, the Marine Corps established a sniper school in Da Nang and a scout sniper secondary MOS at Camp Pendleton, California; by late 1969, U.S. snipers reported nearly 1,500 confirmed kills, an alluringly efficient alternative to the M16-toting soldiers and infantry Marines were reportedly burning through an average of 200,000 rounds for every enemy they dispatched. But even then, the sharpshooter was considered a “scoundrel” fist, even by their fellow service members; during the years before 9/11, according to Coughlin, Marine Corps snipers remained unfunded and poorly equipped between actual combat operations despite the Pentagon’s growing emphasis on specialized snipers and squad designated marksman.

“It’s seen as cowardice, shooting someone in the back. It’s a sucker punch,” said Coughlin. “In Vietnam, snipers were nicknamed ‘10 cent killers’ after the cost of a round, and we had zero budget except for ammo — we literally bought materials out of our own pocket to make our ghillie suit.”

“I never did enjoy killing anybody.”

It was Vietnam’s role as the first “television war” that birthed the modern cult of the hero sniper. As the country struggled through a never-ending war, the media latched onto snipers like Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II, who became the (first) most famous sniper in U.S. military history with 93 confirmed kills and the longest recorded kill by a Marine scout sniper. Green Beret Maj. John Plaster deployed to Vietnam with the uber-secret Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group before spreading the gospel of specialized marksmanship throughout U.S. law enforcement agencies. And before Kyle shattered his record, it was the relatively unknown Army Staff Sgt. Adelbert Waldron who locked down the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history, taking out 109 enemies in just eight months, including one from a moving boat 900 yards away.

Long reviled by modern armies, the incredible exploits of Vietnam-era marksmen helped sear a romantic caricature of the hero sniper into the American mind, and not just thanks to the sudden influx of marksmen into the U.S. armed forces. But rather than a chest-thumping, foliage-perforating John Rambo, the American sniper was portrayed as a quiet, disciplined operator waging a covert war against forces of evil. Indeed, the cult of the quiet professional that is central to the U.S. special operations forces community (and the Naval Special Warfare community in particular) was embraced by Vietnam-era snipers like Waldron, who declined to profit off his post-war fame, and Hathcock, who famously once said: "I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody.”

Related: 5 Things I Learned From The Marine Corps’ Scout Sniper School »

With the end of the conflict in Vietnam and the low rumble of the Cold War, the media transformed the sniper into its new favorite embodiment of U.S. military prowess, a stark contrast Rambo’s spray-and-pray. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hollywood churned out marksman-centric flicks from Sniper to Enemy at the Gates, to say nothing of Shooter’s Bob Lee "the Nailer" Swagger, based on the legendary Hathcock himself. Army snipers Gary Gordon and Randall Shughart posthumously earned Medals of Honor for their valiant efforts as part of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, bravery immortalized in Black Hawk Down.

This trope of deadly sniper has persisted in American mass media for decades, even when they aren’t the central focus of movies or TV. Just consider supporting characters like Saving Private Ryan’s Pvt. Daniel Jackson, who shined as a steadfast, dedicated, and brilliantly effective sharpshooter. “God gave me a special gift, fashioned in me a fine instrument of warfare,” he tells a beleaguered Tom Hanks at one point, protesting their mission to rescue Matt Damon. “If you was to put me with this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile from Adolf Hitler... with a clean line of sight... well, pack your bags, boys. War's over.”

In some ways, the Global War on Terror has been a come-to-Jesus moment for the military sharpshooter, now a critical source of support and overwatch in a never-ending counterinsurgency campaign. defined my block-by-block urban warfare. But Eastwood’s American Sniper marked the culmination of a decades-long Hollywood glorification of the sniper for one simple reason: Chris Kyle was a real person with a real track record of fantastical marksmanship.

“Everyone likes Rambo because he can do anything, he’s a badass, but he’s a fictional character,” Coughlin explained. “When you can put a face to a job that creates the kind of havoc that Rambo could, and it’s real, people will gravitate to that.”

Un-American sniper

Ironically, it’s Kyle’s complicated record that exposes the facile nature of the hero sniper myth maintained by the American public. Even beyond his medal inflation, Kyle’s autobiographical bluster and swagger seems antithetical to the ethos captured by Hathcock. While it’s true that U.S. special operators are increasingly discussing their experiences in a modest departure from the “quiet professional” ethos (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), Kyle profited off a hard-charging persona based on outright, discernable lies and meticulously crafted exaggerations to satiate the two-dimensional patriotism of American civilians.

But in some ways, the embrace of the sniper among civilians reflects the domestic experience of American war abroad experienced through the sanitizing filter of the mass media: death delivered cleanly and precisely from an impersonal distance, not unlike the drone strikes and clandestine special operations raids that currently define the tactical landscape of the Global War on Terror. Rather than confront the human costs of war — the bloodshed and injuries, both physical and moral, endured daily — the civilian world valorizes the super soldier, hooked on the gritty details of SEAL Team 6 missions or the cool, collected sniper dispatching terrorists from a safe distance.

Indeed, the moral and psychological trauma of war may actually be more pronounced among the sniper. “If you’re an infantryman, you’re spraying and praying, and maybe you can see the shadow of the enemy you’re actually shooting at,” Coughlin said. “But when we shoot, we can see the expression on our enemy’s face. It’s very personal for us. There isn’t a person I’ve hit who I don’t have a physical memory of. Some people have a music playlist in their brain, a memory that’s triggered when someone puts on a song … I have a kill playlist in my brain.”

In this April 6, 2012 file photo, Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL, holds a weapon in Midlothian, Texas.The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Associated Press/Paul Moseley

This is the dark side of the sniper’s life lost in America’s intense valorization of Kyle’s: In imagining the sniper as a perfect instrument of war, we see them only as singular avatars of the U.S. military’s lethality rather than ordinary men tasked with doing a gruesome job. For some veterans, the cult of the American sniper is an extension of the SOF hero-worship that glosses over the everyday experiences of war, the grime and sweat and blood that captures the reality of a firefight, have become “background noise,” as Washington Post reporter and Iraq War veteran Alex Horton put it in 2014. “We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan,” he wrote. “People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty."

Iraq made Chris Kyle a legendary marksman, sure, but it did not make him the inviolable, unimpeachable, uncontestable super soldier — America did. And its snipers like Coughlin who fully understand that the role of the sniper isn’t some patriotic calling — it’s just another set of orders.

“There’s a dark side to all war, but it’s a little bit darker on the sniper’s side of things,” says Coughlin. “I know what I did. I am 100% sure where every bullet I fired ever went. On the flip side, I know that I never inflicted collateral damage, but that comes with a heavy price. That stuff won’t leave your head, ever. Stuff you can’t ever forget about.”


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