As a U.S. Marine and former Scout/Sniper, I have trained, operated, and learned in turn from America’s best warriors. These include Navy SEAL’s, U.S. Marines Force Reconnaissance, U.S. Army Rangers, Delta, Green Berets, among others. The recent portrait of Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, along with the controversy surrounding it, has been fueled by comments on the morality or even intestinal fortitude of military professionals such as me. Unfortunately, as happens so often in American discourse, those speaking the loudest are giving opinions on a matter of which they have no knowledge or experience. The direction that the conversation has taken on social media and major news networks has tended to focus on a “bad” versus “good” notion of snipers’ actions and their beliefs. A movie has caused the ignorant to pass judgment on an entire group of professionals whose actions and experience they know nothing of.
Some claim that snipers are cold-blooded murderers. Others say that being and using snipers in combat is cowardly. There are those who have never wore the uniform themselves (and some who have) who have opined that shooting an enemy combatant from a concealed position rather than facing him in open combat lacks bravery. Notably, most of them say this from their couches thousands of miles away and safe at home.
One Shot, No Kill
As a Marine Scout/Sniper, my training went well beyond simply pulling the trigger while hiding in some bushes. Shooting and concealment were only part of the training. Making fast, life-and-death decisions in very difficult scenarios was another. Nothing was black and white. Our world is colored in grey, where actions could either influence the battlefield in our favor or the enemy’s favor. Eliminating the right target could save lives; eliminating the wrong target could lead to many more deaths. Imagine the effect on world events if one American sniper had been able to get Adolf Hitler in his sights. We all know the effect of the assassination of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy by one—or more—determined shooters. “Second and third order effects” was not the official terminology used, but the concept was ingrained in everything we did.
Our world is colored in grey, where actions could either influence the battlefield in our favor or the enemy’s favor. Eliminating the right target could save lives; eliminating the wrong target could lead to many more deaths.
My proudest shot of all time was sitting on the 5th floor of the Baath Party Headquarters in Saddam City, Baghdad in 2003, a scene actually depicted in another film, the HBO series Generation Kill. A building was being set fire to outside of our position by people lighting rolls of paper on fire and throwing them at the building. Through my optics I watched a teenage boy walk toward a roll of paper with the clear intent of setting it on fire and throwing it at the building like the others.
I had been cleared by my command to take a shot. These individuals were threatening lives and property. It would be a high angle shot and he was about 100 meters from our position, so I had to quickly calculate the mathematical adjustments that I would have to make in my head. Had I been a Navy SEAL, like those on the roof nearby taking shots at unarmed civilians committing arson at the scene, I likely would have shot him in the head.
Instead, I decided to teach him a lesson that would be seared into his memory forever. Just as he bent over to pick up the roll of paper, I took the shot. The distance was too close for me to observe the impact, but my spotter immediately began rolling on the ground laughing at the result. As the boy had grabbed the paper, the roll violently exploded from his grasp and the loud bang of my round echoed through his brain. He jumped into the air, turned, and ran away. No more fires were set.
Instead of turning his family or his entire tribe into insurgents bent on revenge by killing this young man, those arsonists who witnessed it and those he told the story to would understand that we were not there just to kill people, though we had clearly shown that we could have.
The job of a sniper is not about strapping on “cool-guy” armored gear with lots of straps, Velcro, and guns, flying in on helicopters with 20 other bulked-up bad-asses with beards, sunglasses, ball caps, and dip in their mouths with the intent of killing “brown people,” as the movies picture it. The reality is that my spotter and I found ourselves alone, on foot, and much closer to the action and its results.
We once went on a “Hunter-Killer” mission to find and eliminate insurgents, but instead ended up “going slick” with no protective gear other than pistols stuffed down the front of our pants and sitting in the dirt speaking Arabic with an Iraqi family who had happened upon our position. Some of them had been left badly mutilated by U.S. collateral bomb damage and we helped them pick sunflower seeds to sell at the market, income they now depended upon to live. Instead of not valuing their lives as highly as ours and not caring about Iraqi “savages” and “killing them all”, we listened, learned, and helped where we could.
Why? A year earlier, on our first deployment, we watched the smiles and waves of the populace that had greeted us as liberators from Saddam turn into scowls and later into IEDs that were killing our guys on the roads. We wore out our welcome as our convoys and checkpoints ground the city to a halt. Our cordon and search operations disrupted homes. Political decisions such as disbanding the Iraqi Army and de-Baathification fueled an insurgency that became a call to international Jihad. The people no longer wanted us there. It was all “collateral damage”—physical, political, societal, and otherwise—to a military operation that had no clear guidance from Washington.
As a Scout/Sniper, I had been trained and given the job of taking advantage of opportunities to win battles with one or several well-placed shots. This placed my thinking in a different realm. In my mind, my job was “one shot, one kill.” Instead of creating a thousand new insurgents by killing five “savages”, we could kill a thousand insurgents by creating five friends. Taking the population—the center or gravity in counterinsurgency—away from the enemy would prevent new insurgents as much as kill them. In many ways, our job was the delicate brain surgery that Washington was attempting to perform in Iraq with the hammer that is the U.S. military. We were cutting out the cancer, one bad guy at a time. If policymakers had considered the “collateral damage” invading Iraq would cause, many things would be different there today.
In my battle, I did not raid or fire explosive munitions into houses. I only unleashed one 7.62 millimeter bullet when I was sure it was going to hit the one enemy combatant it was meant for. No “precision munition” or laser-guided bomb can claim that. Reducing “collateral damage” to women, children, and non-combatants was a priority and eliminating extremists with one bullet was how I went about it. Snipers are not cold-blooded murderers. Forget all those bashing American Sniper in the media. In our fight, two men went outside the wire alone with nothing but their wits, their skills, and their rifles with the intent to win the war one bullet at a time. If that is not bravery, I dont know what is.
[Photo: Flickr CC: The U.S. Army]
Matt Victoriano was a Scout/Sniper Team Leader with 1st Battalion 4th Marines from 2000 to 2004. He was recently honored as a White House Champion of Change for his entrepreneurial work helping veterans and the community in Durham, NC.