A defense of the sniper on moral grounds

Oh, not from me — I’m still as conflicted as ever about the role of the sniper. As you’ll recall, in my first of several posts about “American Sniper” (one before I saw the movie, explaining why I was eager to see it), I wrote:

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

And I still wonder about that. And I’m not sure the film gave me a satisfactory answer (which was perhaps too much to expect of a movie anyway). And maybe that’s because of the subject. I’ve started reading the autobiography upon which the film is based, and it seems fairly clear already that Chris Kyle was not the most introspective of men.

And while my uncertainty is not quenched by this either, I did get a little grist for my mill from a piece in the WSJ this morning. It’s by a comrade of Chris Kyle’s, defending the role of a sniper as in some ways more moral than what others do in war:

Snipers engage individual threats. Rarely, if ever, do their actions cause collateral damage. Snipers may be the most humane of weapons in the military arsenal. The job also takes a huge emotional toll on the man behind the scope. The intimate connection between the shooter and the target can be hard to overcome for even the most emotionally mature warrior. The value of a sniper in warfare is beyond calculation.

I witnessed the exceptional performance of SEAL, Army and Marine snipers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. They struck psychological fear in our enemies and protected countless lives. Chris Kyle and the sniper teams I led made a habit of infiltrating dangerous areas of enemy-controlled ground, established shooting positions and coordinated security for large conventional-unit movement.

More than half the time, the snipers didn’t need to shoot; over-watch and guidance to the ground troops was enough. But when called upon, snipers like Chris Kyle engaged enemy combatants and “cleared the path” for exposed troops to move effectively and safely in their arduous ground missions. These small sniper teams pulled the trigger at their own risk. If their position was discovered, they had little backup or support….

He makes some good points, specifically about the fact that the sniper is the least discriminate killer on the battlefield. But as the writer acknowledges, that very specificity, that relationship between the sniper and the clearly observed individual he kills, is what would haunt me, on moral (or at least empathetic) grounds, were I ever tasked with such an assignment.

Of course, this takes us to the old question of whether it is more moral to assassinate a problematic foreign leader than to engage in open warfare with his armed forces. If you look at it coldly, you say of course it is better to kill one bad (in your definition) guy than to take action that will almost certainly lead to the deaths of innocents. But then my inner Victorian Gent harrumphs loudly, horrified at the idea of specifically, deliberately, murdering a particular human being whose name you know. I feel a sort of atavistic aversion to regicide, I suppose.

Then there’s the problem that it’s almost impossible to deliberately take out an individual, as President Obama does with drones, without also killing innocents, or regular innocents.

There are no easy answers where war, or the semblance of war, is concerned.

20 thoughts on “A defense of the sniper on moral grounds

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, Chris Kyle’s autobiography (an ebook version of which I received free as a WSJ subscriber) is one of three books I’m reading right now. The other two are Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, and Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, by Mark Lewisohn.

    So far, the Kyle book is the least engaging. Mrs. Tuchman’s is the most, although the Beatles book is quite good, too. It goes way, way deeper than the fanzine level, providing a fairly serious history of the times and places from which the Fab Four arose.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Several years ago, trying to address my abysmal ignorance about the Great War, I started reading John Keegan‘s The First World War.

      I couldn’t get into it. It was too dense for me to get interested enough to push through my lack of previous knowledge of the players and the issues and the background of the time.

      Barbara Tuchman makes all of that stuff fascinating…

      1. M.Prince

        An very fine account of the war, up close, is Philip Gibbs’ Now It Can Be Told, published in 1920. Gibbs was a war correspondent whose dispatches appeared in the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers in Britain. His 1920 book was an effort to provide a more honest depiction of the war than wartime restrictions had allowed. Now It Can Be Told is conveniently available for free and in multiple formats on archive.org, which also offers a recorded edition.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Although, what I REALLY think I need is an overview of the whole war, told as well as Barbara Tuchman tells about the first month of it…

            Then, once I had the 30,000-foot view, I’d be ready to zero in with some up-close stuff like the book you mention…

            1. M.Prince

              I may have mentioned it before, but I found

              Martin Gilbert’s The First World War. A Complete History (1994)

              to be a very readable and comprehensive single-volume history of the war.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              Sounds good! Thanks, M.!

              Now, I need y’all to advise me on good comprehensive biographies of Napoleon and Churchill. I’ve long thought I don’t know enough about either, but haven’t known where to start…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    In college I wrote a Swiftian essay about the neutron bomb, which everyone was up in arms about because it just killed stuff but did not obliterate buildings — “In Defense of Buildings.” This is like that. Is it better to kill precisely or to have a lot of potential collateral damage? Is it better to cut off the head of the beast, or just keep trimming its fingernails? Is it better to allow a few good people to develop their inner sociopath, or damage as many soldiers as possible?
    I think the days when lines of troops became cannon fodder are numbered. Snipers and drones can, of course, make “warfare” too easy, but they do cause less collateral damage!

    1. Juan Caruso

      “I think the days when lines of troops became cannon fodder are numbered. Snipers and drones can, of course, make “warfare” too easy, but they do cause less collateral damage!” -KF

      Wishful thinking (and I am one who wishes it along with you). IEDs have replaced cannons and women now comprise the fodder.

      Also, good on you for including snipers and drones in a single sentence. Too many fail to see that the Commander-in-Chiefs use of drones (which I applaud) has involved more collateral deaths of women and children than all of the American snipers like Kyle together.

      Progressive mouthpiece Michael Moore, for example, is too dense to realize that if Kyle was really cowardly, Obama, his Commander-in-Chief has been 6 tines more cowardly using drones more during his 6 years. Their cause has to have been equally righteous, moral and justified, by anyone’s fair appraisal, in my opinion.

      What has been less righteous, moral or justified is the way our Congress has been able to authorize president’s to engage in heavy military actions without declarations of war requiring men (and women?) to be drafted and sent in harms way.

      Without declarations of war, treasonable acts (self-serving $$$$-conflicts of interest) by those benefiting from such military actions are much less likely to be considered, prosecuted or punished as our laws would otherwise require.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        IEDs are horrible, but at least they are only used by the less-well-funded combatants. At least civilized nations don’t use land mines any more, do they?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          We still use them in Korea in the DMZ. They’re there to keep North Korea from invading, without our having to station thousands more troops there than we already have…

        2. Juan Caruso

          “IEDs are horrible, but at least they are only used by the less-well-funded combatants.” -KF

          Here, I must disagree with your attempt to marginalize the harm IEDs have caused U.S. troops (and other coalition forces have suffered dire casualities, as well).

          According to Pentagon (JIEDDO) statistics, IEDs have caused MOST of our 3,100 dead and 33,000 wounded. Of the roughly 1,800 U.S. troops who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority were due to IED blasts, according to Army data.

          From what you term “less-well-funded combatants”, perhaps. I call all COMBATANTS DISGUISED IN ordinary civilian dress, WHO HIDE among WOMEN and CHILDREN, and PUSH BUTTONS to INDISCRIMINATELY KILL the REAL COWARDS!

  3. M.Prince

    There’s actually a very good rationale for the sanction against regicide (or, by extension, assassination more generally). Today we call it “continuity of government.” The written or unwritten understanding that we will not attempt to bump off your head of government if you refrain from bumping off our head of government is based on the realization that if we got into that line of attack it likely would lead to political instability over the short or long term. In other words, presidents and the like are simply more important, in the larger scheme of things, than is your average soldier. Plus, wars do not necessarily stem from conflicts between individual leaders but more often than not involve deeper-going issues. So knocking off a particular leader wouldn’t necessarily put the matter to rest.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That said, many armies DO exercise a modified form of the decapitation strategy, targeting officers whenever possible. Which is why you don’t salute officers in a combat zone — it singles them out for the enemy snipers.

      And it was certainly standard procedure at sea during the Napoleonic war. Nelson being picked off on his own quarterdeck was no fluke; it was fairly standard procedure for marines in the tops to aim for the enemy quarterdeck.

      1. M.Prince

        Targeting “command and control” in war is one thing.
        Targeting political leadership outside of war is something else entirely.


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