What goes on in the mind of a sniper?
Chris Kyle is a sniper, the best in the world. He describes his job:
As US forces surged into Iraq in 2003, Chris Kyle was handed a sniper rifle and told to watch as a marine battalion entered an Iraqi town.
A crowd had come out to greet them. Through the scope he saw a woman, with a child close by, approaching his troops. She had a grenade ready to detonate in her hand.
“This was the first time I was going to have to kill someone. I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to do it, man, woman or whatever,” he says.
“You’re running everything through your mind. This is a woman, first of all. Second of all, am I clear to do this, is this right, is it justified? And after I do this, am I going to be fried back home? Are the lawyers going to come after me saying, ‘You killed a woman, you’re going to prison’?”
But he didn’t have much time to debate these questions.
“She made the decision for me, it was either my fellow Americans die or I take her out.”
He pulled the trigger.
Kyle remained in Iraq until 2009. According to official Pentagon figures, he killed 160 people, the most career sniper kills in the history of the US military. His own estimate is much higher, at 255 kills.
According to army intelligence, he was christened “The Devil” by Iraqi insurgents, who put a $20,000 (¬£13,000) bounty on his head.
Married with two children, he has now retired from the military and has published a book in which he claims to have no regrets, referring to the people he killed as “savages”.
Israeli researchers have found something a little different:
But a study into snipers in Israel has shown that snipers are much less likely than other soldiers to dehumanise their enemy in this way.
Chris Kyle killed an estimated 40 people during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004
Part of the reason for this may be that snipers can see their targets with great clarity and sometimes must observe them for hours or even days.
“It’s killing that is very distant but also very personal,” says anthropologist Neta Bar. “I would even say intimate.”
She studied attitudes to killing among 30 Israeli snipers who served in the Palestinian territories from 2000 to 2003, to examine whether killing is unnatural or traumatic for human beings.
She chose snipers in particular because, unlike pilots or tank drivers who shoot at big targets like buildings, the sniper picks off individual people.
What she found was that while many Israeli soldiers would refer to Palestinian militants as “terrorists”, snipers generally referred to them as human beings.
There were about 20 gunmen escorting a convoy and one of them was unlucky enough to get in the sight of my scope. The distance was about 300m, almost nothing for a sniper.
A few seconds later I saw him lying motionless.
In the heat of the moment my only thought was to shoot more and more. I saw the figures rushing in panic and trying to hide.
We killed all of them, except three or four who were wounded and captured. Afterwards I blamed myself for not being cool-headed enough. I thought that if I had been calmer, I would have killed more enemies.
We were proud of ourselves, but now I am ashamed.
If I was asked today, I would say it’s very hard to kill, but more than 20 years ago I was too young.
“The Hebrew word for human being is Son of Adam and this was the word they used by far more than any other when they talked about the people that they killed,” she says.
Snipers almost never referred to the men they killed as targets, or used animal or machine metaphors. Some interviewees even said that their victims were legitimate warriors.
“Here is someone whose friends love him and I am sure he is a good person because he does this out of ideology,” said one sniper who watched through his scope as a family mourned the man he had just shot. “But we from our side have prevented the killing of innocents, so we are not sorry about it.”