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April 28, 2015

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Sniper’s death highlights moral dilemma

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As Chris Kyle, author of the book “American Sniper,” was laid to rest last week, the sad glow of a lost hero’s aura surrounded his passing. In light of his generous effort to help a deranged fellow veteran who is now accused of murdering him, the burial honors seemed especially fitting. And yet the obituaries and remembrances were universally striking for the way they avoided what had made him famous. As a Navy SEAL, Kyle had been a professional killer, described in the subtitle of his autobiography as the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.”

In four combat deployments to Iraq, Kyle killed a confirmed 160 people; by his reckoning, there were nearly 100 more. In sniper fashion, he shot them from secure positions across various distances; he killed one of his victims, he said, from more than a mile away. Such long-distance shooters occupy a special place in military culture. They can be lionized for their exceptional marksmanship and steely nerves. But it’s more complicated than that.

Everything about war occurs on conflicted ethical terrain, yet the moral dissonance is particularly acute for the shooter who blows away enemy individuals without warning and without any immediate physical danger to himself. The bomber pilot or artillery gunner can maintain a level of detachment that is impossible for the sniper, whose killing technique requires a hyper-personal act of sighting and firing.

Every trooper has to qualify on the firing range, and very few rank as sharpshooters. Snipers can thus be respected for their skill, even while they are quietly regarded by their comrades much as executioners are regarded in civil society — professionals whose work, while deemed necessary, nevertheless generates unease or even unspoken disapproval.

Indeed, snipers evoke a special unease among their fellow soldiers — who, far better than civilians, know the dread of a wholly unexpected death against which there can be no defense.

Enemy snipers and friendly snipers are alike in their merciless trafficking in such death. To be shot unawares from out of nowhere, or to witness such a fate befalling a buddy nearby, is confirmation of an ancient human fear — that the gods are capricious. Malevolence rules. The only response to such cosmic indifference is grim fatalism, which, for the combat survivor, is both a psychological defense and a crippling hard-heartedness.

Kyle described himself as not regretting his kills, but he offered hints of being aware of the moral dilemma attached to his expertise. “I feel pretty good because I am not just killing someone; I am also saving people,” he told a Texas newspaper. “What keeps me up at night is not the people that I have killed. It’s the people I wasn’t able to save.”

The larger point here is that Kyle was up at night. His deflection away from the deaths he inflicted is a normal way of taking refuge in the base calculation of war: If the ends don’t justify the means, nothing does. In his poignant account, the first person whom he shot at long range was a woman. Once he had her in his sights, he hesitated. A child was with her. But he saw that she had a grenade and U.S. Marines were approaching. He fired. “Her intention was to kill herself and blow up Marines. ... Either way, she was going to die.”

If there were other women among his kills, and if any of them turned out not to have been armed, Kyle did not say. Such an outcome is not just an experienced sniper’s nightmare but his tragedy. When he shoots at such a distance, he hopes not just for the luck of the wind but for the moral luck of a target who is, in fact, the enemy.

Now the United States military, along with its CIA paramilitary, is moving into the age of the automated sniper — the armed drone. The public reticence that inhibited discussion of the actual meaning of Kyle’s history pales beside the silence with which the nation — government, media, citizenry — treats the moral threshold of assassination by drone.

Death out of nowhere, inflicted by unthreatened operators, upon designated enemies, who may or may not pose lethal threats, and who may or may not be as guilty as the joystick judges decide. America has become a sniper nation.

James Carroll writes a column for the Boston Globe.

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  1. There are 3 kinds of people who join the military: Those who need a job. Those who do so from family legacy. And those who are looking for a legal way to kill. [Jack Reacher]


  2. Not true, Carmine. I joined for flight training. I didn't need the job, it was a way to serve the country while gaining a valuble skill set.

    Blanket generalizations are rarely valid.

  3. "I didn't need the job, it was a way to serve the country while gaining a valuble skill set."

    Sounds the same just with a slight twist: To get a better job!

    Generalizations have a kernal of truth in them that apply across the board to many instances and cases. That's why they are called generalizations.


  4. It is a shame that a professional, skilled marksman like Kyle has been taken out by a Section 8, neuro-psychiatric patient.

    Kyle probably used the superb Barrett 50 caliber sniper rifle. You can go to to see a Marine Corps training film on the Barrett M82-A1A.

    Mr. Carroll, who wrote this article for the Boston Globe, an Establishment newspaper, apparently likes to lie down with the enemy of the United States. He is therefore committing treason. In a declared war, he would probably have been executed for his treason.

    Since the United States is not in a declared war, but is instead operating under Security Council Resolutions of the United Nations or NATO, Carroll can say whatever he wants and go unpunished.

  5. I would like to read a column by James Carroll on the moral dilemma in starting the Iraq war in the first place.

    The soldier is tasked with fulfilling their objectives to the best of their abilities. When ordered into the middle of a war zone, the prime objective is to stay alive.

    When sitting in the White House the objectives are entirely difficult. What were the dilemmas of Bush while he and Cheney were contemplating war? Neither one of them cared for accuracy, reality or facts. They each had peculiar objectives in mind with little thought to the human costs.

    Evil is a spiritual term, it has no absolute definition in the physical world, but Evil was a central justification in the Iraq War. Evil can always be found, so it makes an ideal cause for perpetual wars, something Bush brought out in 2006. Was there any moral dilemma with Bush in determining what extent of Evil demands war and at what time it is small enough to ignore?

    Vincent Bugliosi puts forward the argument that Bush should be tried for murder. Contemplations on the moral dilemmas must start at the top. When will the dilemmas on the Iraq War begin?