Inside The Mind Of A National Guard Sniper

Read William Langeweische's Article For Vanity Fair, "The Distant Executioner"

U.S. military snipers in previous wars were often perceived as spooky by other soldiers. William Langewiesche believes the war in Afghanistan may prove be the war that changes that. He takes us inside the mind of a Texas Army National Guard sniper.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

After the battle of Saratoga, some in the British army complained that American riflemen had placed themselves behind trees and picked off British officers from a safe distance, complaints that continue from Freeman's Farm to Fallujah. Modern-day snipers are prized as perhaps the most effective soldiers on the battlefield, but sometimes regarded -even by their own side - as spooky and strange.

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, correspondent William Langewiesche explores both the special skills and the special torments of snipers and the special role they play in the war in Afghanistan. If you've been a sniper, or if you served with one or come under fire for one, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

William Langewiesche is Vanity Fair's international correspondent, and joins us today from the studios at Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, William. And those of us still digging out here on the East Coast hate you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE (International Correspondent, Vanity Fair): Well, I'll tell you what. I think the weather here is nice and warm and all that, but I'll take New York over Hawaii any day.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you're one of the few at the moment. I think there'd be a lot of New Yorkers in Honolulu if they had the choice. Any case, this story about snipers, you go ahead and profile one. But you always talk -you also talk about their place in the history of military units, where they've been considered that breed apart - yes, on your side, yes, very, very effective, but, well, you may not want to be friends with them.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right. I mean, that was the position of snipers in all armies - that I know of, at least. And I'm not a great expert, but as far as I know in World War I, in World War II, for instance, the snipers on all sides were held apart and somewhat disdained by their own people, and, of course, greatly feared by the enemy, really hated by the enemy and somewhat disdained by their own side.

So that began to change in Vietnam, although still, in Vietnam, they were seen as a breed apart. And now, I think, really, it has changed. They're more integrated. They're seen as being less strange. Individual soldiers are trained more and more to be marksmen themselves and are being equipped to do that job. So as, you know, collateral casualties are - as we attempt to minimize the killing of innocents and of civilians, you know, all soldiers are getting more and more of that training. And so - yeah. Sharpshooters, snipers, in other words, are becoming less strange, less different.

CONAN: One figure you point out that's fascinated a lot of analysts, I think in Vietnam, it was what, 50,000 rounds of ammunition for each enemy killed. Of course, with snipers, it's under two rounds per kill.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Right. In Vietnam, of course - Vietnam was a war fought, as everyone knows, in - primarily in forests. And the tactic that was taught by the American Army in particular, the U.S. Army, was to just spray. So, the, you know, don't aim, don't bother, just start shooting and just - so there was a huge consumption of ammunition, huge wastage, if you want to use that word in relation to killing. Of course, many, many Vietnamese were killed. But we used up a whole lot of ammunition to do that.

The snipers therefore stood apart from that official policy, that tactic, and it made then, you know, yeah, of course, they were hugely more lethal. Again, that's changed. I mean, American soldiers are not, you know, spraying and praying the way they did in Vietnam, and they are now fighting in two countries were visibility is pretty good. I mean, in Iraq, the visibility's limited by buildings. This has been largely an urban war. And Afghanistan is a wide-open countryside war, and you can see far away and shoot far away. So, the basic tactics have changed again now.

CONAN: And with the emphasis, as we were discussing in the previous segment, on reducing civilian casualties, that ability to look through a powerful scope and identify individual targets turns out to be absolutely critical. The man you profile in your story - well, you call him by a name, Russ Crane, not his name. But he describes an incident in Afghanistan where he's looking at some people digging along the side of a road, appear to be placing an improvised explosive device, which has been the Taliban's most important tool of killing, and told his by partner, his father, wait a second. Let's see.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Yeah. I mean, the - Russ Crane, as I call him, is a highly experienced, highly accomplished military sniper, also was a police sniper before joining the military. And he is the real thing. He's not a poser or he's not an Internet freak. He's not - he doesn't, you know, sort of go to gun shows and pretend to be a sniper. He's very quiet. He's very private. And he has been through this a lot.

And as he said to me, the most important thing about being a sniper is choosing not to shoot. I mean, that's the real art. It's not the aiming and killing of an individual at long range. That's a small part of the real skill of a man like Russ Crane. It's the discretion, it's the decision, it's the working with the partner. So, yes, absolutely, in a war like the one in the Afghanistan, the role, the - almost, you could say, the political role of a guy like Russ Crane is increasingly important. It's crucial.

CONAN: We're talking with William Langewiesche of Vanity Fair magazine about his article, "The Distant Executioner," about snipers in Afghanistan in particular. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Mike is on the line, Mike calling from Douglas, Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm on a cell phone. Hopefully you can hear me all right.

CONAN: It sounds pretty good.

MIKE: I'm a former Marine and sniper myself. We pride ourselves on training the world's greatest snipers. And I - you know, I'm sure you all would get quite a few calls about this subject because it's seen as, in some regards, the brutal endeavor. It's, you know, one-on-one and you're focusing in on a target that is a specific individual. But it is a very, very effective tool in the toolbox that the military has, both the psychological, as your guest mentioned. And ultimately and hopefully, you know, we're trained to go after specific targets at times, not just a random individual but actually going into locations where you could, hopefully, hit the upper echelon of the enemy. And in those cases where that can be carried out, it's tremendously effective.

CONAN: And the training, Mike, is - how difficult is it?

MIKE: It's challenging. I was a reconnaissance Marine as well, so that, you know, relatively speaking, some of the other Special Forces schools are more physically demanding, but it's incredibly emotionally demanding. I mean, the school itself is very, very challenging. You have to, obviously, be a great shot and you have to be able to endure - it's truly an individual endeavor. So that you get inside yourself and the strength comes, so to speak, from inside the individual. You're not out there with a group of people. It's you and perhaps what we call an A-gunner or a spotter, and that's it.

CONAN: I wonder. There's a part of William Langewiesche's article that I found fascinating and that is about the psychological impact after the shot is taken and the target is hit. Is there preparation for that in your training?

MIKE: Oh, absolutely. But you can't - you know, I was very fortunate that I was enjoying the Reagan years, principally, and never had the need to fire a live round at a live individual, so I can't claim to speak for that. But the training, as in really, in much of the military, they do everything they can to prepare you for that. And it is all about understanding the one-to-one correlation, not just on cold and calculating, but you know, you make every preparation you can. That's what training is all about. At the end of the day, being able to pull the trigger does become an individual, you know - there's some weight to that.

CONAN: I expect there is. Mike, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And interesting, in your article, you were talking about this person, Russ Crane, you call him, did not get any preparation for that moment when he worked as a police sniper.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: In fact, my understanding is that - and this comes primarily from Russ Crane, but also from other snipers - both in the U.S. and in Europe. My understanding is that however much training is given to military snipers and police snipers - but let's just talk of military snipers - to get them to the point of being able to pull -being willing to pull the trigger and kill somebody, one-to-one, as your caller just expressed, for all of that training, there is no training for the anticipation of the personal and psychological consequences which follow. And this is something that Russ Crane was very strong on explaining to me.

As I said in the piece, he is a devout Christian, and I think that that has - I know that that has had a large affect on his ability to handle this. And also, as he said to me, after the first time it gets easier. So practice makes perfect in terms of, you know, dealing with the -there is the personal, psychological consequences, and of course, an individual is involved.

So - and the other thing you can say about that is that to kill - I mean, what is the effect on the killer of killing, you see, is the question. And this is - comes really comes very strong in case of snipers. To kill in the military in a war zone, on a battlefield of some kind, is easier - even when you can see the other guy and that you're a sniper - than killing in a civilian situation. That is what police snipers do in this country. That's the toughest of all. And Russ Crane killed a woman in the United States as a police sniper. This was the first kill he made, in fact. It was not a military kill, but was a civilian one, and it was extremely difficult for him afterwards.

CONAN: And as you quote him in the piece, that he fully expects, as some as devout as he is that - the day will come when he will have to explain every shot taken and every shot not taken.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Yeah. He has a literal translation of the Bible in mind. And he believes that he will have to stand before his Lord and answer for all of his actions, and that he cannot afford to make a mistake. Now, of course, one doesnt know when one makes a mistake, you know? I mean, let's be honest about this. It's not - if you shoot somebody on a battlefield, you know, there's a certain amount of you're-dead-therefore-you-are-the-enemy. I mean, and now it does appear in his case, that he has not killed civilians.

He has only killed gun-carrying enemies, although it's a little hard in Afghanistan because everybody carries a gun.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: But right. So, but in any case, it does appear that he's such a careful sniper that he has not killed the wrong people. So that when he stands in front of his Lord, the Lord will, you know, bless his actions and send them on to paradise. You know, other snipers will probably have a little less easy time.

CONAN: We're talking with William Langewiesche of Vanity Fair. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is David(ph). David is with us from Forest Grove in Oregon.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, sir. I'd like to say, my experience. I was shot by a sniper in Southeast Asia. And snipers don't always shoot to kill. What they like to do sometimes is wound somebody and hopefully that soldier will yell and scream and draw more soldiers out so he can start picking them off one by one. And that's my experience as I severed three arteries in my leg and I took care of myself, but I didnt scream or anything and no one else was shot.

That's another trick. And I must say I'm glad Russ is a Christian because I am a - became Christian now too, and that's rare for any Vietnam vets that I've ever met. I've got a friend who was a sniper for the U.S. Army in Southeast Asia. And like the guest said, they're mostly quiet, reserved. They don't talk about experiences too much. And if I couldnt do this anonymous, I wouldnt have told you my experience.

CONAN: Hmm. David.

DAVID: Yes?

CONAN: Is your leg okay?

DAVID: Well, I have problems, but unrelated. I've had surgeries on my legs and other issues, but yeah, I can walk. It's not the best, but, you know, I could have been dead. But I just want to bring out the point, you don't always shoot a soldier to kill them right off. They shoot to wound to draw out other enemy.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call and good luck with the leg.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email we have from Nico(ph). And he writes, my music instructor was a scout sniper for the Marine Corps in Vietnam. I asked him about some stories and he told me he wouldnt fire unless the target was over 300 yards away. However, my instructor is the nicest, fun-loving person and thinks of his service as a dark time in his life. Well, you don't necessarily have to be a sniper to think of your service as a dark time. But nevertheless, there's no contradiction between a nice, fun-loving person and being a sniper.

This is an email from Joe(ph). Could you discuss the nature of Predator drones? Are they used as a type of robot sniper? Well, they're not autonomous. They're controlled by somebody who's watching from - but I wonder if the psychology is, to some degree, the same?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: No. I think it's quite different. I mean, and that's we can talk about Predator and your - let's just talk about, you know, a fighter, I mean, an airplane, a pilot. You know, you don't basically -they're not really seeing these people up close. It's all very sort of clinical, it's all very air-conditioned. It's, you know, you're in a comfortable seat. No one's shooting back at you.

It's a very, very different thing from being a sniper, out alone on the side of a mountain and taking out, you know, somebody at, you know, clearly in view, in - the face in view in your telescopic, you know, sight.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: So it's - no, it's very different.

CONAN: Now let's get one more caller in. David(ph) with us from South in Texas, or from South Texas, perhaps.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, sir. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

DAVID: Yes, sir. I was a Marine scout sniper from the - before Desert Shield and Desert Storm, up 'til 2004, saw lots of areas of combat. And the previous caller said, you know, snipers in general like to not necessarily kill, but wound. And that, you know - I know he's talking about the Vietnamese scout snipers, most probably, that are doing things like that...

CONAN: Yes.

DAVID: ...but Geneva Convention kind of frowns upon that for us.

CONAN: What was your experience in those days? Were you regarded as -were you embraced by fellow soldiers or were you regarded as someone apart?

DAVID: No. I was kind of the odd ball. We were all - you know, we -everybody I know that I have served at that sort of function, as kind of a quiet person. We don't really talk about it that much. You know, I just started recently talking about it with my wife. She didn't even know anything about it until a couple of years ago when I started having PTSD symptoms after that, because I had quite a bit of combat experience - short period of time and didnt really talk about it until a couple of years ago and that's when it started bothering me more.

CONAN: Well, David, I don't know what your experiences were like. I would suggest talking is probably a good thing if you can deal with it.

DAVID: (Unintelligible) and we go through it now, but it's, you know, it's like you said, it's a dark day and over 40 confirmed kills, a couple of (unintelligible). You know, it's a lot to hold down -whatever. At the time, you don't really think about it, you know? You can't really think about it. You wouldnt really be able to do it, so.

CONAN: David, good luck. Thank you.

DAVID: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And William Langewiesche, enjoy your time in Hawaii no matter how much you miss New York.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Okay, I'll do that. Thanks.

CONAN: William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair's international correspondent. There's a link to his article "The Distant Executioner" in our Web site at npr.org. He joined us from the studios at Hawaii Public Radio in Honolulu.

Tomorrow, Henry Lewis Gates and his genealogy project. This is NPR News.

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