January 26, 2012

The psychology of snipers: In new book, U.S. sniper calls Iraqi “savages”


Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in the U.S. military

Years ago I worked as a poker dealer in a small Indian casino in Northern California. It was a three-table poker room with mostly regular players and a friendly atmosphere. One of the least popular players was a man named “Bill,” an overweight man with a grey mustache and a baseball cap who played most days in the low buy-in tournament. He tended to glower and complain, and when he took a bad beat, or lost a key hand he’d call his opponent an idiot, abuse the dealer for “putting out that f-ing river card,” and storm off until the next day. When he won, he seemed to take a special pleasure in sticking it to the loser. There was something almost sadistic about how he enjoyed flipping up a winning hand and announcing “that, if you can’t tell, is a flush.”

One day after the games had all broken up, I was complaining about Bill to my boss, and he told me that Bill had been a sniper in Vietnam. I don’t know other former snipers, and so I can hardly speak to the psychology of snipers, but ever since then I’ve imagined that people who can patiently and intimately select and kill other people must, like Bill, have an inflated sense of self worth, a sense that they deserve to always have the winning hand, and disgust with those who would prove them wrong.

Descriptions of the new book American Sniper by Chris Kyle, the Texas man credited with the most sniper kills in U.S. military history and known as “The Devil” to Iraqi insurgents, seem to back up my sense of snipers as having a deep sense of superiority. Kyle describes the 255 people he killed as “savages” and writes that “Every person I killed I strongly believe that they were bad.” This total lack of doubt reminds me of a line by another Texan, George W. Bush, who defended the record number of executions during he was Governor of Texas by stating: ”Everybody who’s been executed [in Texas] is guilty of the crime of which they’ve been convicted,”

A bit surprisingly, this BBC article argues that snipers tend to be more likely to empathize with their victims as real people.

A study into snipers in Israel has shown that snipers are much less likely than other soldiers to dehumanise their enemy in this way.

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.”

The article also claims that studies show snipers to be “well-adjusted”:

Research in Canada has also found that snipers tend to score lower on tests for post-traumatic stress and higher on tests for job satisfaction than the average soldier.

But wouldn’t NOT having post-traumatic stress as a result of killing people who you’ve been “intimate” with be a sign of psychosis, not a well-adjusted mind?

Perhaps, the article concludes, the psychological impact of being a sniper does not come until much later.

When former Soviet sniper Ilya Abishev fought in Afghanistan in 1988 he was immersed in Soviet propaganda and was convinced what he was doing was right.

Regret came much later. “We believed we were defending the Afghan people,” he says. “Now I am not proud, I am ashamed of my behaviour.”