The killing Saturday of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle at a gun range near Fort Worth prompted a call to my office phone from a retired Dallas police officer. He was upset by use of the word "sniper" to describe Kyle's specialty as a soldier, pointing out that "sniper" was never used to describe American soldiers during World War II.
He's right. I wasn't alive during the Big One, but I saw the movies. Snipers were insidious Japanese or perfidious Nazis, shooting from trees and church towers, sneaky bastards, the lot of them, afraid to come out and fight like men.
As late as 1987, when Stanley Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket, the only sniper was a skulking sadistic enemy shooter -- and a girl at that! The VC were little people who fired from concealment. Americans were like the character "Joker," big guys who walked in shooting.
Of course that was never true, because it would have been stupid. The skirmishers who sneaked in ahead of major troop movements on both sides in the Civil War had dual missions -- spying and also shooting any high value targets they could get close enough to kill. America had long-shot killers in towers and killers in trees, too, in World War II, but ours were called "sharpshooters" or "marksmen." Never "snipers."
Until fairly recently, anybody who called an American soldier a sniper would have been condemned for it. During Viet Nam, Kyle's book title would have earned him profound opprobrium from supporters of the war. What has changed?
"Sniper" is Kyle's own word for what he was. I haven't read his book, American Sniper, but the title almost trades on the change in usage, doesn't it? It banks on shock value at the juxtaposition, "American" with "sniper." Somewhere near the top of the book reviews and even in news stories about his death, the writers almost never fail to point out that Kyle felt no regret or shame over his role. It's interesting that the point even needs to be made.
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Why does it need to be said, exactly? If a regular combat Marine veteran of Afghanistan wrote a memoir, would the reviews all point out somewhere near the top that he or she felt no shame or remorse for having fought and killed people in the war? No, not unless the reviewer was dealing specifically with sentiments for and against war.
Otherwise, a typical reader would assume that any soldier sent to Afghanistan was obeying orders, doing his duty by shooting people and generally acting out of courage and patriotic commitment.
Again, it's not the sniping that's new. We always did that. Warriors probably have sniped since the invention of the bow and arrow. What's new is that we now use the same word for it when we do it as when our enemies do it. That is new.
I don't know what the change says culturally or politically, but in terms of straight-up verbal usage, it obviously conveys an equivalency. We do what they do. They do what we do. In that we are the same. At least in the specific form of the shooting, we are not better or worse than our enemies. I don't remember coming across that notion in John Wayne movies. Do you?