Ukraine, a sniper mission and the myth of the ‘good assassination’ | ET REALITY


What you need to understand about a sniper mission is that from the moment it starts to the moment it ends, everything you do is meant to kill another human being.

But almost no one says that. So it was a bit surprising when, standing on the steps of a half-destroyed building in southern Ukraine, in the middle of a mission with a Ukrainian sniper team, a soldier decided to explain to me his moral calculations in killing Russian troops.

He was saying the quiet part out loud.

The front line was about a mile away. The snipers looked through their rifle scopes, waiting for something or someone to move. Machine gun fire echoed in the distance. I was hungry and ate a cold chicken nugget bought at a gas station many hours before.

We had been awake since 3 a.m., when a New York Times colleague and I piled into two trucks with the sniper team and drove for about an hour (though it seemed like much longer) over rough back roads and broken bridges to the line. from the front. .

Thirteen years earlier, as a U.S. Marine corporal, he had led a sniper team of seven Marines and a Navy corpsman in southern Afghanistan.

That was probably the only reason the Ukrainian snipers agreed to take me with them. They trusted that I had done it and that, even with the language barrier, I understood what was going on around me: work orders, setting up a hideout, the quiet monotony and flurry of activity that comes with staring at the same place for hours. or days with a rifle designed specifically for long-range killing.

The soldier on the ladder, a Ukrainian sniper who chose to use his call sign, Raptor, looked especially tired as he explained. He had practiced competitive shooting before the war and had become an expert at shooting paper and steel targets.

Now it was different: he was shooting people. At such long ranges, it took several seconds for the bullet to find its way through the air to fabric and then flesh. Long enough for the rifle’s recoil to dissipate and his watchful eye to readjust on the sights, framing the spectacle of his own violence.

“I’m not proud of this,” Raptor began in deliberate English.

Tired and cautious not to strangle what he had to say, I didn’t dare take notes. Only after speaking, I wrote something down: “Killing someone… I’m not proud of this.”

Violence in any conflict is processed differently by those who are involved and those who are not. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been characterized by its sheer brutality (including bombed-out cities and mass graves) and how much of the world has accepted wholesale death and destruction.

Casualty figures (inflated, closely guarded and impossible to verify) are exchanged like sports scores between kyiv and Moscow. Snuff videos of fighters killed by drones, gunfire and artillery circulate as a digital snapshot of the action on the battlefield.

None of that changes the reality that entire generations in Ukraine and Russia are being decimated in death after death.

As in any war, to cushion the effects of their own violence, those fighting resort to the hierarchical imperatives of modern military service. Ukrainian soldiers also realize that losing the war is losing their country to an invader.

“We kill not because we are cruel, but because it is our order, our duty,” Raptor said.

His reflection had a level of clarity that had taken me years to find. How could he talk about pride and duty in the middle of the act? There was no time for that here, in the middle of a war.

But Raptor was in front of me, struggling with something we dared not talk about in Afghanistan. He was breaking the fourth wall.

“I think about the people on the other side,” he said. “They may not want to be here, but they are here.”

Raptor was making his way into the topic that sniping cultures often avoid. Rarely during my deployment did I stop to think about the Taliban. At least in a conversation. We conditioned ourselves that the Taliban were objectives and little else. Our time revolved around killing them as they killed us and before they killed us more.

It would take me years to realize how indoctrinated we all were. Raptor already understood (at least enough to articulate his findings to a stranger on a staircase amidst the thud of distant artillery strikes) that he was killing a human being and trying to explain why.

“I don’t want to kill, but I have to. I’ve seen what they’ve done,” Raptor continued, his own moral and martial purpose tied to the atrocities Russian forces had committed during the war. For Raptor, the reason for pulling the trigger was clear. For me and my comrades, all these years later, the reason we choose to kill may still elude us.

We find ourselves in the middle of an ill-considered counterinsurgency strategy, propping up a corrupt government that collapsed almost as soon as the United States left. We were protecting each other. That became a binding ideology, all the clarity we could muster into the puzzle our politicians in Washington handed us. We walked exhausted, mouthing our words, until our tours ended and we were discharged.

Now we feel uncomfortable about our own murders, aware of the details and violence we committed under the bright banners of “nation-building” or “winning hearts and minds,” or whatever our officers told us as they changed seasons. In the shadow of our failures, our silence hangs over everything.

It was hard not to feel jealous of Raptor and his team, especially after my lost war. There was the trap, the dizzying seduction of the “good death.”

The Raptor’s mission ended at nightfall without a single shot being fired. And after another hour-long drive, we pulled into the parking lot of the same gas station where I had ordered my chicken nuggets that morning. The sky was an oily black. The only light in the rest stop filtered through the cracks in the sandbags that protected its windows.

Raptor and the rest of the sniper team asked us if we wanted dinner. They then apologized, in the manner of tired merchants who had not done their work, for a day without killing.

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