The Beeb on Sniper Psychology


So we followed some silly link or another to the BBC, where we found the attached graphic: Sniper: Devil or Hero? We suppose that depends on which side of the rifle one’s on, eh. But it certainly seemed like the graphic was an indictment of allied snipers in the war.

The story the graphic linked to, however, is more subtle and balanced than that. Yes, the author, Stephanie Hegarty of BBC ¬†World Service, seemed to be looking for a “crazed, stressed, remorseful snipers” angle, but she reported what she found, instead. The headline of the story is a more-reasonable “What goes on in the mind of a sniper?” and the story riffs off the release of Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper which we link to here, because the BBC did not . (We’re working on the book, no review yet, but we can heartily recommend it over Chuck Pfarrer’s book about the Bin Laden raid).

Kyle shot scores of bad guys and it doesn’t bug him. “Savages,” he says, and doesn’t miss them. (It turns out that it was the Moslem terrorists, not the BBC, that named Kyle “the Devil,”although in all fairness to the BBC, and the terrorists, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the two. Conversely, an Israeli psychologist found that her country’s snipers didn’t tend to put down their enemies — at least not verbally. They recognized their enemy’s humanity, and some of them even respected him. Like Kyle, though, they did what they had to do, and aren’t conflicted about it. “We… have prevented the killing of innocents, so we are not sorry about it.”

The story goes on to note the high standards, rigorous selection, and intense training of snipers in various Western countries including the US, UK and Canada. And they actually managed to find an association of — we are not making this up — traumatized snipers, who have formed a mutual support group. ¬†Lord love a duck. Anyway, read the whole thing.

In actuality, snipers, like special operations soldiers, score low on PTSD because their selection and training inoculate them against stress. Confidence helps; Kyle says “When I face God there is going to be lots of thins I will have to account for, but killing any of those people is not one of them.” A sniper never fires a shot he hasn’t thought about on several levels, and most organizations try to select snipers who are plegmatic and grounded. It’s not shocking, then, that they could do their duty and remain well-adjusted. Contrary to popular myth, there was no great PTSD epidemic among the World War II bomber crews, or submariners whose actions condemned hundreds to watery graves. They did their job, they went home and got on with their lives. That’s what’s normal; the Hollywood “tripwire vet” isn’t.

Some special operations troops are suspicious of the PTSD diagnosis. They see its application widespread among troops who saw little or no combat, and who often had pre-service mental problems. Certainly the physician who promoted the idea of PTSD was an antimilitary activist, looking for ways to undermine the services; that history is well explored in the book Stolen Valor by Burkett and Whitley. But Special Forces and other high-risk military specialties may be suffering lower levels of combat stress (PTSD if you must) because they are so well stress-inoculated in their training, as to leave them resilient in the face of stress.

That resilience isn’t unlimited. In a conversation with a special operations psychologist (a big frog in that very small pond) last year, he described advising a certain legendary commander that specific individuals had hit the wall and needed a break. The commander felt he had to deploy them anyway… and they wound up having issues that imperiled the mission. Commander became a big supporter of combat psychology. As for the guys? After a period of psychological recharging, a stressed operator’s stress levels can be reset. And thanks to stress inoculation, he’s performing at a higher level than the average guy again.

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