"The weight of knowing that you’ve killed another person: it’s heavy. I’ve seen guys lose religion over it, and I’ve seen guys gain religion over it. Especially … if you are certain — that you killed someone. I know the guys that I hit with my sniper rifle … People I watched die, I watched them get hit by my round and go down."
I’m sitting in a pizza and pasta joint in Colorado Springs talking to ex-US Army sniper Garrett Reppenhagen. After returning from his deployment in Iraq, Reppenhagen became a leading member of Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW). Founded in 2004 and with members in 48 states, IVAW advocates an immediate withdrawal from Iraq as well as the payment of reparations for the damage caused by the occupation.
I wanted to know if, in the course of his war experience, Reppenhagen had seen or felt any evidence of a fundamental human reluctance to kill others, a reluctance that many military trainers believe in and work deliberately to overcome in their recruits.
He knew where my questions were coming from. But he said at once that he’d never encountered any resistance to killing. "You’re so afraid of the enemy that you just toughen up and shoot to kill. Most of the guys I was with, no matter how incapable they seemed, when they were in a firefight, they were putting rounds down range. They were trying to kill."
At the beginning of his deployment the only reluctance he’d felt about killing people had been political, a reflection of his views on the war rather than any innate or biological resistance.
It was an attitude that strengthened over time. "I started being sympathetic to the anti-war movement. I was thinking: this is retarded. These guys are trying to kill us because we raided their house the other night. They don’t hate Americans; they just hate us being here right now."
That attitude made killing harder. But he still did it. "I realised that the people we were fighting were just the resistance against the occupation of their country. So I felt really bad when I killed them. But I never hesitated. When they were firing at me, I fired at them. I was on the red team; they were on the blue team. I wasn’t going to go home dead, and the friends that I’d been serving with for the last three years were not going home dead, and that meant that this guy who I didn’t know was, unfortunately, going to die. That was the way I put it to myself. When I was a sniper on sniper missions, it was much harder. I had to really convince myself that a person — who mostly didn’t even know I was there — was trying to hurt my friends, so if I didn’t kill him he was going to kill my friends or me. But it was a lot more difficult."
I knew something about the snipers of the Great War and the peculiar stresses they’d come under. When the famous Australian marksman Billy Sing had first been appointed, an officer asked him whether he was sure he wanted the job. Sniping seemed a little like an execution: you were killing a man in cold blood, a man you could see talking and laughing, up close in your telegraphic sites. Sing’s comrades nicknamed him "the Murderer", a designation that hinted at the ambiguity of his profession.
In sniper training, Reppenhagen had gone through a course entitled "The Anatomy of a Kill". "It was about what bullets do to people," he says. "How they tumble through the body, what kind of damage they do, the difference between soft organs and hard organs, what happens when the bullet hits what, how to deploy the round earlier so it pulls earlier and does more damage."
Yet when I’d first asked about whether the army talked about killing, he’d said "No" and then "Yes", and then he’d laughed. "We were trained how to do it — but we were never trained what to do afterwards." The attitude to mental trauma was, he said, still very backward.
In his 13 weeks of training with the cavalry scouts, a particular recruit couldn’t cope psychologically — and so he became the favoured target of the drill sergeants. "They took his shoelaces away; they took his belt away, and they put a big orange vest on him with the letters LOS. That meant nobody could ever let him leave their line of sight. He had to be watched, 24 hours a day, because he was thought to be a suicide risk. It wasn’t to make him feel better; it wasn’t to get him the help that he needed or to make sure that he would come around and rejoin the unit. It was to make going down that road of mental illness so awful that no one else would want to follow.
"Instead of having courses where they say: ‘Yeah, you’ll be in combat and you might see some horrible shit; your buddy might die next to you; you might take a civilian life, and this is what you’re going to feel and this is how you’re going to deal with it,’ their message was: ‘Don’t let mental illness happen to you, because if you do, we’re gonna make an example of you and you’re not going to like it.’ It was, like, suck it up, drink a beer, do whatever you have to do — and don’t show anyone that you have a problem. And everyone said: roger, we got it — we got the message."
And what about the practice of soldiers taking souvernirs, trophies of their kills, including the "death porn" photographs of dead adversaries — what did he think was behind that?
"People want to prove that they were there, that they did the thing, you know. But I didn’t see that much of it. Nothing at all with the sniper team. With the scouts, a few of the guys got little things, and I guess there were a couple who took photos of corpses, though nothing where they posed with them or any sick sh*t like that. We had to take photos of bodies for military intelligence, and some of the guys would download copies before they turned in the cameras. Since then, though, I’ve tried to find some of those pictures for journalists, and almost all of my friends — the scouts that are out now — destroyed them, got rid of them, erased them, burned them. It was something that they weren’t too proud about after coming home."
He also told another story. Snipers were trained to shoot for the "triangle of death". "The triangle of death," he explained, "is the area right around the nose and mouth. If you aim there, you are supposed to sever the spinal cord, and then the body can’t operate, so that even if they want to pull the trigger, they can’t. In a perfect shot, that’s where you’re supposed to hit."
Theoretically, sniping was supposed to be a matter of clinical, dispassionate killing. "Even when we were in Iraq, killing Iraqis, it was target one, target two. Target one’s on the left; target two’s on the right. OK, scan target one. Target one’s down. Scan target two. Fire. Target two’s down. That’s it. They’re just targets; you try to convince yourself of that." Imagining a man purely as a target was not easy when you had to aim specifically at him and fire and then watch him fall over, screaming and arching his back in agony, which was what happened with some of the men Reppenhagen killed.
But much of the time, one-on-one sniping — what he called "doing it by the book" — gave way to massive, brute firepower. "When we got in theatre, we tried to, you know, take one shot, hope to kill the guy. But sometimes you hit him and he doesn’t die. Sometimes you miss him. So we started setting up 240 Bravos and M16s or M4s. The sniper takes his shot and, as soon as he fires, everybody else" — he made the rata-tat-tat sound of a machine gun — "opens up and takes the guy out. We stopped getting all fancy about it and just tore them up."
Combat had changed Reppenhagen, too, though not, he said, at his core. "Nobody comes out of that experience and says, ‘Yeah, I’m exactly the same dude’. I think the fundamentals are the same, but it’s changed part of me, definitely."
What were his feelings in combat?
"So much goes through your mind. I mean, I remember I was afraid to let everybody else down. So I just kept going; I didn’t want to be that guy who just couldn’t do it, who dropped his end so that somebody else got hurt. There’s frustration and anger, from being shot at, knowing someone is trying to kill you. And there’s fear. Tons of fear. I’ve been in firefights where the guy in front is laughing hysterically and the guy behind me is crying, bawling his eyes out. I think soldiers have a dark sense of humour to process these extreme situations; everybody laughs about everything, even when awful things have happened. I’ve never felt more alive than after a firefight."
I wondered if he felt the addictiveness some veterans report feeling. "Oh, definitely. There’s a lot of my friends that are just completely addicted to it, and want to go back. All they understand is that the feeling they had there, they don’t get it when they’re sitting in a restaurant ordering beers or standing in line in a Starbucks or working at a 7-Eleven. They say: I’ve changed; the only thing I understand is over there. I hate it, but I’m still going back. And I can understand a little bit of what they mean."
I quoted him the words that another vet had told me — about the far greater intensity of war experiences compared to peacetime existence, and how they gave you a satisfaction that peace simply can’t match.
He frowned. "I can agree with his words but probably not the sentiment behind them. He’s probably talking about single-handedly saving America, keeping his friends and family safe from the evil terrorists. But then, if that’s what he means, you can see why he thinks like that. I mean, we’ve taken human lives. That is a significant burden to carry. And it would be almost better if soldiers could convince themselves about the nobility of the cause, because perhaps then they wouldn’t kill themselves in the same numbers that they do now."
The numbers are indeed astonishing. According to one count, 18 US veterans kill themselves every day. In California alone, more than 650 veterans committed suicide in 2006, with returned soldiers accounting for over 20 per cent of the total suicides in the state that year. "That’s why, when I go to Walter Reed veterans’ hospital to talk to soldiers, some of them — most of them — hold onto a belief that they’ve sacrificed for a good cause. Because that’s what they have to do to convince themselves that they weren’t f*cking shammed, that they didn’t lose a leg or lose their sanity, lose their innocence on some f*cking bullsh*t lie."
He took another slug of beer and then continued. "But, you know, there’s the other side of the coin, with those people who do start questioning what it was about. They have to take on responsibility, take responsibility for having killed for a lie, which is why quite a lot become political activists.
"We’re mobilised by the demons that we feel. That pressure that comes from having done something so horrible — people feel like they need some sort of atonement. I know a lot of my veteran friends are trying to … well, they feel like criminals. They come back and everybody treats them like heroes, but they feel like they’re criminals, that they’re getting away with a crime, and that there’s been no judgement and no absolution for what they’ve done. If you had committed murder, you’d get put away in prison, and then when you got out, you could say, ‘Alright, I did my time; I paid a price for what I did, and now I can move on.’ But it’s not like that for these guys."
"That’s why, for many, joining the [anti-war] movement is so important: they won’t quit; they don’t sleep; all they do is organise. I know a lot of veterans who aren’t even political who go just full-blown with veterans’ issues to try to help veterans, and they’re driven by that same thing: ‘I’ve got to do something good; I’ve got to give back.’"
This is an edited extract from Killing: Misadventures in Violence by Jeff Sparrow (Melbourne University Press, 2009).