Every book is a journey. Each journey starts from somewhere. Every writer has preconceived notions. These are truisms. The magic happens when the journey changes them and then the writing becomes something special. One part of The Sniper Mind required I find and interview snipers.
In the process of writing the book I used Skype and email to talk to over 100 former and serving snipers. Everyone has some kind of mass media sourced idea of what a sniper should be like. The sniper scene in Saving Private Ryan, for instance focuses on both the tension of the task and the humanity of those on the receiving end of it, on purpose. It’s designed specifically to elicit an emotional response:
The film American Sniper, based on the late Chris Kyle’s book shows both the gruesome effectiveness of snipers as force multipliers and the technical skill that is involved in their craft.
Both the above examples, one fictional the other one factual utilized some element of religion. Religion seems to crop up a lot in the sniper genre and on Quora the question itself, regarding “The Sniper’s Prayer” generated quite the discussion. Inevitably someone also brought up gaming:
So, how do all these stack up against the people I talked to? Do the stereotypes hold? Are Hollywood and game designers getting it right? The answer is yes, mostly. Of all the possible roles a soldier can have that of the sniper is the most cognitive loaded one. Because there are few ambiguities about what is being done snipers frequently seek solace in religion. But there is a further layer to this. The belief system they employ acts like a ritual, taking their minds in “the zone”, the mental state recognized by flow psychology as the optimum configuration for peak mental performance.
In my talks with snipers five elements occurred again and again and they run counter to stereotype:
- Shooting is only a small part of what a sniper does – by definition, of course, a sniper is expected to be a crackshot with a rifle, but the bulk of a sniper’s work is carrying out missions designed to gather information, spot enemy movement and divine enemy strategy. Masters at camouflage, snipers are expected to be able to get to spots where no regular troops can and come out alive. Because they frequently are the only “eyes on the ground” they have to be extremely observant and be able to process information in a way that makes it both meaningful and accurate, irrespective of how tired they are.
- Compassion is central to everything – every sniper has a keen sense of awareness of what it is they are being called to do in an active duty environment. They spend a lot of time studying and understanding human nature starting with themselves. They all share a strong sense of empathy for and connection with the people around them, even though they rarely articulate it. This allows them to ground themselves and fix their own sense of identity.
- Knowledge is critical – if all you can do is shoot a rifle you’re not much use to anyone. A sniper is an interface where the things he knows become relevant when he observes a scene. As a result snipers consider learning as never-ending. The world is a multi-layered construct of information and a sniper strives to learn as much of it as possible.
- Achievements are relative – for people who have been trained to a finely honed edge snipers feel that whatever they achieve, however well-trained they may be, it is never enough. The horizon they measure themselves again constantly recedes as they improve and keep on improving. They are engaged then in a journey instead of trying to reach a destination.
- Friends are important – the popular image of snipers as loners may play well on film but it doesn’t reflect reality. While the job itself accounts for some degree of isolation due to the unique pressures and perspectives it entails, snipers do not shy away from social contact, they are great networkers and they’re good at forming lasting friendships.
These are not the only things I discovered that run counter to stereotype while writing The Sniper Mind. Catch one of the first interviews about the book in the video below.
The Sniper Mind Book Interview
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