Taking a short breather Friday, the 21-year-old Marine corporal explained what it was like to practice his lethal skill in the battle for this city.
“It’s a sniper’s dream,” he said in polite, matter-of-fact tones. “You can go anywhere and there are so many ways to fire at the enemy without him knowing where you are.”
Sniping -- killing an enemy from long distance with a single shot -- has become a significant tactic for Marines in this Sunni Triangle city as three battalions skirmish daily with armed fighters who can find cover among buildings, walls and trees.
Marine sniper teams are spread in and around the city, working night and day, using powerful scopes, thermal imaging equipment and specially modified bolt-action rifles that allow them to identify and target armed militants from 800 yards or more.
Sniping experts -- there are several here with the Marines -- say there may not have been such a “target-rich” battlefield since the World War II battle for Stalingrad, during which German and Russian snipers dueled for months.
As a military tactic, sniping is centuries old; the first snipers used bows and arrows. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been a sniper in fighting against the Holy Roman Empire.
Weapons change, but the goal of the sniper remains the same: harass and intimidate the enemy, make him afraid to venture into the open, deny him the chance to rest and regroup.
The Marines believe their snipers have killed hundreds of insurgents, though that figure alone does not accurately portray the significance of sniping. A sign on the wall of sniper school at Camp Pendleton displays a Chinese proverb: “Kill One Man, Terrorize a Thousand.”
“Sometimes a guy will go down, and I’ll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies,” said the Marine corporal. “Then I’ll use a second shot.”
In negotiations aimed at ending the standoff in the city, the insurgents have demanded the Marines pull back their snipers.
A shaky truce exists between the Marines who surround the city and the fighters within the circle. But the cease-fire allows the Marines to carry out defensive operations within the city, which they define as, among other things, allowing fire on insurgents who display weapons, break the curfew or move their forces toward U.S. troops.
Although official policy discourages Marines from keeping a personal count of those they have killed, the custom continues. In nearly two weeks of conflict here, the corporal from a Midwestern city has emerged as the top sniper, with 24 confirmed kills. By comparison, the top Marine Corps sniper in Vietnam had 103 confirmed kills in 16 months.
“As a sniper your goal is to completely demoralize the enemy,” said the corporal, who played football and ran track in high school and dreams of becoming a high school coach. “I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place. I just got lucky: to be here at the right time and with the right training.”
The military has asked that sniper names not be published. Insurgents were said to have put a bounty on Marine snipers. A website linked to the insurgents attempts to provide information on snipers and their families. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong also put a bounty on snipers.
“If you’re going to be a sniper,” said the corporal, “you just have to accept the things that come with it.”
The corporal was a scout during last year’s battle to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, helping a sniper find a target and align the shot. This year, he’s the shooter, assigned to a scout partner. He remembers his first time as a sniper in action.
“The first time you get the adrenaline rush afterward,” he said. “During the shooting, you have to take care of your breathing. It felt good to do my job, good to take a bad guy out.”
Marine snipers, whose motto is “One shot, one kill,” fire from rooftops in crowded urban areas of Fallouja, as well as explore the city by foot. It sometimes takes hours to set up a shot, as the sniper hides in the distance, waiting for the opportune moment.
The sniper rifle, a M-40A3, is a bolt-action model specially assembled at the Marine Corps armory in Quantico, Va. The scope magnifies to the 10th power. Some snipers give pet names to their rifle, taken from girlfriends or movie characters. The corporal, allowing himself a small laugh, has not.
“I guess it’s the gun that cannot be named,” he said. “It’s been good to me. I take care of it and it takes care of me.”
Marine officers credit the snipers, all of whom are enlisted men, with saving Marine lives by suppressing enemy fire and allowing their comrades greater freedom of movement.
“The snipers clear the streets for us,” said Capt. Douglas Zembiec. “The snipers are true heroes.”
Sniper teams have come under fire and suffered casualties. Marine intelligence suggests that the insurgents -- using Russian- and Chinese-made rifles and optics -- have their own sniper teams, but there have been no reports of Marines killed by sniper fire.
The corporal grew up fishing and hunting -- he killed his first deer at age 12, with a bow and arrow -- and remembers trips in the backwoods of Canada with his father, an academic. Not ready for college, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and gained a spot in the elite sniper school at Camp Pendleton. An uncle was a Marine sniper in Vietnam.
Unlike most Marines, the sniper sees his enemy before killing him. The enemy has a face.
Most combatants get only a glimpse of their enemies. The distance is too great, the spray of bullets too rapid.
But the sniper, with time to set up his shot, sees his victims more clearly through a powerful scope: their faces, their eyes, the weapons in their hands. And their expression when the bullet hits “their center mass.”
“You have to have a combat mind-set,” the corporal said.
Unlike other infantry troops, the sniper has greater confidence that his shot won’t hit a civilian or a “friendly.”
The corporal hopes to get back home by late fall, in time to take his girlfriend to a college football game and go deer hunting with his father.
“When I go hunting for whitetail, it’s for food and sport,” he said. “Here, when I go hunting, it’s personal, very personal.”