What you need to understand about a sniper mission is that from the minute it begins to the minute it ends, everything you do is in service of killing another human being.
But almost no one says that. So it was a little startling when — standing in the stairwell of a half-destroyed building in southern Ukraine, in the midst of a mission with a team of Ukrainian snipers — one soldier decided to explain to me his moral calculations when killing Russian troops.
He was saying the quiet part out loud.
The front line was roughly a mile away. The snipers stared through the scopes of their rifles, waiting for something or someone to move. Machine gunfire ratatated in the distance. I was hungry and ate a cold chicken nugget purchased at a gas station many hours before.
We had been awake since 3 a.m., when a colleague from The New York Times and I crammed into two trucks with the sniper team and drove for about an hour — though it seemed much longer — over jagged back roads and shattered bridges to the front line.
Thirteen years earlier, as a U.S. Marine corporal, I 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 the thing, and that even with a language barrier, I understood what was happening around me: orders of work, setting up a hide, the quiet monotony and flurry of activity that comes with watching the same spot for hours or days with a rifle purpose-built to kill at long range.
The soldier in the stairwell, a Ukrainian sniper who chose to go by his call sign, Raptor, seemed especially weary as he explained himself. He had shot competitively before the war and had become adept at shooting paper and steel targets.
Now it was different: He was shooting people. At such long distances, it took several seconds for the bullet to find its way through air to cloth, then flesh. Long enough for the rifle’s recoil to dissipate and for his watchful eye to readjust in the scope, framing the show of his own violence.
“I’m not proud of this,” Raptor began in deliberate English.
Overtired and cautious not to throttle what he had to say, I dared not take notes. Only after we talked, I jotted something down: “Killing someone … I’m not proud of this.”
Violence in any conflict is processed differently by those involved and those not. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been characterized by its sheer brutality — including cities leveled by bombardment and mass graves — and by how accepting much of the world has become of wholesale death and destruction.
Casualty numbers — inflated, closely guarded and impossible to verify — are traded like sports scores between Kyiv and Moscow. Snuff videos of combatants being killed by drones, gunfire and artillery circulate like some digital token of battlefield action.
None of that changes the reality that entire generations in Ukraine and Russia are being thinned death by death.
As in any war, to cushion the effects of their own violence, those fighting fall back on the hierarchical imperatives of modern military service. Ukrainian soldiers also realize that to lose the war is to lose their country to an invader.
“We kill not because we are vicious, but because it’s our order, our duty,” Raptor said.
His reflection had a level of clarity that had taken me years to find myself. 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 stood in front of me, wrestling with something we dared not talk about in Afghanistan. He was breaking the fourth wall.
“I think of people on the other side,” he said. “They might not want to be here, but they are here.”
Raptor was working his way through the subject that sniper cultures often avoid. Few times during my deployment did I pause to consider the Taliban. At least in conversation. We conditioned ourselves that Talibs were targets and little else. Our time revolved around killing them as they killed us, and before they killed us more.
It would take years for me to realize how indoctrinated we all were. Raptor already understood — at least enough to articulate his findings to a stranger in a stairwell amid 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 went on, his own moral and martial purpose linked to the atrocities Russian forces had committed throughout the war. For Raptor, the reason for pulling the trigger was clear. For me and my comrades, all these years later, the reason we chose to kill can continue to elude us.
We found ourselves in the middle of some poorly thought-out 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 summon in the puzzle our politicians in Washington handed us. We stumbled through exhausted, mouthing our lines, until our tours ended and we were discharged.
Now we’re discomforted by our own killings, aware of the details and the violence we committed under the bright banners of “nation-building” or “winning hearts and minds,” or whatever our officers told us as the seasons changed. In the shadow of our failures, our silence hangs over it all.
It was hard not to be jealous of Raptor and his team, especially in the wake of my lost war. Therein was the trap, the dizzying seduction of the “good kill.”
Raptor’s mission ended at dusk without a shot being fired. And after another hourlong car ride, we arrived in the parking lot of the same gas station where I had ordered my chicken nuggets that morning. The sky was oily black. The only light from the rest stop seeped through the cracks in the sandbags that shielded its windows.
Raptor and the rest of the sniper team asked if we wanted dinner. Then they apologized, in the way of wearied tradesmen who had not done their jobs, for a day without a kill.