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The Way of the Sniper

By Rick Telander in Men’s Journal.

There is a decision you must make. The world is vast and unstructured. In it, things move seemingly at random. There comes a narrowing, a focusing, as the aperture reduces and reduces. The act, combined with training and skill and vision and, yes, philosophy, leads to a gradual, noiseless ratcheting down and down, like ripples in a pond going backward toward the pebble, closer and closer, smaller and smaller, the chaos dissipating into a tiny center of detailed clarity. And then the trigger.

Scott Tyler has been out of the Navy Seals for two years, but you don’t simply forget what you did best. And what he did best, other than lead men in high-stakes combat, was aim a high-caliber, long-range rifle at a “target,” be that machine, structure, or, most relevantly, a man, and, in Tyler’s words, “take it out.” That is what snipers do. Their craft – a part of warfare since the emergence of the Kentucky rifle during the American Revolution and in some ways even further back, to whenever the first accurate, long-distance bow shooter or rock thrower appeared – might seem outdated in an era of smart bombs and computer-controlled drones. But that is not the case. In the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq, where the sporadically appearing plainclothes enemy might be far away, amid protective rocks, or close-up amid innocent citizens, stealth killing and accurate killing – the sniper’s trademarks – are essential.

To shoot a man from a distance is a fascinating, awe-inspiring thing. It is nearly mythic in its godlike bequeathal of power. You are here, and he is there, and the connective and intensely private embrace is one of death. The two parties are linked by the flight of a tiny projectile traveling at supersonic speed, arriving to do its work well before the sound does and a moment after the powder flash and smoke are visible. To see that brief flash and to recognize, if only for a millisecond, that you will be the recipient of the explosive message, after which you will cease to exist, must be among the more horrifying recognitions there is. If the chamber noise is reduced and the blast light dulled (Tyler and the men he directed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines generally used silencers or suppressors on the barrels of their rifles), the impact – a far-off head exploding, an arm abruptly detached, a body suddenly pierced by an invisible drill – occurs in a world without context or reason for the enemy, and is therefore not just terrifying but dispiriting.

“Long-range target interdiction: That’s the two-dollar phrase,” says Tyler, who sometimes speaks so quietly that you find yourself studying his lips. “In a conventional war you’re on the battlefield, and if you look over and your buddy’s head blows up and then you see another friend go down, it freaks you out. It demoralizes you; it makes you question things. It’s a psychological thing. You, as a sniper, try for the highest-ranking person, if you can, to create that chaos. But in an insurgency, as we have now, when the enemy comes out in ones and twos, sometimes right in the cities, without ever being a big force, it’s all ambush. So it can be better to have snipers rather than a man on every corner. A sniper team can stay hidden.”

Tyler now works when he can as a security consultant – a job that still takes him to hot spots such as Somalia and Iraq. His company, Qaletaqa Corps, works with various governments, tracking down terrorists and war criminals, and with private companies, planning logistics for their personnel traveling to volatile regions, sometimes even accompanying them. He was also recently featured in a short-lived reality show on NBC called ‘The Wanted.’ In that show, Tyler and three other specialists tracked down alleged terrorists and killers now living freely in other countries. Instead of a rifle, Tyler carried a passport and a camera. The trouble with the show was it made no final sense. The evildoers had found legal loopholes so they could live openly, and Tyler sure as hell couldn’t go to, for instance, Norway, where the first episode occurred, and blast a dude from half a mile away. Though that would have been something.

At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Tyler is modestly sized, if muscular, with thick blacksmith hands, dark hair showing flecks of gray, and green eyes, one of which – the left – bears a birthmark that sometimes lends that iris a golden hue. Maybe the defect is actually a gift, because Tyler has 20/20 vision in his right eye but 20/15 in the left.

That’s not the only unusual thing about Tyler, 36, a man who likes to meditate and contemplate big philosophical issues, such as the meaning of life. “People expect him to be so macho,” says his mother, Kate, a former hippie who made jewelry and traveled about with her son in a lime-green school bus in southern California before settling down with second husband Darrol Rice in Rio Linda. “They expect that of a sniper. But he’s so thoughtful, so open to suggestions, so concerned about others. When he was a little boy, he found five dollars on the playground, and he turned it in. When he went to sign up for the Marines, I thought we were going to the mall so he could hit me up for comic books.”

He was 18 then, in 1991, coming off a restless high school career. (He was kicked out after spending more time surfing than studying, but eventually earned his GED.) He served a tour in Somalia, got out in 1996, and enrolled at the University of California–Berkeley. The elite, famously liberal school wasn’t exactly clamoring for a surfer-dropout-turned–G.I. Joe, but Tyler cajoled military officials into writing him letters of recommendation. He settled on chemistry as his major, “because chemistry had kicked my ass” in some early classes there, and he wasn’t backing down from it again. After a year he had a 3.8 GPA, but his view of life from the chemistry lab was not fulfilling.

He had had a dream: He would continue on to medical school, become a doctor, and, rifle hanging in the back of his truck, work on an Indian reservation, where he would save lives while hiking into the roughest terrain. “I wanted to help people,” he says. “But I was managing an apartment building and spending 80 to 90 hours a week studying. For what? So I could spend 80 to 90 hours a week studying in med school? I wanted to learn – knowledge for knowledge’s sake – but it was all so competitive for no reason, so full of backstabbing, just a meat grinder. I looked out the windows of the lab, and there were the hills. And I knew I wanted to be back around people I liked being around.”

So he switched his major to cognitive science – “why we think what we think,” he says – and began hanging out with professors, “talking and trying to learn from them.” One afternoon, Tyler and I visit his favorite professor at Berkeley, a cheerful man named John Matsui, the head of the scholars program in the department of integrative biology. As we sit in the campus coffee shop, Matsui says with something like awe, “I never had a student like Scott before. I knew you were intelligent. I saw that you would never quit. Your story was… different. Coming to school the way you did. Your desire to learn.”

Even so, after he graduated in 2000, Tyler had had enough of school, and he felt himself drawn back to the military, but this time in more of a thinking role. He joined the navy to become a SEAL, one of those supersoldiers trained not only to fight on sea, on land, or in the air, but also to operate more independently. “I wanted to work in as small a unit as possible,” he says. “I wanted to take all my determination, intentions, and skill and deliver it as precisely as I could – on the tip of a single bullet.”

And that is how a sniper was born.

Part of being a great sniper is having the ability, the mind-set, to blend in, to disguise oneself, to become part of the landscape, to feel and react like soil, like leaves blowing in the wind. In The Ultimate Sniper, a technical guide for advanced snipers that Tyler references again and again, there is a section on Ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that are designed to resemble the surrounding landscape. “A properly made Ghillie suit so well conceals the wearer that it never fails to impress first-time viewers,” writes the author, retired army special forces major John L. Plaster. At sniper school, when an instructor talks about the suits, the point is reinforced when, after a spell, an innocuous part of the ground in front of the recruits slowly rises up and becomes human.

“The most important thing about a Ghillie suit is that you can attach other things to it,” says Tyler. “It has loops everywhere, and you gather whatever’s in your environment – leaves and grass and branches – and tape or string or zip-tie them on. It’s a layman’s myth that you cover yourself with burlap and you look like Chewbacca and that’s that.”

Snipers, whenever possible, work as two-man teams – one man spotting with a powerful scope, another shooting. But often even harder than shooting is the act of getting within range. It consists of patience almost beyond belief. There is the high crawl, the elbow crawl, the low crawl, and the sniper crawl. “The sniper crawl is the lowest, slowest movement technique…” Plaster writes, “used when movement must be so slow that there is no visible action to detect. [The sniper] creeps along, only four inches per move, using just fingers and toes to propel himself.” With a rifle, of course.

Then come the difficult decisions. “I liked the cut-and-dry, liked it if a guy had a gun and was shooting at our troops, and we shot him,” says Tyler. “It’s a situation of less ambivalence. Nobody wants to go out and murder someone. You don’t shoot just because you can. You have the trigger depressed and there is that final quarter-pound of pressure, and if you make a bad call.… Well, a ‘bad kill’ can create more insurgents, bad feelings, an international incident. But the biggest thing is, you have to live with it.”

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