EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Of course, when you are a sniper there is shooting.
In the Marine Corps this shooting is done with a custom-made 14-pound .308-caliber rifle with a glass-bedded bull barrel, a Remington action and a 10-power Unertl telescopic sight. It has a bolt that doesn't so much load the bullet as insinuate it into the chamber to be fired, a kind of smug perfection. It has the heft of one single piece of metal, like an ingot.
You ask if you can lift it to your shoulder and look through the sights.
A circle of Saudi Arabian desert reels in the lens, with a bit of scrub hovering there in magnified silence. There is something about it that is intimate and unreal at the same time, as if you were aiming at a thought inside your own mind.
"The first impression people get when you tell them you're a sniper is you're the guy in the tree," says Sgt. Dave Cornett as he puts the rifle, called an M40A1, back in a sealed and cushioned carrying case. "But you'd never shoot from a tree."
On the other hand, there are all those stories your Uncle Louie told about Japanese snipers in palm trees, and there is the ongoing concept of man as the murdering ape, too, so the tree thing lingers. Trees do not figure in this theater. Snipers will be lucky to find a dune, a bit of scrub, maybe one of the little trash piles left by the Bedouins.
Snipers are among the last warriors in the Western world who choose their enemies and not only kill them but see them die.
This is not fashionable, nowadays, as Vietnam veterans learned when they were asked, with triumphal snickers: "Did you kill anybody?"
Sgt. Alvin York was a great American legend of World War I for his sniping. You shoot Germans like turkeys, he said, you start at the back of the column and work up. But ever since bureaucrats and intellectuals started doing most of the talking about war after World War II, this kind of killing has come to seem vulgar, even psychopathic, a coarse necessity best ignored if you want to enjoy the benefits of it, like the making, as they say, of sausage.
It is more modern to press a button and annihilate scores, hundreds, thousands, whatever, with systems, capabilities, all of the euphemisms for the mass-production sniping that is war in the age of progress and technology.
As Jean Cocteau said of World War II, the plural has triumphed over the singular, a tendency Dylan Thomas deplored when he insisted in a poem about an air raid that "after the first death there is no other."
Sniping, the shooting part at least, is about first deaths. Snipers prefer to talk about the other parts. They have learned to do it in precisely the language that bureaucratic intellectuals approve of.
"People don't understand sniping," says Staff Sgt. Mike Barrett. "We're the most misunderstood people in the world. Our primary mission is intelligence, indexing targets, establishing disposition and composition of the enemy, surveillance and target acquisition, determining what's viable and what's not." Indexing. Disposition. Viable.
"We are the eyes and ears of the commanding officer. We carry cameras. We have to be able to draw, do panoramic perspective drawing of what we see. You have to be able to make it by yourselves out there, you and your partner. You carry one meal a day, I never take a sleeping bag, I don't believe in creature comforts. The more creature comforts you have, the less edge you have, and I'm not about losing the edge. If it gets cold, my partner and I, we hot-rack it, you roll up together inside a poncho liner, like you would with your wife."
Of course, there is the shooting too. Sometimes you might use the range of these rifles, well over 1,000 meters, to take out a radar installation. Sometimes, you might kill someone.
There is no fancy language for this part, it seems.
The sniper puts the rifle on his shoulder and his partner studies the target through a spotting scope, calculates the range, estimates how much to allow for crosswind by studying heat waves twitching out there.
The sniper takes a breath, lets half of it out and fires. It can take a full second for the bullet to get there.
"Your spotter is looking through the scope," Barrett says. "He sees the guy's head explode. Vapor."