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My grandfather was a sniper

Drawn by my grandfather, Sydney Gunter

Drawn by my grandfather, Sydney Gunter

I wasn’t sure what to make of the book American Sniper or the controversy that seems to surround it. Some are calling Chris Kyle a patriot and the movie about him a “war on terror masterpiece.” Others see his actions as murder and his views intolerant or racist. 

I am very anti-gun and opposed the Iraq war, but yet I was fascinated with Kyle’s story and found myself comparing and contrasting Chris Kyle with my grandfather who was also a sniper, but in a war fought 100 years ago. 

Three days after war was declared in 1914 Sydney Gunter, age 24, enlisted. He arrived in France in July of 1915 and spent two years in the trenches. Two years of wet filth, fatigue, and fear. Imagine crawling through waist deep mud past bloated bodies of men you once called friends now corpses floating in water filled shell holes? The threat of gas and gunfire and shelling was often too intense to retrieve bodies.

My grandfather was an excellent shot and so became a sniper. I’m notIMG_9306
sure if he had been around guns as a child. The Gunters were quite well to do in those days so he may have hunted, however, by the time he enlisted most of the money was well on its way to being spent by my great grandfather on women, gambling, and football (he was the first manager to pay £1,000 for a player).  

As a sniper my grandfather’s job was to protect the men in the trench, provide cover, and kill as many Germans as possible. My father and uncle, now 85 and 92 respectively, only have shards of memories as my grandfather rarely spoke about it. I imagine a Sisyphean pot of images, sounds, and smells just below a rolling boil, overflowing now and then when the act of keeping it in became harder than hearing it spoken. 

The one story he told me was about taking a trench. They started in the early morning under cover of the dark. As they crawled through the bog they were stunned by the absence of gunfire, shelling, and gas and wondered what terrible thing the Germans had in store. As the morning mist lifted they came upon a row of German soldiers with rifles lined up to take the perfect shot that would never come. Each German had his throat slit by Gurkhas who has propped them up and positioned their rifles as a joke for the British. Imagine encountering that? I can’t.

My grandfather sat in trees or lay behind a sod parapet constantly overflowing with mud as it was barely higher than the field itself. He was there whether it was raining or not. Waiting. 

Unlike the weapons that Chris Kyle used my grandfather likely had one shot at a time. He had to shoot and then move very quickly as the spark and smoke and sound from his rifle announced his position to his German counter parts. Shoot. Move. Reload. Repeat. For two years he sat waiting for movement, the glare from the sun, the spark from a careless cigarette or the fire of a German rifle. 

Like Kyle my grandfather was injured by gunfire twice. That he survived both injuries is incredible considering the wounds would have been contaminated with feculent water and there were no antibiotics and knowledge of wound care was in its infancy. Many men died from infections acquired rigging barbed wire or from an infected trench foot, never mind a gunshot wound.

His third hit was directly over his heart. Normally he was a quick shot, but this time, for whatever reason he couldn’t quite say, he lingered just a bit to long and was struck. His cigarette case in his left breast pocket deflected the bullet that would have gone through his heart. My uncle still has the case with the dent.

My grandfather said war was terrible and my dad tells me that he was very affected by it. I’m sure, like Kyle, that he had PTSD, however that didn’t stop his sense of duty. During the Second World War he joined the home guard and walked the streets at night making sure black out curtains were drawn. 

What about Chris Kyle calling the Iraqi’s “savages” and wishing he had “killed more”? My grandfather was in the antechamber of hell for two years. Many of his friends would have been killed by Germans or diseases caught in the trenches. He must have at times has little empathy for his adversaries and I imagine at times he would have felt that the more he killed, the safer his men. Maybe he hated the soldiers he was fighting and possibly the German people too. Knowing he liked to provoke it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he had used choice and inappropriate words about Germans. Many in my family hated Germans. I lost many great uncles between the two world wars, one was killed when the Germans bombed his hospital ship. Not everyone handles the death of friends and family in war with grace and charity.

The psychology of snipers is very complex and has actually been studied. Most are well adjusted during their tours and view their killing as personal because they can see their target, as opposed to dropping a bomb from a plane or launching a missile. How they view what they did later isn’t well known. My grandfather talked rarely about his experiences and how he viewed them after 60 plus years was likely different than in the immediate aftermath.

I don’t see Kyle’s statements as wishing he had killed everyone who didn’t look like him, rather a curt choice of words explaining that he wished he could have protected more of his men. Maybe dehumanizing his enemy worked for him. Maybe he was grandstanding for the book, egged on by his editor or the press.

So how was my grandfather different from Chris Kyle? Confirmed kills, the weaponry, writing a book and profiting from his experience (I’m ok with that), the number of years he had to reflect on his experiences (my grandfather lived to 98), and of course how we look back on World War I vs. Iraq.     

War is terrible, regardless of how it starts. We put troops in impossible situations. We ask men and women to kill. Sometimes the situations we ask them to solve are impossible. Sometimes they return from wars and find out that there is no real welcome home. That they should have complex and frightening thoughts and ideas afterwards should not surprise us. That we should be wrestling with the complex thoughts and emotions that their stories raise is also appropriate.

In my opinion Lest We Forget is always an appropriate reflection. Especially for those who lead us into war.

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Discussion

12 thoughts on “My grandfather was a sniper

  1. Thank you.

    Posted by annelippin | January 21, 2015, 7:36 am
  2. Thank you for sharing. I haven’t decided how I feel about snipers because I feel there are always better ways to solve a conflict than going to war in the first place. I’ve noticed over the years that our leaders who started out as soldiers are much less willing to send in the troops over those who have never been in the military. That says a lot.

    Posted by Erin | January 21, 2015, 8:00 am
    • I agree with your sentiment in the majority of situations, but there are always exceptions. All of Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations had no effect on Adolf Hitler, and produced only empty promises made for strategic effect: keep the world calm while he further prepared for war.

      Posted by bob franks | January 23, 2015, 7:27 am
  3. In going, you do not go for God and country…you go for your buddies. Thanks for sharing your grandfather’s story.

    Posted by George | January 21, 2015, 8:26 am
  4. My veteran sons and I have often discussed the necessity of dehumanizing the enemy to some degree to survive in that “antechamber of hell” that is war. I’ve discussed it with German WWII veterans as well as a couple Allied veterans of that war. In retrospect, both said the opposing sides’ soldiers were the same — but that thinking that way IN the war would have been tantamount to suicide.

    Posted by syrbal-labrys | January 21, 2015, 11:16 am
  5. So thoughtful, and compassionate, thank you for sharing. Unbelievable story about the third bullet above the heart. Certainly can’t say smoking killed him! Where would he be without that cigarette case?

    Posted by koharjones | January 21, 2015, 6:55 pm
  6. Actually Kyle used a varied selection of weapons, and the most accurate .300 Win Mag, was shot from a bolt action rifle, “one shot at a time.” He had fashioned a device that held extra cartridges on his wrist. (This is in the book and shown in the movie.) Your grandfather is also different from C. Kyle in that your grandfather is still alive.

    Good post. Thank you.

    Posted by Robert . | January 22, 2015, 8:14 am
  7. This is just your opinion,we all have one.

    Posted by Bob logic | January 22, 2015, 8:46 am
  8. I’m sure that you are very proud of your grandfather and realize that what he did over the course of his life is the true measure of the man rather than what he had to do during the war. It takes a very special individual to be a sniper and take on that responsibility without letting it consume or change him.
    We have to respect these people for their unselfish commitment and willingness to put themselves in harms way in order to protect all those around them.

    Posted by dtstratos | January 22, 2015, 8:47 am
  9. What controversy?

    Posted by J | January 30, 2015, 1:24 am

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