Skip to comments.Requiem for a Sniper
Posted on 05/27/2002 7:44:48 AM PDT by Slam
AMERICANS SLOW TO RECOGNIZE VALOR OF 'MURDER INC.'
The academics write their mighty histories. The politicians dictate their memoirs. The retired generals give their speeches. The intellectuals record their ironic epiphanies. And in all this hubbub attending wars either lost or won, the key man is forgotten - the lonely figure crouched in the bushes, wishing he were somewhere else: the man with the rifle.
Such a man has just died, and his passing will be marked elsewhere only in small, specialized journals with names such as Leatherneck and Tactical Shooter and in the Jesuitical culture of the Marine Corps, where he is still fiercely admired.
And in some quarters, even that small amount of respect will be observed with skepticism. After all, he was merely a grunt. He fought in a bad war. But, worst of all, he was a sniper.
Gunnery Sgt. (Ret.) Carlos N. Hathcock II, USMC, died Feb. 22 (1999) at 57 in Virginia Beach, Va., after a long decline in the grip of the only enemy he wasn't able to kill: multiple sclerosis. In the end, he didn't recognize his friends. But he had quite a life. In two tours in the 1960s, he wandered through the Republic of South Vietnam, and with a rifle made by Winchester, a heart made by God and a discipline made by the Marine Corps, he stalked and killed 93 of his country's enemies. And that was only the official count.
It's not merely that Vietnam was a war largely without heroes. It's also that the very nature of Hathcock's heroism was a problem for so many. He killed, nakedly and without warning. The line troops called him ''Murder Inc.'' behind his back. When they kill, it's in hot blood, in a haze of smoke and adrenaline.
But the sniper is different. He reduces warfare to its purest element, the destruction of another human being. He learns things no man can learn - how it looks through a scope when you center-punch an enemy at 200 yards, and how it feels - but he learns them at the risk of his own possible exile from the community.
Maybe Hathcock never cared much for the larger community, but only the Marine Corps and its mission. ''Vietnam,'' he told a reporter in 1987, ''was just right for me.''
And one must give Hathcock credit for consistency: In all the endless revising done in the wake of our second-place finish in the Southeast Asia war games, he never reinvented himself or pretended to be something he wasn't. He remained a true believer to the end, not in his nation's glory or its policies, but in his narrower commitment to the Marine code of the rifle. He was salty, leathery and a tough Marine Corps professional NCO, even in a wheelchair. His license plate said it: SNIPER.
''Hell,'' he once said, ''anybody would be crazy to like to go out and kill folks. . . . I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're going to kill a lot of these kids. That's the way I look at it.''
Though he was known for many years as the Marine Corps' leading sniper - later, a researcher uncovered another sniper with a few more official kills - he took no particular pleasure in the raw numbers.
''I'll never look at it like this was some sort of shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal,'' he once said.
The only decoration for valor that he won was for saving, not taking, lives. On his second tour in Vietnam, on Sept. 16, 1969, he was riding atop an armored personnel carrier when it struck a 500-pound mine and erupted into flames. Hathcock was knocked briefly unconscious, sprayed with flaming gasoline and thrown clear. Waking, he climbed back aboard the burning vehicle to drag seven other Marines out. Then, ''with complete disregard for his own safety and while suffering excruciating pain from his burns, he bravely ran back through the flames and exploding ammunition to ensure that no Marines had been left behind,'' according to the citation for the Silver Star he received in November 1996 after an extensive letter-writing campaign by fellow Marines had failed to win him the Medal of Honor for his exploits with a rifle.
He was equally proud that as a sniper-platoon sergeant on two tours, no man under his command was killed. ''I never lost a person over there,'' he told a visiting journalist in 1995. ''Never lost nobody but me, and that wasn't my fault.''
Hathcock was an Arkansan, from a dirt-poor broken home, who joined the Marine Corps at 17. He qualified as an expert rifleman in boot camp and began quickly to win competitive shooting events, specializing in service-rifle competition.
He went to Vietnam in 1965, but it was six months before the Marines learned the value of dedicated sniper operations and a former commanding officer built a new unit around his talents. Hathcock took no liberty, no days off, and toward the end of his first tour finally was restricted to quarters to prevent him from going on further missions.
After the war, he suffered from the inevitable melancholy. Forced medical retirement from the Corps in 1979 - he had served 19 years, 10 months, 5 days - led to drinking problems and extended bitterness. The multiple sclerosis, discovered in 1975, certainly didn't help, and burns that covered 43 percent of his body made things even more painful. But what may have saved his life was the incremental recognition that came his way. His biography, Marine Sniper, written by Charles Henderson, was published in 1985. It sold more than half a million copies.
He authorized a poster that showed him in full combat regalia, crouched over his Model 70 Winchester, his face blackened, his boonie cap scrunched close to his head, the only identifier being a small sprig of feather in its band. In fact, a long-range .308-caliber ammunition was sold as ''White Feather,'' from the Vietnamese Long Tra'ng, his nickname. He appeared in several videos, where he revealed himself to be a practically oriented man of few but decisive words, with a sense of humor dry as a stick. He inspired several novels and at least two non-fiction books, and his exploits made it onto TV, where a JAG episode featured a tough old Marine sniper.
Finally, and perhaps best of all, he ascended to a special kind of Marine celebrity. The Corps honors its best marksman with the annual Carlos Hathcock Award. A Marine library in Washington, D.C., has been named after him, and a Virginia Civil Air Patrol unit named itself after him. In 1990, a Marine unit raised $5,000 in donations to fight multiple sclerosis and presented it to him at his home. They brought it to him the Marine way: They ran 216 miles from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Virginia Beach.
According to the account in the Norfolk (Va.) Virginian-Pilot, the old sniper told the men, ''I am so touched, I can hardly talk.''
In the end, he could not escape the terrible disease that had been discovered in 1975. But death, with whom he had an intimate relationship, at least came to him quietly - as if out of respect.
We will never forget you Carlos.
To a few good FRiends.
A cheesy tribute totally unbefitting of such a great man (I saw that episode: it was bad). But that's not the point. He was a hero.
The Marine Corp snipers were the most deadly and cost effective weapon used in Nam. This is why the brass ignored them and tried bury their accomplishments.
A friend of mine did 3 tours as a LARP sniper with the Corp in Nam. He had bounties on his head from the Viet Cong, the ChiComs and the Russians. He never talks about his actions and accomplishments. The three bounties say all that is needed be said. The enemies knew how effective he was.
He has my vote for The Congessional Medal of Honor.