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Feature Writing No. 2: “The Distant Executioner”
“The Distant Executioner”
Feature Writing No. 2: “The Distant Executioner” [Vanity Fair]
By William Langewiesche (February)
He does not look like a killer. He is a military man, quiet and unassuming. He wears glasses. He is a fervent churchgoer.
Before joining the army, he was a police officer. But the thing about good killers, as Russ Crane acknowledges, is that “you
never know it about someone. You can’t tell it in advance.”
Russ Crane is the pseudonym of a 47-year-old Texan who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an army sniper—a
member of an elite but also mysterious and sometimes despised breed of soldier. In previous wars, captured snipers have
been summarily shot, so powerful is the whiff of malign capability. But today, as the United States fights unconventional
enemies who prowl rugged terrain in twos and threes, the role of the army sniper in combat has never been greater. The
United States now has nearly 3,000 of them. They need no special equipment—just an M16 and a scope. They can
reliably hit a playing card at a range of 500 meters, and pretty reliably hit the same card at 800 meters. A man’s head is
larger. The performance standard is “one shot, one kill.” After taking an enemy down, a sniper may keep the spent
cartridge for himself—it is known as “kill brass.” Russ Crane has collected quite a lot of them. “Personally,” he says, “I
believe there are bad people, and God put people here to shoot those people.”
Russ Crane occupies the center of William Langewiesche’s gripping exploration of U.S. military sharpshooters, a tight-knit
group who believe their time has come. Langewiesche, who has covered war zones for more than a decade, delves deep
into the military history of “handcrafted kills.” He walks the battlefields of the Somme with the world’s pre-eminent authority
on snipers. He reviews the specialty literature and assesses the record of snipers in America’s various wars. (In Vietnam,
snipers used an average of 1.39 bullets for each Vietnamese they killed; ordinary soldiers, spraying machine guns into
foliage, used an average of 50,000 bullets per kill.) And he describes the special culture of men often referred to by other
soldiers as “Murder, Inc.” In between all this he lays out in cinematic detail two set-piece episodes, one in Iraq and one in
Afghanistan, in which Russ Crane encounters the enemy and performs his job.
What snipers do is inherently disturbing. Langewiesche does not flinch in his portrayal, nor does he pass judgment. He
ventures as best he can inside the sniper’s worldview. He explains the effect that a career as a killer can have on a man.
He steps back and considers what the top brass at the Pentagon are planning for its sniper corps—how many men, what
kind of equipment, what level of skill. In the end he comes back to what sniping is all about: an existential transaction that
changes two people utterly.
Vanity Fair’s coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been substantial and sustained. These are the most
significant military conflicts of our time, and their impact—on individuals, on nations—will be felt for generations to come, in
ways that cannot always be predicted. William Langewiesche has contributed greatly to this coverage, with firsthand
experience, incomparable reporting, and narrative writing that doesn’t let go.