Tragedy of war as seen through a rifle scope * Combat is more personal as sniper pulls the trigger. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 15, 1991|By Chris Hedges | Chris Hedges,New York Times

IN SAUDI ARABIA -- In an age of lasers and computers, of guided missiles and smart bombs, the intimate tragedy of war perhaps seems most apparent when seen through the sights of a sniper's rifle.

"When a sniper pulls the trigger, he can see the expression on a man's face when the bullet hits," said Sgt. Mark E. Anderson, chief scout of the platoon of Marine snipers and scouts breaking camp and getting ready to move at dawn the next day to the front lines along the Kuwaiti border.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of allied troops have been moved north in similar fashion in the last few days, in what a ranking officer called a "shadow-boxing match" with Iraqi forces.

"Saddam Hussein knows where we are and we know where he is," said a battalion commander, who asked not to be further identified. "We will move a lot now to keep him off guard."

The grand strategy of battle meant little to Staff Sgt. Douglas A. Luebke, the noncommissioned chief of the platoon, and his men -- other than that for the first time, they will be called on to go into combat, to do the job many have trained years to carry out. They will crawl unseen within yards of enemy lines and, firing three shots from a fixed position, take out enemy soldiers one by one.

"It is the art of killing," Luebke said. "We have to be perfect."

The snipers said they were trying to avoid thinking of their Iraqi opponents as men with families and children. Several said the reputed mistreatment of American prisoners of war had steeled them for their task.

"The more Iraqis I kill, the less of my buddies get killed," said Lance Cpl. Marlan L. Reaves from Odessa, Texas.

Nearly all the Marines in the platoon come from the country, where they grew up with weapons. They talk about stalking an animal and a man in the same breath. Most are passionate trap and skeet shooters. Their sentences are punctuated by the squirt of chewing tobacco and the insertion of profanity as adjectives.

The work of forward scouts and snipers is usually done at night, when two-man teams creep slowly toward enemy lines, dressed in camel-colored camouflage smocks and wearing paint on their faces.

The scouts and snipers call in artillery and aerial fire and try to kill enemy soldiers who operate heavy weapons like machine guns or anti-aircraft weapons, usually at dawn or dusk.

There are a dozen snipers in the platoon and each moves with an observer who helps locate the target. The two-man teams will lie close to enemy lines, sometimes for a day or two at a time.

They carry M-40 A1 sniper rifles, which they set up on tripods, and precision 7.62-millimeter ammunition.

The Marine sniper rifle, painted steel gray, is simple in design. It has a heavy stock, a thick stainless steel barrel, a mounted telescopic sight and bolt action, rather than being semiautomatic. The simplicity of design, and durability, allows snipers to make all major repairs on the weapon themselves. The Marines wrap black electrical tape around their rifle barrels to keep them free from sand. They carry them in what they call a "drag bag," which hooks around their shoulders and can be pulled along the ground as they crawl forward to their positions.

The only book snipers all seem familiar with -- other than the Bible -- is "Ninety-Three Confirmed Kills," an account of life as a Marine sniper in the Vietnam War by Carlos Hathcock.

"You can't get into this sniper unit if you haven't read it," said Barrett, who has been a Marine sniper for six years.

The bonding of the unit, which will act as the eyes and ears of the battalion from forward positions, is tight. Platoon members are disdainful even of fellow Marines, who in turn chafe at the snipers' arrogance.

Anderson, when he heard he was to be transferred as a drill instructor rather than be sent to the gulf, pleaded with his superiors to get an extension to go to war, even though he leaves behind a pregnant wife.

"I didn't want them to go to war without me," he said. "I had a responsibility to be here. The easy way out would have been to go to the drill field.

"This is my second family."

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