Shooter Nation: Reading a Pathological Memoir 20 Years After the Invasion of Iraq

Paul Street | March 19, 2023

Dear readers: a Sunday instead of Monday piece this week because I want this to go up on March 19, the exact 20-year anniversay of the criminal US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Sweet child in time
You'll see the line
The line that's drawn between
Good and bad
See the blind man
Shooting at the world
Bullets flying
Oh, taking toll
If you've been bad
Oh, Lord, I bet you have
And you've not been hit
Oh, by flying lead
You'd better close your eyes
Bow your head
Wait for the ricochet

-        Deep Purple, Child in Time

"The Human Values of Comradeship and Love"

Recently in the used book section of the local Mennonite thrift store, as the 20th anniversary of the United States (US) invasion and occupation of Iraq drew near, I ran across a paperback that reminded me of what a twisted imperialist shithole of a mass-murderous nation I've inhabited all my life: Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005), by Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin.

The back of this onetime "New York Times bestseller" trumpets "MORE THAN SIXTY CONFIRMED KILLS" and praises the author for having "accumulated one of the most impressive records in the Corps, ranging through many of the world's hot spots.  During Operation Iraqi Freedom alone," St. Martins Press boasts, "he recorded at least thirty-six kills, thirteen of them in a single twenty-four-hour period."

Wow, that sure was something to write home about.

The back cover features a blurb from "war correspondent" Peter Maas, who wrote a book called Love Thy Neighbor.  Maas praises Coughlin as "one of the best snipers in the Marine Corps, perhaps the very best." 

"Coughlin is less concerned with his tally," a blurb from The Washington Post claims, "than with the human values of comradeship and love," sentiments surely appreciated by the loved ones of the "more than sixty" people Coughlin was "confirmed" to have liquidated.  

A "Promise" Kept: "You are Going to Shoot People"

The third chapter of Coughlin's "autobiography" (ghost written by the author Donald A. Davis) is titled "Thou Shalt Kill."  Here Coughlin says that "I never enjoy taking a life" and then explains how "an experienced sniper ...understands the important fact that he is involved in something larger than himself.  I always knew there was a good reason for what I did..."

No doubt the same sentiment was expressed by some Third Reich snipers as Hitler's armies raged across Europe.  

Much of what follows in subsequent chapters should make an attentive reader question  Coughlin's claim of discomfort with imperial murder. At one point, he relates a curious fear he felt after the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks: "We were suddenly planning for war and I worried that I was going to be left behind while a shooting war was going on." Three pages later Coughlin recalls his relief when his superior officer told him this: "Look, Jack, I promise to let you play when we go to war. I respect your abilities as a sniper.  I promise that you are going to shoot people."

"No Compunction"

The eighth chapter of Shooter is titled "First Kills."  Coughlin brags about his skill in ending the life of an Iraqi soldier "with a black mustache" from 915 yards away:

"Two seconds after I locked the crosshairs on him, I took a breath, partially exhaled and gently squeezed the trigger.  Almost instantly my 173-grain round of Lake City Match ammunition exploded in his chest, and he spun around and was thrown backward as if slammed by an invisible baseball bat. He was dead, my first kill of Operation Iraqi Freedom."

There's nothing like the first. First kill, fist love.

A second "kill" follows quickly, described as follows:  "I felt, more than saw, the picture in my scope change, as if a cushion of air were being displaced, and a man's head came slowly around the corner. Ear, cheek, eye, nose.  I fired, and his head snapped back sharply as he was blown off the building. Game over."

A fond memory. "Violent supremacy works just fine for me," Coughlin explains later on the same page.

On page 150 of Shooter, Coughlin says this about one of the many victims he dispatched on behalf of "something larger than himself": "I smoke-checked him, bam, and he was dead, his body twitching for a few more moments while his internal systems shut down."

Later in his text, Coughlin recalls shooting an Iraqi twice from behind, adding that "I have no compunction about shooting a man in the back."

Oxford Languages Online Dictionary defines compunction as "a feeling of guilt or moral scruple that prevents or follows the doing of something bad."

Something Bigger: The Criminal, Mass Murderous and Petro-Imperialist Invasion of Iraq

Shooter goes on and on like this, with Coughlin explaining that killing is not fun but claiming that his "deadly craft" is a necessary part of "something bigger than himself." 

This raises a question: what exactly was this "something larger" that gave him "a good reason for what I did"?

Answer: the monumentally criminal and mass-murderous US petro-imperialist invasion of Iraq.  Ordered by the demented messianic militarist George W. Bush and carried out by commanders and  troops who referred to Iraqis in racist terms as "hajis," "towel heads," "camel jockeys," "sand niggers" and the like, it was sold to the US populace on thoroughly and crassly false pretenses. The initial Goebbels-worthy Big Lies claimed without evidence that Iraq possessed a vast stock of "weapons of mass destruction" that posed a menace to  the West and that Saddam Hussein's regime was allied with al Qaeda and involved in 9/11.  A subsequent equally fantastic and openly deceitful pretext claimed that Washington invaded to export freedom and democracy to Iraq.

The commanders had a curious term for the many Iraqi civilians they would die during so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom: "bug-splat."

"Their Sons and Daughters Killed in Fallujah"

In a fall 2006 foreign policy speech he gave to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs on the eve of announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the "vacuous to repressive neoliberal" and "deeply conservative" US Senator and vapid narcissist  Barack Obama had the cynical audacity to say the following to back his claim that U.S. citizens supported "victory" in Iraq: "The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah."

What cynicism. It was a spine-chilling selection of locales. In 2004, the ill-fated city was the site of colossal U.S. war atrocities, crimes including the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city by the U.S. military in April and November. By one account, "Incoherent Empire," Michael Mann wrote:

"The U.S. launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November of 2004 ... [using] devastating firepower from a distance which minimizes U.S. casualties. In April ... military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted ... insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly... [reflecting an] intention to kill civilians generally. ... In November ... [U.S.] aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties. U.S. forces then went through the city, virtually destroying it. Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin's Russian troops had razed it to the ground."

The "global policeman's" deployment of radioactive ordnance (depleted uranium) in Fallujah created an epidemic of infant mortality, birth defects, leukemia and cancer there.

Fallujah was just one especially graphic episode in a broader arch-criminal invasion that led to the premature deaths of at least 1 million Iraqi civilians and left Iraq as what Tom Engelhardt called "a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory." It reflected the same callous mindset behind the Pentagon's early computer program name for ordinary Iraqis certain to be killed in the 2003 invasion, which commenced exactly twenty years ago: "bug-splat." Uncle Sam's petro-imperial occupation led to the death of at least 1 million Iraqi "bugs" (human beings). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in December 2007, "Iraq has been killed. ... [T]he American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century."

"Always for Laughs"

Along with death came the ruthless and racist torture. In an essay titled "I Helped Create ISIS," Vincent Emanuele, a former U.S. Marine, recalled his enlistment in an operation that gave him nightmares more than a decade later:

"I think about the hundreds of prisoners we took captive and tortured in makeshift detention facilities. ... I vividly remember the marines telling me about punching, slapping, kicking, elbowing, kneeing and head-butting Iraqis. I remember the tales of sexual torture: forcing Iraqi men to perform sexual acts on each other while marines held knives against their testicles, sometimes sodomizing them with batons. ... [T]hose of us in infantry units ... round[ed] up Iraqis during night raids, zip-tying their hands, black-bagging their heads and throwing them in the back of HUMVEEs and trucks while their wives and kids collapsed to their knees and wailed. ... Some of them would hold hands while marines would butt-stroke the prisoners in the face. ... [W]hen they were released, we would drive them from the FOB (Forward Operating Base) to the middle of the desert and release them several miles from their homes. ... After we cut their zip-ties and took the black bags off their heads, several of our more deranged marines would fire rounds from their AR-15s into their air or ground, scaring the recently released captives. Always for laughs. Most Iraqis would run, still crying from their long ordeal."

The award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh told the ACLU about the existence of classified Pentagon evidence files containing films of U.S. soldiers sodomizing Iraqi boys in front of their mothers behind the walls of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. "You haven't begun to see [all the] ... evil, horrible things done [by U.S. soldiers] to children of women prisoners, as the cameras run," Hersh told an audience in Chicago in the summer of 2014.

A Snuff Memoir

Coughlin naturally bought all the preposterous pretexts give for the illegal invasion and occupation. Maybe his schoolteacher ex-wife did not.  Near the end of Shooter, the author ruefully notes that she had something interesting for him to sign when he returned from Iraq: divorce papers. It's the one decent thing in the book.

It's disgusting that Shooter ever became a "New York Times bestseller." The book is an imperialist snuff memoir pretending to justify the systematic slaughter of human beings who dared to resist the criminal invasion of their country by an imperialist Superpower located half away across the world.

It was strange to run across this perverse memoir just days before the 20th anniversary of the invasion: March 19.  I was personally never the same after I watched that noxious butcher  George W. Bush walk down the White House red carpet to announce his sick war on Mesopotamia. "Normal" career pursuits died for me on that day. That "We the People" did not immediately bring this vicious imperialist country to a wrenching halt in the name of something "bigger than" ourselves as individuals – humanity, justice, livable ecology, the common good – is a great disgrace.



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