January 4, 2029, Socotra Island, Yemen
“It’s not personal.”
I say it like it absolves me. This time, I say it while loading a gun. This is just more proof that guilt is seeping into my head. The years of telling myself, “I don’t choose the victims. I don’t order the hits, so I’m not responsible for the killings,” is failing on a subconscious level, one I can’t control. It won’t be long until guilt punctures my superficial barrier and I’m out of a job. I work in the one career where reflection and soul-searching do not move you forward—they get you killed.
I’m not sure why I am being hit with an extra dose of guilt today. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve killed in humble conditions. I’m very familiar with the torturous heat and blood-sucking gnats of the underdeveloped Middle East. It’s because I’m familiar with the conditions I got up early and searched for a spot while the temperatures were still reasonable and the bugs were still sleeping. It’s glaringly obvious that calling dibs gets you nowhere here. The minute the sun crept onto the edge of the horizon, I began competing with the little vampires for the only visible shade in the area.
If I had a sense of humor right now, I could laugh at the irony of being armed with a super-powered rifle capable of killing six-foot men, while having nothing more than swatting arms to combat these minuscule gnats. It’s obvious my flailing gorilla arms aren’t posing a significant threat. They dart in and out of my personal space as if this is the greatest game they will play in their ten-day lifespan.
Even before I let the heat and the gnats get under my skin, I was dreading another day of watching men die. Sometimes, I feel like a player in a pointless game—one that only offers dark options and tragic endings. Even worse, every player I encounter in this game sees himself as a good guy battling evil. We all internalize our convictions deeply enough to willingly risk our lives for “the cause.” We meet on the battlefield armed with our respective talents and physical fortitude and play to the death—not because we hate each other, but because that’s what “good guys” do.
The wars of today are much different than those of my grandfather’s era. Now that country borders are recognized and defended by the United Nations, wars for the purpose of expanding territory have pretty much ended—Russia excluded, of course. Today’s wars are about conflicts in human rights and religion. It’s nearly impossible to know when wars based on social sciences end—and who gets to claim victory.
I’m here because I have flawless aim with a rifle. They tell me I am the best rifleman in the U.S. Armed Forces. It was an admiral who convinced me my talents obligated me to be here. As lame as it sounds, I bought in. Now I’m a compensated killer who doesn’t choose his victims, doesn’t give the go-ahead, and can’t be convicted because of the uniform I wear. I am here, “fighting evil”—that’s what I tell myself most days. Sometimes it works. Mostly it doesn’t.
Right now, I watch the six men I was sent here to kill. I’m perched atop a rocky knoll directly in front of the cave they are guarding. These men are using the cave to illegally retain six American soldiers, and I’m a Navy SEAL whose job is to protect American interests. In short, they “deserve” what’s coming to them.
My job is to get the American soldiers out of Yemen without drawing international attention. This mission is marked as classified. It is one of thousands of classified operations daily sanctioned by the U.S. military. Classified operations do not make the evening news. This is probably a good thing—I’m not sure the six o’clock news crowd could handle the truth. The truth is, every branch of our military now has thousands of professional killers doing hits all over the world. We, and the leaders who commission us, move in secrecy in the private sector when it is in the nation’s best interest. The things we now do could be pulled from a Mission Impossible movie. When the dead bodies surface, we avoid press releases and murder convictions by hiding behind military uniforms and sealing files.
I imagine a kid watching the news with his dad, and after seeing me pick off a “bad guy” with a single shot, telling his father he wants to grow up to be a sniper like me. After all, the thing he just saw me do aligns his real life with his video games.
The father—wanting to abolish the dream of a career path with high risk and low rewards—tells his son I’m not as cool as I look. “He may not even be on assignment. He’s probably a lone wolf gone rogue.” He’d be wrong about the rogue part—home is in the other direction. He would, however, be right about the lone wolf part, and I would take that as a compliment. I consider the isolated lifestyle of a sniper to be a serious upside of my job.
It’s no secret I prefer to work alone—which makes this mission less appealing than most. I’m leading a team of six ground troops who are waiting in the brush behind the cave. They’ll go in for the rescue after I clear a path. It is important I keep them hidden as well. The clever military brass in Washington warned us to avoid detection at “any cost.” Evidently, a treaty the U.S. is negotiating is on the line. I try not to think about what that means. After the Benghazi incident, those of us in the field feel a lot less protected by our leaders.
The ground troops are sitting tight until my signal. When we arrived at midnight to Socotra Island from the USS America assault ship, we buried our scuba gear in protective bags for a later pickup, and set up a basecamp.
The camp is halfway between the prisoner cave and the plateau where the helicopter will land to transport the rescued soldiers out of Yemen. I gave the troops their instructions for the day and moved on alone. Having one man moving through the shadows of the trees trying to avoid detection is better than seven.
This morning, I scouted the area before sunrise to find the best location for taking out the guards. Once I found the perfect spot, I set up the swivel bipod for my rifle and checked conditions—weather, lighting, velocity, and distance—with my N2300. When this hot piece of technology dropped into my hands last year, I named it “Kool-Killer-Kalculator.” I had to change the name after some officers compared the acronym to the KKK. I agreed with their reasoning, so I shortened it to “Kool Killer.” These days, KK is my only companion at the front. It’s my Wilson.
Not every part of prepping for my mission is as high-tech as positioning my rifle and programming Kool Killer. A good sniper knows the importance of having a solid set-up routine that covers everything within his site range. Doing this ups the odds of survival. Before I consider myself to be in a locked and loaded position on any mission, I systematically dart my eyes from detail to detail, looking for any points of exposure. Points of exposure change from mission to mission. For this one, it’s as simple as limestone pebbles.
The white prickly pebbles are plentiful on this rock ledge. To neutralize the risk they present, I spent the better part of an hour gathering up the small loose stones, placing them into a handkerchief-sized cloth I carry, and relocating them to an area five feet behind me. I do not want to jeopardize an entire mission by accidentally knocking a pebble off a ledge and alerting the targets that I am here.
After finishing with the rocks, I studied the weather forecast for the hours I expect to be here. Weather patterns change quickly on the islands of Yemen. Changing locations after setup has been completed can be a critical error for a sniper. If he moves, his mission will most likely fail.
After checking the weather a second time, I used a reversible camera attached to an expandable stick to test the effectiveness of my camouflage. I also planned a quick exit in case something goes wrong. A sniper needs to be able to vacate an area in seconds without leaving any evidence he has been there.
The last thing I did was empty my bladder. I am going to be flat on the ground for hours watching these men through a scope. The less I move, the better. I was sure to pee downwind from the cave so the smell of my urine does not give me away—or attract the wrong kind of wildlife.
The men I am watching are enjoying after-dinner conversation. My Arabic is limited, so I’m not able to catch most of their exchange. They seem happy tonight. I guess that’s a good thing—since they only have minutes to live.
If I have learned anything about myself as a sniper, it’s that I need to get to the killing before I develop sympathy. I do not know anything more about these six men than the others I’ve killed in the past, and I don’t want to. I just want to know how to best position myself to take six clean shots, which “kill order” gives me the best chance of survival, and the fastest way to get out of here when I’m finished.
I’ve done this 127 times in the last six years. I am very aware of my number. The running tally makes for great conversation at parties. Everyone wants to know how many “evil bastards” I’ve taken out. My number of successes also ups my confidence each time I sight another target in my scope. I refer to the men I kill by the order they die—never by name. Right now, I’m watching numbers 128 through 133.
For my professional killing services, I receive an annual salary of $250,000. In six years, I have earned 1.5 million dollars. That works out to be a little more than $11,000 per head. As I see it, I am looking at about $66,000 outside this cave. Many eyes are watching me today stateside. The expectation is high, and I will not disappoint. I intend to earn my pay.