Editor’s note: This article was written by Steve Robson, The Mirror.
Bunkered down in the dirt of Afghanistan just months after 9/11, Navy SEAL Brandon Webb watched the sunrise and knew he was in trouble.
His platoon had been sent on a search-and-destroy mission to find the body of a militant killed by a US gunship.
Having trekked through the night, they had reached their location and set up a perimeter.
But the sunlight brought an unexpected twist.
Barely 500 metres away was a cave teeming with Al-Qaeda fighters.
American forces would go on to discover more than 70 of the Zhawar Kili caves which were used as jihadi training camps.
As morning broke, militants were streaming out of the darkness and it was soon obvious Brandon’s platoon was outnumbered.
What’s more, the enemy was heavily armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), machine guns and AK-47s.
Brandon’s lieutenant wanted to call in an airstrike; a nearby B-52 could fly in and drop a thousand-pound bomb called a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), obliterating the camp.
As the team’s sniper, it was up to Brandon to give the coordinates.
The problem was, faced with a nine-mile hike for what was intended to be a short mission, the platoon had travelled light, and Brandon had neither his sniper rifle nor scope.
Using just a compass, he had to send in the precise coordinates for what is known in the military as a ‘danger close’ strike – meaning an attack where friendly forces are within range of the munition.
Only recently, the US had accidentally wiped out almost half of one its own platoons with an airstrike in Afghanistan.
With that weight on his shoulders, Brandon made the call and prayed his ‘guesstimate’ was right.
The first drop was a little too long, but the second was a direct hit.
Describing the aftermath in his new book ‘The Killing School,’ Brandon recalls how “the graphite smell of the blast, mixed with the stench of burnt flesh, hovered over everything.
“There were no body parts, or at least not anything you’d recognize as such. Nothing that large.”
“More like a vague, foul-smelling smear.”
“A thousand pounds of explosive dropped directly on top of you will do that.”
Brandon and his team later received an award for their successful mission.
But he remembers something else much more clearly.
Around 60 seconds before the second monster bomb dropped, the clear sound of a baby’s wailing was coming from the target.
“We just realised ‘wow, these guys brought their families up to the caves with them,’” Brandon told MirrorOnline.
“My son was about to born within days at that point – it just kind of a heavy moment.”
But these are what Brandon calls ‘the realities of war.’
“I was going to do what ever the f*** it took to do my job, protect my brothers, and get my ass safely home to meet my little boy,” he said.
“If I had to kill two people, twenty people, or two hundred people to achieve that, so be it.
“Stack up the bodies.”
“And if they brought their own families onto the battlefield with them?”
“I sure as s*** wasn’t happy about it, but it was their call.”
“I had a job to do: stay alive and get my brothers home.”
As a sniper, Brandon held a unique role in the success of SEAL Team 3.
In many ways, they are the complete warfighter, ‘an army of one,’ as Brandon calls is.
They must be a master of close quarters combat, raids, and captures, of watching over assault teams, of long-range marksmanship and high-risk reconnaissance missions often behind enemy lines.
“The modern sniper needs to possess absolute mastery of all three broad skill sets: advanced assaulter, infallible marksman, and recon operator,” says Brandon.
Operating alone means making life-or-death decisions yourself.
Brandon may sound cold-blooded, but not all of his war stories are as straightforward as that airstrike.
He was once on an overwatch mission in Afghanistan – essentially holed up in a concealed position for hours on end, gathering intelligence on possible insurgents in a village.
“A young man came out with an AK47,” said Brandon.
“I had to make a judgement call right then because my platoon was going up there.”
“I had this guy in my sights, I had my finger on the trigger, and I could have, under the rules of engagement at the time, taken this guy out and it would have been a justifiable kill.”
“But that’s the thing as a sniper, it’s really a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.”
“I decided not to take the shot.”
“Everything about this kid didn’t seem right.”
“Having a rifle in the home in Afghanistan is like having a TV set in the UK! It’s just part of life.”
“A lot of people have them for hunting and protection.”
“It just didn’t add up to me so I decided not to take shot.”
“It ended up working out that it was the right decision.”
“But I think about, well what if it had gone wrong, it could have been terrible, if that guy had opened up on my platoon mates.”
“It’s very intimate when you’re on the other end of the sniper scope.”
“You remember it like a photo frame those situations… you don’t forget them.”
That combination of ruthless steel and compassion was perhaps why Brandon was later put in charge of the SEAL Sniper School.
Between 2003 and 2006, he turned 300 men into the world’s deadliest killers.
“It’s definitely one of my proudest achievements,” he said.
“We looked at the best units in the world like the SAS, the Royal Marines and Olympic gold medal winners.”
“And we thought ‘how do you coach to that level?'”
“For a start, we increased the difficulty.”
“The dropout rate went from 30 per cent to one per cent overnight.”
Brandon left the Navy after becoming ‘burned out’ by the constant traveling and emotional strain.
He now runs his own media company for veterans based in New York and says he wants people to have more of an insight into what it takes to be an elite soldier.
“I wanted to really show the intensity behind the training, but also the human toll,” he said.
Civilian life has also given him more perspective on the strategy of America’s wars.
In the post-9/11 world when Brandon first joined SEAL Team 3, there was a bloodlust for revenge reflected in America’s foreign policy.
But now Brandon wants the public to understand it isn’t so simple.
“You know, a crowd can say ‘kill them all,’ and I think ‘you guys have no f***ing idea what you’re talking about.'”
“I hope people read [my book] and think twice about what we do in the world today.”
“You can’t kill your way to peace.”
“The war on terror – it may be part of the solution but there’s a big part of the strategy in my opinion which is winning hearts and minds.”
“When you send a drone strike to kill half a village including women and kids, you’re not doing a very good job of showing the American way of life to the rest of the world.”
“It’s fostered a lot of hate, especially among Muslim youths throughout the world as we’re seeing – in the UK and in Germany.”
“We need to take a hard look at what we’re doing with our foreign policy.”
The Killing School by Brandon Webb published by Quercus is out now.