Jack Murphy recently had a chance to sit with Chris Martin, author of the Beyond Neptune Spear and Shaping the World from the Shadows series. Jack and Chris talk about the book, Modern American Snipers.
Some would say that the military non-fiction genre is over-saturated, but you managed to write a book that is filled with unique and interesting information about Special Operations snipers. What motivated you to wade into such a crowded genre in the first place?
You can definitely make an argument that the military non-fiction genre is oversaturated, particularly in special operations and snipers sub-genres. But there also seems to be a near-bottomless appetite among readers for those two topics.
But even if there wasn’t, I think what helps Modern American Snipers remain relevant is the combination of the two — SOF and snipers — as well as the particular angle I approached the topic from, which is a step away from the typical notions of snipers.
While the book may seem to be a rather natural evolution following my ebooks about Delta Force (Shaping the World from the Shadows) and SEAL Team Six (Beyond Neptune Spear) that previously ran here at SOFREP, it actually sprang out of the research I had been conducting for a really ambitious fiction series I’ve been working on quite extensively now for a couple years (plus) that is finally close to release.
That series — Engines of Extinction — is set in the present day and deeply rooted in the real world — a military/spy thriller in a sense. But it also revolves around, and extrapolates upon, cutting-edge technological developments, which firmly pushes into sci-fi. It’s sort of a modern-day take on the Manhattan Project that explores a transitionary state somewhere between, say, Zero Dark Thirty and Ghost in the Shell… the former becoming the latter, which we’re starting to see occur in reality as well.
Anyway, the protagonist has a background as a Delta Force recce operator. The more research I did in that area, the more obvious it became that this was something I should also seriously consider as a topic for its own nonfiction title as well.
And the more I looked into it, the more it dawned on me just how critical the contributions of these guys — and other special operations snipers — have been since 9/11, and in ways that go well beyond what most consider the traditional sniper role.
Special operations snipers bring stacked skillsets to the table. Generally, they’re already proven leaders and established warfighters before they graduate to the sniper ranks, which makes them especially formidable. This is taken to the extreme in the case of the JSOC recce guys, who frequently have a decade-plus experience in special operations before they move into that role — one that is as much about low-vis ops as it is sniping.
How did you conduct your research for this book and help ensure accuracy?
That process is halfway between art and science and probably not a million miles removed from the work of a detective.
When talking about events or subjects that already have been covered to some degree — from journalistic reports to first-person memoirs — you have to work like a human supercomputer and synthesize the ‘Big Data’ of open source information available… And there is a staggering amount of open source information out there if you know where to look and how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
When doing so, you have to try to figure out what bias and agendas might be attached to each individual report, as well as get some ideas as to who the authors’ sources are (if not precisely, more generally) and what their biases and agendas might be as well. If you’re able to do that, you start to see a more complete picture and can get closer to the truth.
Moving deeper than that — both regarding topics that have been previously reported upon and those that have not — obviously you have to talk to as many people as you can… people you trust and who are in a position to know. That can be about units or types of missions in general, or from those who have been told things second-hand, or, ideally, from those who actually participated themselves.
But even under the best circumstances, people’s memories are imperfect — eyewitness testimony has proven to be terribly flawed in numerous scientific tests. So you have to make your best judgment based on the totality of these factors.
It’s not easy. Fortunately, I was able to interview a really impressive selection of SOF snipers and other relevant individuals who helped smooth the process considerably.
Which units and/or individuals are covered in Modern American Snipers?
As far as units go, it really runs the gamut — from Delta and DEVGRU to the regular SEAL Teams to Army SF (including CIF) to Det One/MARSOC to Rangers (including recce elements). There’s even some MACV-SOG, FBI HRT, CIA SAD/SOG, and British SBS stuff included in places.
But the major threads really are JSOC recce, SEAL Team Three and the modernization of the SEAL sniper program, and the 3/75 Ranger Sniper Platoon.
And in terms of individuals… man, there are a lot of guys covered.
Not surprisingly, Chris Kyle features heavily. I was lucky to have extensive access to Eric Davis, Chris’ SEAL sniper mentor, as well as Brandon and some others who knew and worked with Chris personally. I also had access to some great stories that Chris told to SOFREP prior to my involvement. We have some stuff in the book that should prove new and interesting to even those who have already read his autobiography ten times over.
Among the 3rd Ranger Battalion sniper platoon — I was fortunate that I was able to speak with a number of guys and trace its history. Yourself, Pete Careaga, Isaiah Burkhart, and others who shall remain nameless. Nick Irving — ‘the Reaper’ — features heavily as well and brings the platoon’s story closer to the present day. Just as the general public is just now starting to be clued in on a massive impact Rangers have had since 9/11, I think they’re going to find out real quick just how impressive the unit’s snipers are as well.
And among the JSOC recce ranks — there’s profiles of John ‘Shrek’ McPhee, aka, ‘The Sheriff of Bagdad’, and Don ‘Kingpin’ Hollenbaugh, and several others. Genuine battlefield legends.
Based on your research, what makes a Modern American Sniper? How has the art of long range precision fire and sniper field craft changed during the course of the war on terror?
I’d say versatility and experience, first and foremost. It varies across units, but as I mentioned earlier, they are usually standouts performers even prior to becoming snipers, and that additional training only makes them that much more adept.
As far as how it’s changed — well, as Accuracy 1st‘s Todd Hodnett told me, “The days of Kentucky windage and ‘feeling’ are over.” There’s way less voodoo involved and it’s a whole lot more math-driven than ever before. And with that, the guesswork is being removed and all of the branches are coming closer together in terms of technique and training.
You also have the element of increased connectivity and persistent aerial ISR platforms, which simultaneously frees snipers up and makes them better informed, allowing them to be even more effective.
While writing Modern American Snipers, did you come across any anecdotes or information that you found particularly surprising?
Maybe just the sheer number of incredible stories that are out once you go digging for them. Blackhawk Down, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper are really just the tip of the iceberg — the ones that have, for one reason or another, made their way into the public consciousness. And while those stories are undeniably remarkable, there are dozens of others equally so.
Also, I noticed that a significant percentage of these snipers are driven by a deep need to help, defend, and save, as opposed to hurt, attack, and kill… although the latter are ways they can accomplish the former. I found that a number of them specifically sought out professions where they could continue helping others once they left the service.
Could you share of few episodes covered in this book that you think are particularly noteworthy?
Sure… I’m guessing some are already at least somewhat aware of the story of Delta sniper Don Hollenbaugh, who helped fend off a surrounding pack of 150-300 insurgents during the First Battle of Fallujah. Eventually, he was the last man keeping the enemy forces at bay while a number of wounded Marines were being evacuated. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and his story made some headlines a few years back.
There’s an entire chapter of the book devoted to that incident, and I’m pretty sure we dive significantly deeper into it than anyone has previously — certainly from the Delta Force point of view — and with plenty of new information and details.
There are some others that have been previously well covered, particularly in the opening few chapters (the Battle of Mogadishu, Operation Anaconda, Tora Bora, etc.) — stories that could not be overlooked due to their significance. But even if you’re well up to speed on those, you will likely still learn things about the key participants that you didn’t already know.
Meanwhile, there are some eye-opening stories regarding the role Ranger snipers played in some major ops in Iraq — we’re talking taking down top ten HVTs — and a really humorous story about the Rangers that also includes a FBI HRT special agent and a hostage rescue they stumbled upon by accident.
I also found the accounts of the pressure-filled day-to-day existence inside the 3/75 sniper platoon under the idiosyncratic leadership of Jared Van Aalst extremely fascinating.
Another story that caught my attention is just how paralyzed and hamstrung SEAL Team Three was due to poor intelligence early on during the Iraq War and how that fact helped usher Chris Kyle to his career as a sniper. Also related to that is the story of the formation of Naval Special Warfare Support Activity One. SA-1 is something along the lines of the West Coast SEAL Teams’ junior equivalent to JSOC’s Activity and AFO assets, created so that the SEALs could develop their own intelligence internally like they did during the Vietnam War. Kyle plays a role in that story as well.
Finally, there’s a MACV-SOG vignette that involves my dad, Don Martin, and Jerry ‘Mad Dog’ Shriver, among others, and the competition to be the first SOG recon team to successfully execute a cross-border snatch-and-grab with an all-expense paid vacation on the line.
There are so many more, but we’ll save them for the book. Anyway, thanks Jack. Writing the book was extremely rewarding, and I think it’s one that SOFREP readers are going to really dig.