Twenty years ago, "Marine Sniper" - the biography of Carlos Hathcock, the top gunner for the Marines in Vietnam - became one of those seminal military bestsellers that stays in print continuously. In fact, its tale of the sniper shooting a bullet through an enemy's rifle scope has not only become the stuff of legend, but it also has been copied in countless.
The Hathcock bio, however, was more than just fodder for buffs, as Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin recounts in his new memoir, "Shooter." As Coughlin tells it, "Students (at Marine sniper school) can pick up an extra ten bonus points on an exam by answering a bonus question that almost always comes from "Marine Sniper."
Look for Coughlin's "Shooter" to have the same impact on future generations of Marines and military buffs. This is an important book about sniper doctrine, as well as a highly readable, personal account of combat that is fascinating throughout.
The book opens with Coughlin supporting a Marine mission in Somalia, using the tactics pioneered by Hatchcock in Vietnam. Hathcock rewrote sniper doctrine by changing it from a shooter sitting in a fixed position all day to "hunters and shooters," who would stalk their prey and set up their position closer to the enemy.
During the 10 years between Somalia and Iraq, Coughlin was rethinking sniper doctrine while on missions apparently too secret to recount in this book. Finally, frustrated by the lack of attention to his theories, he and his team threw a "Dirty Dozen"-style monkey wrench into a major war game.
Coughlin was given the thumbs up to develop his Mobile Sniper Strike Teams, but before much progress was made, the Iraq War began. Like Hathcock, Coughlin had to perfect his approach on the battlefield - although his shooting war lasted only three weeks.
He also had another seeming obstacle: Lt. Cmdr. Brian McCoy had been his toughest critic and was now his commanding officer. The critic who spurred Coughlin to prove himself soon became his advocate, however, as Coughlin and his spotter, Casey Kuhlman, rewrote the rule book in devastating fashion.
Eighty years ago, Gen. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for too aggressively challenging entrenched military doctrine. In today's military, a Marine gunnery sergeant not only can propose changes to long-held procedure, but he also is given the flexibility to change it on the fly in a combat situation. And the force adapts along with him.
That's the genius of the modern American fighting force. Knowing the maxim that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy," American commanders on the ground have always had more flexibility than their counterparts, but the adaptability of the current fighting force is without parallel in history.
While two set pieces - the battle for Diyala Bridge, and the initial thrust into Baghdad - are as intense a recounting of modern urban warfare as I have read since "Black Hawk Down," this is hardly a book of unrelenting bravado.
Coughlin relates that while a sniper operates from a distance, to the detriment of his head and heart, he is far more likely to see the face of his enemy than the average infantryman.
A devastating chapter tells the story of how civilians stormed the Diyala Bridge in a mad dash for freedom at the same time as fedayeen and suicide bombers were making their final stand. Despite the Marines' best efforts, they could not always tell who was who, and Coughlin nearly broke down when that stress piled on his exhaustion.
Coughlin also is honest about the effect his job has on his family, which is the ultimate factor in his retirement as he realizes others can carry on his work but only he can be "Dad."
"Shooter" is mostly free of politics aside from a delicious episode near the fall of the Hussein statue. As Kuhlman was saving the day by replacing an American flag over the falling monument with a vintage Iraqi flag, Iraqis greeted the Marines as liberators, complete with offerings of flowers.
The only sour note of the day came from the so-called "human shields," leftists who had gone to Iraq supposedly to protect the people from the U.S. military and leave them safe in the arms of Saddam Hussein's secret police. They stormed out of their shelters and began cursing the Marines as "baby killers."
A group of "surly" Iraqi men approached Coughlin and offered to beat the liberal protesters to death for their insults. In the ultimate act of irony, he explained to the gathered Iraqis that democracy would mean having to let such people blather from now on as he physically imposed himself between the leftist activists and their supposed beneficiaries.
Coughlin lets the story stand as an analogy for the whole situation and a fitting end to his service in Iraq.