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The titular sharpshooter in Liam O’Flaherty’s short story The Sniper is a man, a young man, whose short life has seen much killing, including by himself. As O’Flaherty describes this youthful but skilled killer, a Republican partisan in the conflict in Northern Ireland during the “Time of the Troubles,” he emphasizes his protagonist’s youthful demeanor hardened by too much fighting: “His face was the face of a student, thin and ascetic, but his eyes had the cold gleam of the fanatic. They were deep and thoughtful, the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death.” As The Sniper progresses, O’Flaherty builds the tension as his protagonist confronts the threat from his opposite number on a rooftop across the way. The two snipers exchange gunfire, the back-and-forth shooting interrupted only by the protagonist’s killing of an enemy militant and the woman who has pointed out the sniper’s position to the crew of a newly-arrived armored car. Despite taking a bullet to his right forearm, the sniper succeeds in killing in the enemy sharpshooter, and watches as his victim’s lifeless body falls to the street below. O’Flaherty, though, does not have his protagonist rejoice in his victory – a victory that was essential to his own survival. On the contrary, the author depicts the sniper’s successful killing of the adversary sharpshooter with resignation, the resignation of a soldier who has seen too much killing and has grown mentally exhausted by war. O’Flaherty describes the scene as follows:
“The sniper looked at his enemy falling and he shuddered. The lust of battle died in him. He became bitten by remorse. The sweat stood out in beads on his forehead. Weakened by his wound and the long summer day of fasting and watching on the roof, he revolted from the sight of the shattered mass of his dead enemy. His teeth chattered, he began to gibber to himself, cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody.”
“He looked at the smoking revolver in his hand, and with an oath he hurled it to the roof at his feet. The revolver went off with a concussion and the bullet whizzed past the sniper’s head. He was frightened back to his senses by the shock. His nerves steadied. The cloud of fear scattered from his mind and he laughed.”
The “grunt’s eye” view of war emphasizes the personal nature of combat. Uninterested in the machinations of the politicians in defense of whose agenda he is fighting, his only concern is his survival and that of his friends. O’Flaherty’s sniper knows that his triumph is fleeting and that there will, by necessity, be more such encounters. What this particular sniper doesn’t yet know, of course, is the identity of the man he has just sent to his grave. That revelation awaits the story’s conclusion. For now, the sniper’s relief at surviving this encounter with the enemy is exceeded only by his knowledge that he has just killed a total stranger (he believes) who would just as efficiently have killed him given half-a-chance, and yet nothing is changed.
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