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How is "The Sniper" characterized at the start of the story?

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The juxtaposition of the descriptions of the young man's face, which was "the face of a student," and his eyes, which were "the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death, is quite revealing. He ought to be like a child, youthful and innocent and carefree, and, instead, he is more like a man, an adult, someone used to feeling and inflicting pain. He has seen things that most young people do not see--perhaps, should not see--and it has, evidently, changed him. He is "deep and thoughtful" rather than blithe. Further, the fact that he is only referred to as "the sniper" and never given a name seems to indicate that "a sniper" is all he is right now. He isn't a student or a son or a brother or a boyfriend: the only aspect of his identity that matters in this time and place is his role in the Irish Republican Army.

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At the beginning of the story, the sniper is described as a young man, trained as a soldier. O'Flaherty provides a sharp contrast between the innocence and naivety of youth with the graphic violence and desensitization soldiers experience in war. The sniper had an innocent face, but one which had learned the gruesome reality of war: 

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. 

Despite the sniper's youth and innocence, he had become a seasoned soldier. He had become used to being shot at, used to killing his enemies. He had become desensitized, like a machine, to the violence around him. This is significant because, later in the story, he experiences a moment (perhaps a second moment at the end) of remorse. This is a moment when he steps back and becomes more human. But at the beginning of the story, he looks young but is a machine-like soldier. 

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What sort of man was the sniper?

By the end of the story, the sniper is a complex individual who is filled with regret and a sense of overwhelming pain.  This assessment is evident once the story ends.  At the outset of the story, the sniper is a one dimensional type of man.  He's a young soldier, almost a kid in terms of his mentality.  His zeal and passion towards his mission makes him young, something that is robbed from him in the war and, in particular, the mission.  He is excited about his job, focused and driven to complete it.  The sniper's uniform sense of focus and drive is what animates him to fulfill his mission.

However, when the sniper does carry out his job, he is faced with trying to piece together why he did what he did.  It is at this point where his complex nature becomes evident.  The sniper is unable to fully comprehend what he did as he sees the target as more than "a mission."  He sees the repercussions of his actions, the death of a fellow soldier, at his own hands.  He will realize that while he struggles to make sense of his own actions, such emotions will intensify upon discovering that the enemy sniper was actually his own brother. While there is no discussion as to what he feels upon realizing that he is his brother's killer, it is evident that his mission has made him complex.  As he struggles to make sense of what he has done, he is overcome with remorse, his only response is to engage in "cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody."  This makes him a complex man, an intricate figure, only enhanced by the reality of the ending where he has taken the life of his own brother.  It is here where one can see that the type of man the sniper has become is a complex one.

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What sort of man was the sniper at the start of the story?   

At the start of the story, the sniper is described as a seasoned soldier. Although he is young ("face of a student"), his demeanor makes him look like an older solider, one who has become "used to looking at death." He has the "cold gleam of the fanatic." His stare indicates that he is no longer the naive student his youth might indicate. At this point, he is a focused, intense soldier/machine. 

Even though he is this seasoned soldier, he does make mistakes. When he lights the cigarette, he gives away his position. However, he recovers from this mistake and manages to take out an informer (old woman), the soldier in the turret, and his enemy sniper on the other rooftop. Even when he gets hit (by the enemy sniper), he manages to dress the wound himself, despite the immense pain: 

Then taking out his field dressing, he ripped open the packet with his knife. He broke the neck of the iodine bottle and let the bitter fluid drip into the wound. A paroxysm of pain swept through him. He placed the cotton wadding over the wound and wrapped the dressing over it. He tied the ends with his teeth. Then he lay still against the parapet, and, closing his eyes, he made an effort of will to overcome the pain. 

Toward the end of the story, the sniper does have moments of sensitivity, remorse, and humanism. But in the beginning, and for most of the story, he is a disciplined machine of a soldier. 

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