Fact Check


Rumor: A U.S. sniper, asked what he feels when he shoots an al-Qaeda member, replies: 'Recoil.'

Published Jan 15, 2006

Claim:   A U.S. sniper, asked what he feels when he shoots an al-Qaeda member, replied: "Recoil."


Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2006]

While interviewing an anonymous US Special Forces soldier on his sniper skills, a Reuters News agent asked the soldier what he felt when shooting members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The soldier shrugged and replied, 'Recoil.'"

On December 9, 2005, CNN covered an interview of a US Special Forces soldier, a member of an elite sniper team. A Reuters reporter trying to milk the interview for all it was worth asked the young soldier, in a less than respectful tone, and in an effort to make him feel guilty, "What do you feel, if anything, when you shoot an Al Quaeda freedom fighter from such a long distance?" The young soldier shrugged his shoulders and replied. "RECOIL" & turned and walked away.

Katie Couric, while interviewing a Marine sniper, asked: "What do you feel when you shoot a terrorist?"

The Marine shrugged and replied: "Recoil."


Origins:   We like our heroes larger than life, as this anecdote shows.

This account of a sniper's clever response to an interviewer began arriving in the snopes.com inbox on 10 January 2006. Hunt about as we might, we were unable to find mention of such an interview in newspaper or wire service archives (Reuters is a wire service) or through CNN's web site's search facility, on 9 December 2005 or any other date. Despite its glut of seemingly checkable facts

(CNN, Reuters, 9 December 2005), this anecdote is a humor piece, with the soldier's pithy "Recoil" rejoinder the punchline of an old joke and the "checkable facts" mere window dressing. The same day the tale was first mailed to us, it also appeared as a post to the USENET newsgroup rec.humor.

The shorter example is the earlier of the two versions of the "Recoil" anecdote; the longer a reworking of the more compact original undertaken to express points its rewriter wanted to make. The second version adds a negative view of the media that was missing from the original: the Reuters reporter is characterized as "trying to milk the interview for all it was worth," he addresses the soldier (the story's lantern-jawed hero) "in a less than respectful tone," poses the question he does "in an effort to make [the soldier] feel guilty," and refers to a member of Al Qaeda as a "freedom fighter." It also adds a Gary Cooper-ish flourish to the soldier's remark by noting that after he made it he "turned and walked away."

Many who have served in the U.S. armed forces in previous conflicts have reported hearing the tale during their time in the service. In particular, we've heard from a number of men who fought in the Vietnam War and who encountered the story at that time, either as a "bar tale" or as a comment scrawled on a latrine wall. One of our correspondents mentioned it being commonly written on the cloth helmet covers or the "boonie
hats" worn by infantry soldiers, usually in the form of "All I feel when I kill is ... Recoil! — Infantry."

Another of our Vietnam War correspondents told us about a similar comment that was also in circulation at that time:

The other, similar comment was a response to the "hippy" question, "How can you shoot women and children?" Answer: "They don't run as fast — you have to give them a little less lead."

The "recoil" anecdote presents the soldier (and thus by implication all U.S. soldiers) as an emotionless specialist who regards killing members of the enemy's forces as just part of the job, nothing more. When asked what he feels while taking a life, he answers not about any emotional response to killing another human being, but about his physical reality — that after squeezing off a shot he has to deal with the gun's recoil. Within the framework of the tale, U.S. soldiers are depicted as many would like to think of them: cool-headed capable professionals who will ultimately overcome the enemy no matter what obstacles now stand in their way, because that is what they've been trained to do and what they are very good at. The narrative thus delivers a measure of comfort, in that all feel reassured of their own safety, knowing they are defended by fighting men like these.

Whatever may be the truth about the emotional makeup of the average soldier, those who become snipers are very carefully chosen, not only for their marksmanship but for their emotional stability and outlook as well. "We need the kind of soldier who can turn the remorse button off," said Sgt. Buck, the head of an Edmonton Garrison-based sniper unit. (While Sgt. Buck was speaking about snipers serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, his comment applies equally to soldiers in that specialty across the board, no matter what their nationality.) When asking for sniper volunteers, the military seeks well-balanced professional soldiers with great emotional discipline.

Barbara "ghille suited" Mikkelson

Last updated:   11 March 2015


    Farrell, Jim.   "Snipers See Eyes of Men They Kill."

    Edmonton Journal.   31 December 2005   (p. A3).

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