The tempting question is, of course, the one that can't easily be asked: How many? On the subject of his time stalking insurgents in Afghanistan, sniper and former member of SEAL Team 3 Brandon Webb says, rather succinctly: "We dropped hate on them." From the mouth of another man, such a declaration might suggest pride, but you can't hear any in Webb's voice. Later he'll say, offhandedly, that he can always tell a man who's been there by his eyes, and indeed there is something undisclosed in his: a kind of discretionary distance between a personal history likely unfathomable to civilians and his amiable demeanor. These days Webb writes regularly for the vital military news site SOFREP, which he co-founded in 2012, and flies retired Russian war birds in his free time. He is the author of the memoirs The Red Circle and Among Heroes, forthcoming in May. We recently spoke with Webb about working with Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell, and what it takes to become one of the world's elite snipers.
How did you get into sniper training?
I was in my first platoon at Seal Team 3 in 1999 with Glen Doherty, who was later killed [in the Benghazi attack] in Libya. The platoon was short two snipers and they called Glen and me into the office one day and said, "Hey, you're the two best shots in the platoon, and we need two snipers. You two idiots are our best shots at getting through the course." Because back then it was a 30-percent washout rate. Now it's around 3-percent. The teaching style was not done very well back then. It was sink or swim. Either you just got it, and you got lucky that you had a good set of weapons and your scopes were working — because back then if you didn't have good equipment, they didn't give a shit — or it was like, "Hey, sorry, man. Pack your shit and get out of here."
Why were you the best shot? What was your experience?
I never shot much when I was a kid, but on the spotting scope, understanding the ballistics and the calculations, I'm a ten. And on the stalk field, I was top in my class. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I grew up spearfishing in the kelp beds on the coast of California. I didn't grow up hunting whitetail, but I would stalk tuna and white sea bass and yellowtail. I'd position the sun behind my back. You know the way you approach, you dive down, and you've got to be very quiet, approaching the schools with a reef feature between you. Swim up, slide out, take a shot. All these Texas guys are saying, "That's fucked up, this California boy." They were pissed. But it was because I had all that practice stalking and hunting as a kid.
How do these stalking exercises work?
It's three months straight, and it's the most stressful thing I've ever done. You go out to this field in an open terrain and you have instructors they call walkers with orange hunting hats, all with radios, and they go, "Alright, gents. You've got four hours, your target is that direction, here's your left boundary, your right boundary. Time starts now. Go." Then you've got to get up to the position, identify the target, right? With two instructors sitting on this table or truck with high-powered binoculars, laser rangefinders, and a radio. And if they see anything they're going to bust you. And if you're busted, you failed. You're off the field. And you can only fail a few. That actually happened to Marcus Luttrell. I failed him out for stalking. He was terrible. I mean he would clip ground cover, put it on his hat, and then stand up and go on the stalk. Through the binos you see a dude — like a Sasquatch, a badly dressed Sasquatch out there. And I thought, who is that? Is that Luttrell again?
So what makes for a good stalk?
The whole key to the stalk is finding those two fuckers on the target. Once you find them, it's easy. It's like, okay, I know where they're at. Now I can put this tree or this bush or this terrain feature in between me and them and get up real quick and then once you get in real tight, you can kind of use that, even a shrub if I'm on my stomach and inching over. Okay, I've got to get that shrub in line and now I can low-crawl all the way up and they're not going to be able to see me. It's called dead space.
Once I went up to a tree about 200 meters away, in the zone we had to be in, and then in 10 minutes took the shot. They thought somebody had accidentally discharged the rifle because it was so quick. They had never had somebody finish a stalk that fast before. I shot them with blanks, took another. Then what they do is take the two live guys off-target, put silhouettes there. You load a live round and shoot the target for your final score. And, uh, I'm walking back, man, 10 minutes into a four-hour stalk. These poor bastards. This was desert, West Coast, 115 degrees. And they're all crawling, looking up at me like what just happened? And I say, "See you later, gents. I'm going to go take a nap." And I'm back at the truck for four hours.
Is there a personality that seems best-suited to being a sniper?
Yeah. You have to understand basic math and be able to do basic calculations really quickly in your head. You have to go, "Okay, I've got a guy running that way, the wind’s blowing that way, so I've got to add that wind value to my lead, add it or take it away." And you have to do it really quick. Add an adjustment, take the shot. And we're constantly putting people into situations, on purpose, in sniper school, to make or lose their cool. I'll call down on the radio. I'll say, "I don't want you to hold the target up straight, I want you to half-ass it." Because I want to see what this guy is going to do, and if he's going to lose his shit.
He says, "My target's not straight, he's not doing it right." And so we'll mess with him that way. We put him in situations over and over because we want to see who just doesn't give a shit. They're just like, "Fuck it man, I'll shoot." A guy like Chris Kyle. He says, "I'll shoot it anyway. We just got to get it done." And that's what you want.
What’s the sniper’s role, the pecking order, within a unit?
You're going to be the first to be asked your opinion on, "Hey, what do you think about how we're approaching the target?" The leadership always wants to use the snipers. They think, "Okay, we're going to be at the target once the sniper's here. You guys are covering us as we're going in."
And it's ultimately the sniper's decision?
Yeah, absolutely. And that may not be the case for other branches of the military. Most military units pair guys up. You've got a sniper and guy in a scope spotting. We don't have that luxury in the SEALs because we don't have that many guys. So we have to train the guy to be the spotter and the shooter and to do it all himself.
I was wondering about the mental process of deciding whether or not to take the shot. I know you're talking to other guys in the platoon, but what's going through your head in terms of making that determination?
I remember a situation where Chris Cassidy, our platoon commander, was questioning this village elder, and I'm giving them calls to radio. I say, "We've got one guy that's armed." And I'm on the scope, but I don't think he's a hostile. Because I found out that a lot of, if not most, Afghanis have weapons. They just have them. To protect themselves, to hunt, whatever. And I don't think this is a bad situation. But I'm having this conversation with myself, giving Cassidy updates. But I could tell that they knew when they saw Cassidy and the couple guys that were with him, they didn't want their guns taken away and so they went and stashed them. So I'm giving this whole run down. I could have smoked that guy, but he was a young, probably teenage boy. I just — it's that point where it doesn't feel right to me, and it's my call to make. Am I justified? Yeah. In that trailer of American Sniper with Chris, it's very clear what's happening. There's a conflict because, oh my God, this is a woman. But at the end of the day, tough shit. War sucks. I've dropped bombs on bad guys that took their families up in the caves, but it's not like that's my choice.
It turns out it was the right decision. The reason I didn't shoot him was because there was no threat to the platoon as well, right? If there had been any inkling of a threat I would have smoked him. It's a done deal. But I made that call, and it was the right call to make. And then as that's happening, I see this guy — because as a sniper, you're aware of your surroundings at all times. I'm stashed in this little hill, hidden in these rocks, and I swing over and there are these mountains and this little trail probably 500 yards away. And movement — you know the human eye picks that stuff up. I go over there, the village situation is already handled, and I swing over and there's this dude, obviously hoofing it out at a very quick pace and I could tell he's a bad guy. And he's getting the hell out of Dodge, like he's seen us and it was... I had him in my sight for a couple seconds and by the time I decided to take this guy out, opportunity gone. And I couldn't leave my supporting role to go stop this guy and shoot his ass. That's my biggest regret with that shot.
So he was running...
Yeah, he was running into the mountains. He was getting out of there for sure. He was dressed like an Al Qaeda, Arab guy, for sure. I knew — the Afghanis and the Middle Eastern Arabs, very different look, very different dress. But the look: You can just tell that they're different.
What's the fundamental difference in their dress? Or in their look?
The Arabs' look, they're mostly cleaner shaven. Even if they keep a beard, it's trimmed up, whereas in Afghanistan, it's wild. The Arabs keep themselves a little bit better. They have a much softer look to them than the hardened Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
How did you get along with Chris? How did you find him as a student?
Chris was great. I knew him as a new guy in Seal Team 3. He's this big Texas guy. Everyone liked Chris. Some guys stand out of a crowd. I don't think Chris was one of those guys. But he's a guy everyone liked and he definitely had that Texas way about him. It's Texas, man: You've got to dip in at all times. And, you know, you're just taking care of business, not afraid to take a punch or punch somebody or take it out back because that's the way they grew up. And I think a lot of guys like Chris for that. As a student, he was just solid. He was one of those guys you could tell right away, this guy gets it and he's going to have no problem making it through the course. The guys who shot deer to put meat on the table and worked a ranch, they know the deal. They've worked with animals, they know how to stalk. Chris was that guy. Now, we had other guys on the SEAL teams that have almost as many kills as Chris. They just — they're still in or they never talked really — I think it's a weird set of circumstances that sort of elevated Chris to the limelight, not necessarily by his own will. But there's still other guys, and some guys resent it. They're thinking, "Why’s that guy getting all the attention when there's other guys who have killed just as many people?"
And understandably. One thing too I wanted to ask you, I just wanted to know... he said, I think, kind of bizarre things. The whole Katrina thing, sniping looters from the roof of the Superdome. The stories about trick shots, blowing away car jackers at a gas station by firing a pistol under his armpit. Do you think that was a way of just enlarging his legend?
Yeah, I know. Here's my thing, man. I just don't know. There was a time when I believed all that shit. Chris told me with a straight face, and then it was only after the fact that I started going, "Okay, I'm going to look at this a little more objectively. And there's doubt. I don't know for sure. And it's one of those things man — Elvis is dead. Who ever knows? Is it possible that he was on that Superdome shooting people? I believe it's entirely possible, because I know how fucked up Blackwater was, and they're hiring active duty guys to go on the side. You can go check your rifle out of the safe and go shoot with it on the weekends. So he could have very easily gone with a bunch of guys and took two weeks off to go to New Orleans and go shoot guys. It's very believable to me. He's told that story to me in front of a group of witnesses, five or six people drinking beers one night. And, um, so I don't know, man. I don't think we'll ever know. The gas station story — it's great. But is it true? I don't know, man. And people are saying, "Oh, I talked to that police officer," this and that. You think the police are going to admit that happened? No.
Yeah, no way. So I don't think we'll ever know. And it feeds the machine.