- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I, SNIPER: A BOB LEE SWAGGER NOVEL

By Stephen Hunter Simon & Schuster, $26, 418 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

There are few novelists who can write as lyrically and vividly as retired Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter about the damage a 168-grain Sierra hollow-point MatchKing fired from a 7.62 rifle at a distance of 340 yards can do as it enters the human body.

“The missile flew unerringly through viscera without the slightest deviation and had only lost a few dozen pounds of energy when it hit her in the absolute center of the heart, exactly where all four chambers came together in a nexus of muscle. The organ was pulped in a fraction of a second. Death was instantaneous, a kind of mercy, one supposes, as Ms. Flanders quite literally could not have noticed her own extinction.”

Pure poetry, if you like that kind of stuff - which I do.

The Ms. Flanders to whom Mr. Hunter refers is the first of four victims of spot-on-perfect shootings. The common thread is that all the deceased were involved in the radical political-cum-antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Some more than others.

Joan Flanders, for example, is the ultraprogressive scion of a famous American acting clan. Her political consciousness was accelerated after she was photographed aboard the carriage of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. Reviled by millions, she subsequently married and divorced a loudmouth media mogul and made millions from a series of exercise videos. The parallel to “Hanoi Jane” Fonda and her real-life ex, “Mouth from the South” CNN founder Ted Turner, are unmistakable.

Second and third victims are Jack Strong and Mitzi Reilly, a couple of academics from Chicago who were involved in the radical politics that included bank robbery and bombings. The real-life parallels? The Weather Underground, whose 1970s operations included bombings and a Brinks armored truck robbery. Strong and Reilly are offed in - what else? - their Volvo. The final corpse is Mitch Greene, a left-wing political comic in the Mort Sahl vein. Greene is snuffed during a book tour.

The FBI’s guilty party of choice is a former Marine Gunnery Sgt. named Carl Hitchcock, “the most famous sniper in America.” Hitchcock had 93 kills in Vietnam and for a while was regarded as that war’s pre-eminent sniper. However, Hitchcock wasn’t in fact top of the heap. Another Marine, Chuck MacKenzie, was discovered much later to have had 96 kills. The way the cops see things, Hitchcock, deprived of his fame, falls into depression and starts taking revenge on former antiwar celebrities.

Hitchcock is tracked down. He is discovered in the closet of an Econo Lodge in Grand Rapids, Mich. Dead. Hitchcock has shot himself with the murder weapon. The FBI examines the evidence and is just about to report “case closed” when a fly appears in the forensic ointment.

That fly is Bob Lee Swagger, retired Marine sniper and hero of more than a few of Mr. Hunter’s previous novels. Gunny Swagger casts enough doubt on Hitchcock’s guilt to reverse “case closed” to “case drags on.” This development angers Joan Flanders’ ex, a political heavyweight billionaire named T.T. Constable, who wants to keep his name - and his ex’s - out of the gossip columns.

Here, too, Mr. Hunter is trying to parallel history, although less successfully. The best-known sniper from the Vietnam era was a self-effacing gunnery sergeant named Carlos N. Hathcock. Carlos, with whom I spent time in the 1990s, had 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam. But he wasn’t No. 1. That honor went to another Marine, Sgt. Chuck Mawhinney, who had 103 confirmed kills.

Right up until his death in 1999 from multiple sclerosis, Gunny Hathcock devoted much of his time and depleted energy toward the inculcation of young snipers in craft and theory. He and his wife, Jo, lived in a bungalow in Virginia Beach. It was a hub for SEAL sharpshooters, SWAT cops from as far away as Richmond or Washington and Marines from just about anywhere. All were welcome.

I know Mr. Hunter is writing fiction, but I wish he had stayed away from trying to make readers think he might be writing about Carlos Hathcock. Because in doing so, he diminishes the memory of one of the most modest, generous patriots of the 20th century.

Moreover, the book contains multiple reporting errors. Mr. Hunter should have been more diligent, especially because he is being marketed by his publisher as an expert on matters tactical.

The 7.62x51 168-grain boat tail hollow-point bullet, for example is, according to Mr. Hunter, “unanimously used in its Federal or Black Hills loading by most SWAT teams as well as nearly all Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy dedicated marksmen, combat or otherwise. It was the magic bean that terminated the lives of three Somali pirates in April ‘09 in one well-coordinated moment.”

Unanimously? Not quite. Law enforcement does indeed rely on the 168-grain round. Most military snipers, however, use the 175-grain, Open Tip Match M118 LR round (although many will soon use the heavier 7.62x67 .300 Winchester Magnum). And special-operations snipers use whatever’s best for the job, which can vary from the 168-grain MatchKing for shorter shots, to 300-grain 338 Lapua Magnum or highly specialized 7.62 rounds for longer ranges. The Somali pirates, according to multiple sources in more than one special operations/asymmetric warfare unit, were dispatched by 77-grain MatchKings fired from .223 EBRs (enhanced battle rifles), not 7.62 weapons.

Then there’s this: “[Swagger] remembered the date Saigon fell. He’d never forget that one …. He typed it in, European style: 25.04.75.”

Except: the date most reference books list for Saigon’s fall is April 30, 1975 (30.04.75 in European style). That was the day U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin was evacuated to the USS Blue Ridge.

Mr. Hunter has made these sorts of reporting mistakes before. In a 2000 Washington Post article about the MP5 submachine gun, he wrote that a policewoman was killed prior to the 1980 SAS assault on the Iranian embassy at London’s Prince’s Gate. No policewoman died at Prince’s Gate. Woman Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher was murdered in 1984, outside the Libyan embassy on St. James’s Square.

More troubling, Mr. Hunter’s novel continually refers to Medal of Honor and Silver Star “winners.” He should know better. The MOH and other awards for valor are not contests. Unforgivably, he misspells the names of two sniper MOH recipients, Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Sgt. First Class Randall D. Shughart.

These errors become all the more unacceptable because the plot of Mr. Hunter’s book turns on a research blunder by an ambitious but careless New York Times journalist. As Mr. Hunter puts it in the words of a fictional outraged New York Times reader: “… you of the enlightened, educated ironic classes needn’t trouble yourselves with actual facts….The facts don’t matter, only something you’re sure you see, called ‘the truth.’ But if there are no facts, there is no truth.”

How true. And how distressing that the truth of Mr. Hunter’s fiction is marred by his careless misreporting of the facts. I say this with sadness because Mr. Hunter has obvious talent and a keen eye. I just wish his eye had been keener where it counted.

Washington writer John Weisman’s novels “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. His short fiction, “Father’s Day” will appear in this spring’s “Agents of Treachery,” from Random House.

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