This story has been updated since it was posted.
LOS ANGELES — “You shall not kill.” As a Catholic altar boy and student at St. Jude’s School near Boston, Jack Coughlin learned the Fifth Commandment early in life.
As a Marine Corps sniper and devout pro-life Catholic, Coughlin killed for a living. From rooftops, hillsides and shelled-out buildings, he focused the crosshairs on distant individuals, squeezed the trigger and ended their lives. By the time he retired, Coughlin had accumulated 60 confirmed kills in Somalia, Iraq and other foreign battlefields he will not identify.
Coughlin, author of the autobiography Shooter, has little trouble sleeping at night. He has confided his personal demons to priests but doesn’t believe his career gives cause for penance.
“I learned ‘Thou shall not kill’ in Catholic school, but I also learned the difference between right and wrong,” said Coughlin, who continues practicing his Catholic faith in southern California. “I learned that we live in a world of good and evil and that there is a heaven and hell. I learned that evil flourishes when good men do nothing. Evil presents on the battlefield. If no one stands up to it, the devil wins.”
As a 49-year-old retired Marine, Coughlin is part of America’s small tactical sniper community. He and his colleagues in the military and law enforcement are the focus of current public attention, as audiences continue flocking to the blockbuster movie American Sniper. It tells the story of Coughlin’s good friend and former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.
Former Catholic seminarian and documentary producer Michael Moore is among the critics who have criticized Kyle and other snipers for doing a job they consider immoral. In one notorious Twitter post, Moore wrote: “Tomorrow’s Sunday School (1) What Would Jesus Do? Oh, I know what he would do — hide on top of a roof and shoot people in the back!”
Few, if any, Catholic theologians share the moral outrage expressed by Moore and a handful of other celebrities who promote blind pacifism as virtue.
Shortly after Kyle’s death in 2013 — before most Americans knew his story — noted author and theologian Father John Trigilio explained the distinction between military sniping and the act of murder forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
“Chris Kyle was an American hero,” Father Trigilio wrote in Renew America, a publication about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. “While we do not rejoice that 160 people were killed, we are grateful that 160 unjust aggressors and enemies of our country were neutralized. Military and police are required to use proportionate force in repelling or stopping the enemy.”
Though Coughlin makes no apologies for killing 60 humans, he doesn’t rejoice in it either. The psychological struggles that accompany professional killing, he explained, are high.
“The first kill is the easiest,” he told the Register. “That’s because you don’t know the ramifications yet. They can train you, and you can practice for that day all you want. But nothing can teach you how you will feel afterwards. It is hard, and it never gets easier. I remind myself that I was in the business of saving lives by taking lives. These people were ruthless killers. Some of them thought nothing of indiscriminately spraying bullets through entire residential areas. They had no rules of engagement and had to be stopped.”
In interviews with four other Christian military and law-enforcement snipers, each cited Romans 13:1-14 as a portion of Scripture that justifies killing in defense of innocent life. The passage explains the need to respect authority established by God and explains how those who disobey legitimate authority should fear “agents of wrath” who “bring punishment upon wrongdoers.”
“We are mostly a moral, pro-life community,” said Dave Agata, a member of the American Sniper Association who served as a police-department sniper for 20 years in Coral Springs, Fla. “In this country, you can take a young girl to a clinic and pay some butcher to take the life of a baby. Yet some people demonize the sniper who saves innocent lives by taking out evil predators.”
Agata, a nondenominational Christian, knew Chris Kyle well and said the SEAL “understood the value of life better than most” other Americans.
“Good and evil exist in this world,” Agata said. “Even a heathen knows this. When evil comes along, threatening innocent life, almost anyone is going to make a call and pray someone will show up with a gun in time to do something about it. An American sniper is someone tactically trained to save innocent lives.”
The Sniper’s Responsibility
Few could have a better understanding of the sniper’s responsibility to save lives than Brian Sain, a Lutheran, who worked as a law-enforcement sniper for 20 years in Texas. A rodeo cowboy, Sain was also a close friend of Kyle and worked with him to start a tactical-weapons training academy before Kyle’s death.
Sain said the hardest memory of his career involves a shot he did not take and would not take if given the same circumstance today. A drunken man had taken hostages in a home and had a gun to the head of a 2-year-old boy. Sain had the opportunity to kill the hostage taker, but not without also killing the boy’s mother, who was standing behind the suspect. Before Sain could safely take the shot, the captor killed the child.
The suspect surrendered, Sain said, when he “ran out of bullets and beer.”
“I wanted to kill him then, but at that point, he was no longer threatening innocent life,” Sain said. “It would have been murder and a sin to kill him when he was no longer threatening to kill. If you are a trained sniper, you have to know your values, the law and God’s law before you get into a situation. You do not have time for a conversation with God or with some committee when someone is fixing to kill a kid and you’re the only one who can stop him.”
Added Sain, “I can tell you that Chris Kyle was acutely aware of his relationship with Christ at all times, as are a lot of us. It guides us.”
In Catholic theology, the just-war doctrine says military actions must abide by God’s rules. The doctrine is explained in Paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It justifies military force if: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations is “lasting, grave and certain”; all other means of putting an end to the harm have been shown “impractical or ineffective”; there are “serious prospects of success”; and use of force does not “produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
Michael Duffey, an emeritus associate professor of Christian ethics who taught at Marquette University for 34 years, told the Register he is troubled by the glamorization of sniping as a result of American Sniper. He said not all wars can be justified under the just-war doctrine. On that basis, he questions much of the military’s sniping.
“They (snipers) say most of this killing is done to protect comrades,” said Duffey, author of Peacemaking for Christians: The Future of Just War, Pacifism and Nonviolent Conflict Resolution. “They very seldom talk about war as a form of aggression or offense. From their point of view, they are saving their own people, and they can see it that way because they did not choose the war. The bigger moral issue is what wars we as a country send them to fight in.
“I think any war that violates the prohibition against directly harming civilians, or any war that is likely to do so, is immoral.”
Journalist James Foley, a Marquette alumni, was beheaded in Syria. Duffey declined to answer whether a sniper, with moral justification, could have stopped the beheading of his university’s graduate.
But he believes justification for a sniper’s bullet becomes clearer in domestic conflicts that don’t involve the country’s “aggressive involvement” in wars that may not satisfy the just-war doctrine.
“Let’s look at another scenario,” Duffey said. “There’s a guy on the street who is crazy, and he has his arm around my mother’s neck and is going to kill her. I’m a police sniper on a nearby roof. Do I shoot him? I think I would. There might not be an alternative. That is more of a defensive position than taking a shot because you are participating in a war we should not be having.”
‘An Ugly Job That Has to Be Done’
Derek Bartlett served as a sniper for 22 years with the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., SWAT team. He’s president of the American Sniper Association and said American Sniper has caused good and bad attention for the roughly 1,000 members of his organization.
“The world looks at us with a lot of skepticism,” Bartlett told the Register. “We try to explain our place in the universe — that we do an ugly job that has to be done. A lot of people understand, but they still don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”
Bartlett said the Bible is full of justification for killing in the duty of protecting innocent lives during peacetime and war.
“Regardless of whether one knows or believes the Bible, nearly everyone wants a sniper on the scene if a bad guy is holed up and threatening to kill a loved one,” Bartlett said. “No one loves us until they need us.”
Bartlett said he doesn’t understand why snipers receive so much more moral scrutiny than others in military and law enforcement. People who drive tanks, control attack drones or drop bombs, he said, kill more innocent lives than those who surgically eliminate enemies of peace.
“A bombardier can kill 10,000 people, including a lot of collateral damage,” Bartlett said. “A sniper typically isolates one bad person who, if not neutralized, will kill. Very seldom is there any collateral damage.”
Vietnam Sniper’s Viewpoint
Butch Nery, treasurer of the Army Sniper Association, oversaw three sniper teams in Vietnam as a platoon leader and Army Ranger. A devout Catholic, Nery said the role of any American sniper is “to defend the country and the oppressed” around the world.
Nery believes sniping falls in line with Catholic teaching because it “helps disadvantaged individuals and cultures survive evil aggression.”
“When you are overseas, and you see some of what the enemy does to innocent women and children, you don’t have any questions about the morality of a sniper’s role in the overall mission,” said Nery, a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle Chapel in Horseshoe Bay, Texas. “Unless you’ve been there, it’s just hard to understand. Most people just have not been there.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.