The Sniper by Liam O’Flaherty: The Gray Morality of War

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War can turn the brightest city into the darkest battlefield, and the most innocent boys into murdering men. “The Sniper,” by Liam O’Flaherty, tells the story of a young Republican sniper attempting to make it through another grim day at war. He lies atop a roof with one arm oozing blood, and the other holding a revolver ready to fire at an enemy across the street. The author leaves readers with the sniper turning over his shot target and looking into the face of his brother. This pitting of a brother against a brother shows the ultimate divisions that war causes. Through a variety of literary devices, O’Flaherty conveys how war causes the sniper to have no regard for right or wrong, dehumanizing all into only ally or enemy.

The sniper’s juxtaposing description and perception of objects in war demonstrates how war blurs the line between innocent and guilty, exemplified through metaphors. Amidst a civil war, a sniper lays watching with the “face of a student, thin and ascetic” (O’Flaherty). The reader can infer that the sniper is young, but not innocent, as his eyes have the “cold gleam of a fanatic” (O’Flaherty). War forces him to mature quickly and develop the iron heart of a seasoned soldier. The authors contrasting descriptions of the sniper emphasize that war has no boundaries, objectifying a young and sympathetic man into a killing machine. His “deep and thoughtful eyes, the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death” show the strain of someone at an age otherwise viewed as light and innocent, forced to consistently forget his enemy’s humanity in order to kill. The sniper also labels everything as either an ally or enemy, illustrated by his perspective of an enemy car as a “big grey monster” (O’Flaherty). War prevents him from contemplating whether something or someone is truly dangerous. He simply assumes that any unknown object is a threat, and fears it like a kid fears a monster. Through metaphors, the author conveys the sniper’s distorted perception of otherwise simple concepts such as innocent versus guilty, and human versus object, due to war.

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The sniper’s point of view after killing his third target, later revealed to be his brother, highlights a dramatic change in his attitude towards war. While up on the roof prior to shooting his third target, war warps his thoughts into focusing only on the primitive concept of kill or be killed. He feels “no pain--just a deadened sensation” after just being shot in the arm (O’Flaherty). His numbed reaction to the injury reflects how war has reduced him to no longer feeling pain or emotion. He goes on to trick and fire at an enemy across the street, “[uttering] a cry of joy” when his rouse is successful. The intensity of war has kept him from bridging the gap between humans and objects, viewing the other sniper as a meaningless target.

Almost immediately after shooting his third target however, his right arm suddenly “[pains] him like a thousand devils” (O’Flaherty). With the adrenaline of battle gone, a wave of throbbing pain and remorse for his actions hits him. He curses the war and lays weakened by his wounds. This shift in point of view from a man with a single-minded goal of killing and no basic feelings, to someone whose “lust of battle died in him,” allows the sniper to internally express his realization of the destructiveness of war and preciousness of life (O’Flaherty). O’Flaherty telling the short story through a third person limited narrator displays the sniper’s growth from being emotionally and physically numb, to realizing the dangerous simplifications of people as only allies or enemies.

Unnamed characters throughout the short story convey the impersonality of war, as the sniper only categorizes people into allies and enemies of each other. The author never refers to any characters by name or face. When the sniper kills two people at the beginning, they are referred to only as an “old woman, her head covered by a tattered shawl” and a “man in an enemy car” (O’Flaherty). The author does not put a description of their face or body to emphasize how the hostility of war creates a situation in which individual identities become clouded over. People including the main sniper, are not portrayed as real and genuine people, rather just targets of each other. Out of fear of being caught, and that anyone else around him is an enemy, the sniper decisively carries out a plan to kill the man across the street, “his hands trembling with eagerness” (O’Flaherty). He is part of a game bigger than himself, as he must report back to an officer, and this creates a sense of urgency and stress. Killing is an impersonal assignment, with no regard to a person’s intentions. This is even what eventually leads to the sniper shooting his brother, paying attention only to the fact of his “head clearly [being] silhouetted against the western sky” (O’Flaherty). War has trained his only focus to be shooting and killing a target, not a person or possibly family.

War blurs the lines between innocent and guilty, wrong or right, and person or object. In the short story “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty, war is conveyed as only a series of allies and enemies through the sniper’s changing point of view and perception of the things around him in war, as well as the author’s juxtaposing description of him. Brothers are literally pitted against brother, demonstrating how impersonal and damaging civil wars are. The characters are given no names, as to emphasize the fact that war reduces men to mere objects and targets. Even the young and otherwise innocent are forced into a world of terror, where all pain and feeling must be put aside. Always on the lookout, every person is a target, and every kill is a bullseye.

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