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To battle against your own family members to the death over a political dispute seems unfathomable, but has been a reality of history. The Irish Civil War began when the Irish had to decide if they wanted to accept partial freedom from Great Britain or fight to become a Republic. After fighting with each other against Great Britain, the Irish Army split and battled against one another. During civil wars, such as the Irish Civil War, countries are torn apart and find themselves in combat with their other halves. Often forgotten are the families and soldiers civil wars harm. Most families are able to hold on to one another for support; however, in some cases families break apart and will even go so far as to fight on opposite sides of the battle. This characteristic of dedication to a war affecting citizens personally appears in “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty, a short story about a sniper in the Irish Civil war fighting on the Republican side. During the night, his eagerness for combat demonstrates how inexperienced in war he is; however, his calm actions and quick response juxtapose this, indicating he is quite logical. Although the Sniper is excited for combat at the beginning of the story, he later finds himself appalled by the gruesome nature of his own actions. The Republican sniper in “The Sniper” portrays how fanatic devotion in civil war affects soldiers personally because the character is no longer able to perceive people as more than allies or enemies, loses control of his emotions, and kills his own brother.
Early on, the sniper’s ardent violence disrupts his capability to comprehend that his actions harm actual people, not just enemies. After a long day of excitedly waiting for combat, the sniper lays undercover on a Dublin rooftop drinking whiskey. When he takes the risk of lighting a cigarette, a Free State Sniper on an opposite rooftop targets him, but the Republican remains uninjured. The sniper sees an old woman informing the driver of an enemy vehicle of his location, and he immediately takes the opportunity to kill both of them without a second thought. The sniper’s undeterred thirst for violent action is validated when ”he wanted to fire” at the vehicle but restrains himself because “he knew it would be useless” due to the car’s armor(263). The sniper’s excitement and struggle to hold back from firing, and his impulsive killing of enemies is a sign that he is enthralled by the glory of war and violence and has repressed his integrity enough to justify killing two people. The reader is able to decipher that the Sniper believes that Free Staters do not deserve to live. Due to his dedication to war, the sniper has looks forward to violence, and is joyful when he kills people. This demonstrates how cruel humans can become when pushed into the world of war. It also symbolizes many humans inner need to kill, which is justified and even respected in war. Society normally refuses to accept hatred and violence, yet war is an excuse for cruelty against other humans. This is not the only time the sniper’s emotions are affected by his dedication to war.
Moreover, the sniper’s dedication to war has subjugated him to a state of emotional detachment; when he is released from this state, his emotions barrel down on him with unbridled force. As a result of shooting the informer and driver, the sniper’s Free State counterpart identifies his location and targets the sniper from the opposite rooftop. The Sniper’s forearm has been injured by the enemy sniper’s bullet; although he handles the situation by diligently dressing the wound, he is severely injured. Still excited by the prospect of shooting the Free State sniper, he creates a ruse for his enemy and shoots him down. The sniper’s craving for glory is evident as he , “trembled with eagerness” waiting to shoot his enemy(264). Seeing his enemy’s silhouetted figure “crumple up and fall forward” causes the sniper’s enthusiasm to fade, and his remorse is visible when the author uses words such as, “shuddered”, “bitten by remorse”, revolted”, and “gibbered” (264). The sniper truly expresses his newfound hatred for war when he begins “cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody” (264). The Sniper is startled back into reality, “he looked at the smoking revolver in his hand, and with an oath he hurled it to the roof at his feet. The revolver went off with the concussion and the bullet whizzed past the sniper’s head” (265). The sniper chooses to blame alcohol for his outburst. When the sniper’s emotions get out of hand, the author imposes that it takes a drastic measure to break the emotional barriers used by soldiers in battle. Hurling his revolver to the ground represents the characters remorse for his actions and his intention not to repeat them. However, his decision to blame alcohol for his grievances allows him to carry onwards with the war, providing the opportunity to accomplish his goals and fulfill others expectations. The sniper’s opposing actions portray that the emotional influences of war only causes confusion and panic within the mind of a soldier. When the defense mechanisms used by soldiers can no longer withstand the trials of death and grief, men in combat undergo serious panic and stress. The sniper may have been able to get over his panic attack, but his emotional battle with war is not yet over.
Moving forwards, the personal repercussions of Civil War on a combat driven character such as the sniper are evident when it is revealed that he killed his own brother. After recovering from his remorseful breakdown, the sniper ignores his feelings of anguish and intends to report back to his commander. Be that as it may, an instinct convinces him to investigate the identity of his enemy before doing so. After nearly being shot by a machine gun to get to the man, the sniper realizes he has killed his own brother. The author leaves the reader in shock when “the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face”(265). The split between brothers in battle indicates that the choice to join the Republican or Free State army was challenging. As the author allows the reader no background information on the story, and no emotional reaction from the sniper, the reader is left to make his or her own conclusions. This ambiguity provides the reader more opportunities to ponder the author’s intention. The author implies that with or without being aware of it, the sniper and his brother chose opposite sides of the war. Perhaps the sniper and his brother were aware of the decision they made to fight on opposing sides of the war. In that case, Liam O’Flaherty points out that dedication to civil war can become so strong that it pits family members against each other. The death of the sniper’s brother demonstrates the hardships families endure during Civil War and how it affects people personally.
The Republican character in “The Sniper” reminds us of the personal challenges of civil war caused by strong devotion when he kills an elderly woman without grievance, is hit hard by his emotions, and finally, kills his own brother. The sniper’s fanatic devotion to war lead him to great remorse and shock. By creating a character whose life was so negatively impacted by the Irish Civil War, Liam O’Flaherty conveys the regret and grief of the soldiers in the Irish Civil War. Even though many who go to battle seek excitement and glory, they are often grimly surprised by the truth of what war is really like. Constant war and combat around the world seems inevitable. “The Sniper” pushes the boundaries of how far is too far in war and what it takes for humanity to realize when a conflict has gone beyond reason.
O’Flaherty, Liam. 2007. Elements of Literature. Ed. Winston, Holt, and Rinehart. N.p.: Holt, n.d. 262-65. Print.
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