Books are funny things. You read one in March and, months later, in September, you read another and find that the two books want to strike up a conversation with each other, argue their respective points, tie the knot or separate in a huff. You the reader are left to determine the outcome, you are judge, jury and marriage counselor all in one.
Winslow Homer is one of my favorite painters. Some 30 years ago, the National Gallery mounted a full-scale exhibition of Homer’s works. The catalogue from that exhibit occupies pride of place on the coffee table in our living room. On cold winter nights I like to sit by the fire and thumb through its pages as one might an album containing pictures of long-lost friends.
I pretty much always pause when I hit page 39, where you will find Homer’s “The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty.” The work has long fascinated me for its realism, which was not the way military affairs were commonly depicted in the art of that time. Painted in 1863 after Homer had observed sharpshooters in action during the Peninsular Campaign, it shows a Union soldier perched on a branch in a dry and scraggly looking pine tree, one foot braced against the tree’s trunk, the other dangling free beneath him. The young man’s face is partially obscured by the cocked hammer, breech and trigger guard of his rifle, only his right eye showing above these as he aims down the length of the barrel.
Paradoxically, the painting always strikes me as both innocent and grim — the soldier clearly young, his position up in a tree reminiscent of boyhood, while his weapon’s working parts have rendered him as anonymous as the person he is about to kill.
According to the catalogue, the public admired and celebrated sharpshooters during the Civil War, seeing them as proof of the modernization of their culture and the way in which it waged war (rifled weapons had only recently become more than an expensive curiosity). I was reminded of the nineteenth century’s adulation of its sharpshooters in 2012 when “American Sniper” came out. Written by Chris Kyle (who, after serving four tours in Iraq, became — as his subtitle proclaims — “the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”), the book fairly flew off our shelves at the library.
The public’s admiration notwithstanding, the Winslow Homer catalogue goes on to assure me that both Union and Confederate soldiers didn’t care for sharpshooters at all. And Homer agreed with them. He wrote to a friend about what he knew of sharpshooters and their craft, “I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April 1862 … the above impression (at the top of the letter Homer has penned in a telescopic sight, and through its crosshairs we see the back of an unsuspecting soldier idly staring out over a parapet) struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army and I always had a horror of that branch of the service.”
I remember my father had a similar horror of sniping as practiced by the Japanese on Okinawa, and my guess is that soldiers in subsequent conflicts have felt a comparable aversion. So what is it about snipers that we civilians find so interesting? For I am no different. Just the other night I was reading one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels — reveling in the way Reacher’s knowledge of things like “barrel velocity, windage, and trajectory” would allow him to take out the bad guy from a distance of several hundred yards — when I suddenly realized precisely what it was that I was enjoying. And once again, in my mind, that Union soldier climbed up into his pine tree and took aim at a fellow human being.
Books talk to each other that way, the National Gallery’s catalogue entering into a dialogue with Chris Kyle’s “Sniper” and Lee Child’s “Die Trying” to pose a question that, on their own, none of the books had asked. Is it a sort of voyeurism that explains our fascination with snipers? Is it because, as do they, we can only view the murder of war from a safe distance? Does their experience in some unconscious (unsavory?) way mirror our own?
I’m afraid I have no answer to these questions. My books’ colloquy dwindled away without ever reaching any firm conclusions. But if there is an answer, or answers, to what has become for me a troubling imponderable, I’m sure I’ll find it someday in yet another book at the Talbot County Free Library.