Fans of sniper stories will likely be excited to read this account of the life of Chuck Mawhinney, the top scoring U.S. Marine sniper to date. Mawhinney joined the U.S. Marines at age 18 and served in Vietnam from 1967-69, where he made 103 confirmed kills over a period of 16 months, killing four enemies a week on average.
The book, penned by writer Jim Lindsay based on in-depth interviews with Mawhinney, is written in a down-to-earth style that is easy to read. Readers will feel like they are getting to know Mawhinney as they progress through the book, which recounts the famed sniper’s early life and his postwar experiences in addition to his time in Vietnam. Readers who enjoy listening to soldiers telling their war stories over a few drinks or in a casual setting (like this reviewer) will likely enjoy the style in which the book is written, because it is very much as if you are listening firsthand to Mawhinney’s stories.
Readers looking for an in-depth account of Mawhinney’s war in Vietnam may be somewhat disappointed because the narrative is not a complete account of his experiences. The Vietnam War portion of the book consists of several Vietnam War stories from Mawhinney rather than a complete chronicle of his time in country. There are probably many more stories that will forever remain untold. Mawhinney himself was satisfied with the book. “This is the whole story. I think Jim did a good job,” he told Oregonian newspaper The Baker City Herald. Some readers, however, may be left wanting more.
Obviously one of the qualities of a good sniper is a certain degree of ruthlessness. This is evident in Mawhinney’s actions described throughout the book, from shooting animals in his youth, ambushing enemies throughout the Vietnam War, and in his postwar life exterminating coyotes. The passages dealing with these matters are not gory but matter-of-fact. Some readers may admire Mawhinney’s proficiency at killing while others may find it disturbing. Readers who are sniper fans or familiar with snipers’ memoirs will likely not be bothered by these anecdotes.
Mawhinney has a sense of humor which is reflected in many of the stories he chose to tell. One passage that stood out for its ironic humor related how Mawhinney struggled to adjust after being sent to assist an ROK Marine unit. He went on daily patrols with the South Koreans, with whom he could not communicate due to the language barrier. He remembered the Koreans as “ornery” fellows who at first surreptitiously swatted him with sticks to annoy him while he was walking. He had difficulty adjusting to patrol duty since the ROK men did not set up a perimeter when resting. “Instead of creating a perimeter, they dropped wherever—maybe in the hut of an abandoned village or they’d just curl up along a trail, leaving Chuck wide-eyed and sleepless,” author Lindsay writes. “If a sound woke the Koreans, they’d grab their weapons and run out into the dark to investigate. If an enemy was caught alive they just beat him to death and went back to bed.” While the Koreans eventually gained respect for Mawhinney due to his sniper skills, he also “considered the ROK some bad-ass dudes and was glad they were on his side.”
All in all, Mawhinney is a rather reserved character which is reflected by the material included in book; the Vietnam War takes up a significantly smaller portion of the book than one might expect. The narrative is engaging and reflective. Readers hoping for a sensational shooting saga or a blow-by-blow account of a sniper’s lethal achievements in Vietnam will feel let down. Readers eager to read and appreciate the memories and experiences of a humble Vietnam War veteran and Marine who happens to have been a sniper will be more than satisfied.
The Sniper: The Untold Story of the Marine Corps’ Greatest Marksman of All Time
By Jim Lindsay, foreword by Chuck Mawhinney. St. Martin’s Press, 2023, $38.82
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This review appeared in the 2024 Winter issue of Vietnam magazine.