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The Hunting of Man by Andy Dougan
Have you the nerve to kill in cold blood?
Sunday 28 March 2004
Warfare is nothing if not inclusive, and large-scale conflict over the past hundred years has reliably brought men of varied skills and dispositions to their potential, if also often to their death. Although combat is usually a group activity, quiet loners can find their place too, both vicariously and otherwise. Some fantasise themselves generals, others dream that they could join an élite commando team, but the advent of accurate, long-distance firearms allowed even nerds to think they might make great warriors so long as they had a sure aim. They imagine roaming the battlefield beyond the orders of superiors, making a contribution that might not always be understood by the general soldiery.
Such readers will be alternately inspired and discouraged by this brief history of the sniper. Alongside the romantic duels of the kind portrayed by Jude Law and Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates is a description of the sharpshooter as outcast as much as free spirit.
Until recently, snipers had been seen as unfortunate necessities by comrades. The history of distaste began formally in 1139, when the crossbow was banned by the Second Lateran Council. Pope Innocent II described the weapon as "hateful to God and unfit for Christians" - especially those who owned the castles, war horses and suits of armour which had previously been enough to dominate the less fortunate. The warlike nobility - whether Spartan in the ancient world or British in the early 20th century - had never been comfortable with killing, or at least being killed, at a distance. Leaders from Richard the Lionheart to the Union General John Sedgwick paid the price for showing contempt for the "democratic" art of sniping, the latter apocryphally while assuring his men that the enemy "could not hit an elephant at this dist..."
If such figures thought sniping was ungentlemanly, they would have been horrified by modern sharpshooters, such as those who switched from high-priority targets to women in Sarajevo bread queues. Yet terror is what makes snipers so effective. One or two in good cover, killing with single shots, can induce panic in a far larger body of men whose first instinct is to freeze and provide their enemy with further static targets. Snipers themselves have their own fears. Good cover is, of course, never perfect, and of the 2,570 Union snipers who enrolled during the US Civil War, for example, 1,008 were killed or wounded, giving them a casualty rate of 40 per cent even though they never charged or closed with the enemy. Capture has often meant death for the sniper at the hands of vengeful victims. Indeed, soiling one's underwear is part of the job, as to take a trip to the toilet is a luxury that might give away your position to a rival sharpshooter.
When musket technology enabled a Napoleonic trooper to hit an enemy one time in 10 at 100 yards, massed fire was the only way to achieve results. But by the end of the First World War practised marksmen had rifles which could hardly miss. In 1915, the Germans had 20,000 high-quality telescopic sights fashioned and, according to the author, found it simple to identify British officers by their "thinner legs" - meaning tailored riding breeches. Moustaches were another giveaway, as only officers were allowed to sport facial hair.
By the beginning of the Second World War, rifles were so accurate that marksmanship was no longer the defining quality of a sniper. A certain temperament took its place. The ordinary soldier kills in the heat of battle, with self-preservation rather than malice aforethought. Snipers, on the other hand, are required to kill in cold blood, which makes them different to the average draftee - most of whom are known not to fire at the enemy during a battle, their first concern being to take cover. During the Vietnam War, the average number of rounds expended per kill with the M-16 rifle was estimated at 50,000. Snipers averaged 1.3 rounds per kill. It did not go unnoticed by the defenders of capitalist democracy that this represented a difference in cost of $2,300 versus 27 cents. Yet generations of men who grew up hunting wolves and deer have found that they could not make the transition to unsuspecting human beings who wandered into their sights - most famously the trooper who once drew a bead on George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
The sniper is despised by his enemies because, by singling out a victim, he seems to make war a personal affair and, when caught, is to this day often punished accordingly. As Dougan points out, the irony is that most successful snipers are able to perform their duties only by treating their quarry utterly impersonally, as though they were on a firing range. At the same time, one can feel only so much sympathy for any man who kills freely and raises his arms to surrender only when he is out of ammunition.
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