War is hell. In his address to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy on 19 June 1879 William Sherman made a point of mentioning its horrors.
Those horrors seem to unite all those who take part in war into a fraternity of men that have experienced something unmentionable and have lived to tell the tale. Yet it is not just war that seems to unite opposing armies of soldiers. They also appear to be united by their hatred and fear of snipers.
In Armageddon military historian Max Hastings uses his research skills and his detailed grasp of military culture to detail the treatment of snipers. In particular on page 88 of his book he writes:
Almost every soldier on both sides shared a hatred of snipers, which frequently caused them to be shot out of hand if captured. There was no logic or provision of the Geneva Convention to justify such action. Sniping merely represented the highest refinement of the infantry soldier's art. Its exercise required courage and skill. Yet, sniping made the random business of killing, in which they were all engaged. become somehow personal and thus unacceptable to ordinary footsoldiers.
The Kill Factor
The reluctance of soldiers to kill the enemy even when that enemy is shooting directly at them has become an open debate since S.L.A. Marshall’s controversial study of WWII soldiers and their kill rate. The field of Killology, launched as a discipline in 1996, has produced evidence that backs up Marshall’s study and goes deeper, identifying soldiers who will simply not shoot to kill under any circumstances and pin-pointing that up to 80% of troops are reluctant to shoot to kill.
U.S. military statistics show that during the Vietnam War it took, on average, 50,000 rounds of ammunition to be fired in order to kill a single Vietcong. Despite the fact that the army has adjusted its training to counter soldiers’ resistance to taking life, the trend persists and it is compounded by a variety of other, legitimate reasons.
By the time we get to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the increased sophistication of the weapons at the disposal of the U.S. Army the number of rounds fired to produce a single kill had gone up by a factor of five. That means the U.S. Army would go through a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition for each insurgent killed. It would force the U.S. Army to import ammunition from Israel in order to keep up its shooting war in Afghanistan.
This astounding statistic would also highlight the Army’s shifting strategy in troops firing at each other that was designed to overcome their unwillingness to kill that was uncovered by Marshall’s study. Instead of training troops to pick a target, aim and fire (as it traditionally did) it now taught them to lay down “suppressing fire” i.e. a hail of bullets that are thick enough to keep the enemy under cover and not firing back.
All of this is important because the shifting statistics of ammunition-used-per-kill of the footsoldier is juxtaposed against those of the sniper which historically range between 1.1 rounds per kill to 1.3. That’s over a period of 150 years since the American Civil war and despite vast improvements made in weapon types, scopes and ammunition.
It Feels Personal
All this proves several things. While death or injury caused in the battlefield by enemy footsoldier fire always feels like bad luck, a soldier getting unlucky, a sniper’s shot always feels personal. Soldiers feel singled out. The fact that sniper fire, by definition, is as discriminatory and accurate as it is makes it terrifying. Terror against an opponent you cannot see but who can see you triggers something primeval inside a person. It brings up all the superstitious atavistic fears of our past and has the tendency to short-circuit logic.
This makes most footsoldiers feel that snipers are not like them.
But what does it do for the sniper? Tasked with making life and death decisions. Always aware that his hits or misses can have massive repercussions. His every shot poured over and carefully scrutinized. A sniper is alone in the unique burden of responsibility he carries. Alongside his spotter he is the embodiment of military will. Each kill he makes is, for him, personal.
To reconcile himself with his task a sniper has a clear understanding of his role and its objectives. He understands the tactical and strategic importance of his mission and he is, usually, privy to information that aids his executive decisions.
Generation Kill is a book (and now a miniseries) by Evan Wright who was an embedded reporter with a unit in Iraq. The mini-series aimed for as authentic a feel as possible in what they put together. Below is a sniper scene:
What do you think? What are your perceptions about snipers? Let me know in the comments below.
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