Snipers are nasty, everyone knows that. They hunt people like animals, killing them without giving them a chance to fight or even to surrender. Few soldiers are more hated; even their own armies often seem less than pleased to have them around.
It might be because there's another side to snipers and sniping after all. In particular, even though a sniper will often be personally responsible for huge numbers of deaths - body counts in the hundreds for an individual shooter are far from unheard of - as a class snipers kill relatively few people compared to the effects they achieve. Furthermore, when a sniper kills someone, it is almost always a person they meant to kill, not just someone standing around in the wrong place and time. These are not things that most branches of the military can say.
But, for a well-trained military sniper at least, "collateral damage" - the accidental killing and injuring of bystanders and unintended targets - is almost nonexistent. Mistakes do occur, but compared to a platoon of regular soldiers armed with automatic weapons, rockets, grenades etc a sniper is delicacy itself. Compared to crew-served and vehicle weapons, artillery, tanks, air support or missile strikes, a sniper is not just surgically precise but almost magically so. Yet he (or sometimes she) is reviled as the next thing to a murderer, while the mainstream mass slaughter people are seen as relatively normal.
Consider the team who put a strike jet into the air: a couple of aircrew, technicians, armourers, planners, their supporting cooks and medics and security and supply people. Perhaps fifty or sixty people, then, who together send up a plane which can deliver a huge load of bombs at least twice a day. Almost every week in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, such bombs are dropped. The nature of heavy ordnance being what it is, these bombs kill and maim not just their targets (assuming there is a correctly-located target) but everyone else around. Civilian deaths in air strikes are becoming a massive issue for NATO and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Those sixty people, in a busy week, could easily put hundreds of tons of munitions into a battlefield - an amount of destructive power approaching that of a small nuclear weapon. This kind of firepower can and will kill many times more people than sixty snipers could in the same time span - and many of the dead will typically be innocent bystanders, often including children and the elderly. Such things are happening, on longer timescales, as this article is written. Furthermore, all these bomber people - even the aircrew - run significantly less personal risk than snipers do.
But nobody thinks of a bomb armourer, or a "fighter" pilot", or a base cook as a cowardly assassin. Their efforts are at least as deadly per capita, they run less personal risks, but they're just doing their jobs. And let's not forget everyone else: artillerymen, tank crews, machine gunners. Nobody particularly loathes them, or considers them cowardly assassins.
In fact, the hated invisible sniper - remorseless, cold-hearted, often responsible for more deaths than the blackest-hearted serial murderer in civil life - has some of the cleanest hands on the battlefield. He is surely one of the most economical combatants, generally requiring fewer than five bullets (in well-trained militaries, fewer than two) to kill an enemy, where line troops will fire thousands of rounds to achieve the same effect. And the sniper's kills are often high-value enemies, too; officers or valuable specialists. Snipers on the whole tend to avoid mowing down hapless footsoldiers en masse, certainly when compared to the rest of the armed forces.
Most Americans have, at most, two real-life icons for "the sniper":
- Tom Berenger in Sniper (1, 2, & 3), with jumbled anecdotes taken from Marine Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock (Charles Henderson's Marine Sniper); or
- Jude Law vs. Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates, with jumbled anecdotes taken from William Craig's Enemy at the Gates and Vasily Chuikov's The Battle for Stalingrad.
Both have grains of truth surrounded by large piles of salt, and neither addresses the essential points above concerning the separation of the sniper from other troops in the same force.
If there is a true legend in American sniping, it must be Gunny Hathcock, the "White Feather". Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam but is widely assumed to have actually killed more than 300 enemy soldiers, including an NVA General. In his first deployment, Hathcock crawled more than a kilometer through a grassy field patrolled by NVA, made his shot, and crawled back out while the NVA searched for him on foot and in motor vehicles:
Hathcock only once removed the white feather from his bush hat while deployed in Vietnam. During a volunteer mission on his first deployment, he crawled over a thousand meters of field to shoot a commanding NVA general. He wasn't informed of the details of the mission until he was en route to his insertion point aboard a helicopter. This effort took four days and three nights, without sleep, of constant inch-by-inch crawling. In Carlos's words, one enemy soldier (or "hamburger" as Carlos called them), "shortly after sunset", almost stepped on him as he lay camouflaged with grass and vegetation in a meadow. At one point he was nearly bitten by a bamboo viper but had the presence of mind to not move and give up his position. As the general was stretching in the morning, Carlos fired a single shot which struck him in the chest and killed him. He had to crawl back instead of run when soldiers started searching.
Fell by your gun, yes,
Fell by your gun,
For more than 300 nazis fell by your gun.
Major Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills during the first two years of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union. As one of 2000 female snipers in the Red Army, she was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division and fought in the Ukraine from Odessa to Sevastopol, winning the Order of Lenin and being made a Hero of the Soviet Union. After being wounded, she went on goodwill tours of Canada and the US before returning to the Soviet Union to train snipers.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Shooter
The idea that snipers should be "nasty" and that their fellow soldiers "seem less than pleased to have them around" probably arises from two causes.
First is that snipers have much less psychological distance from their targets than most soldiers. A grunt with a rifle most often fires to suppress, but even effective fire is over iron sights or through a low-magnification scope. Snipers fire almost exclusively "for effect" and see their opponents "up close and personal" in high-magnification scopes or spotting scopes. Grunts fire upon command, yielding personal responsibility and gaining distance. Snipers must choose when to shoot and can only share responsibility with their spotters.
Second is that, while snipers have less distance from their victims, snipers rarely create "collateral damage." Grunts with rifles or artillery by necessity do more damage than is needed. Snipers rarely do. As noted in the quoted article, an arty unit can drop the equivalent of a small nuclear weapon over a week's time, while the sniper may execute the same military target by expending one .308, .334, or .50 round.
It's a brutal combination. Most men in war will not kill without conditioning. The conditioning of the line soldier includes many distancing techniques (see Grossman's On Killing for details), including physical distancing and psychological distancing via transferring responsibility to authority (waiting for orders to fire) and spreading responsibility among a pool (collectivizing action -- not "I killed him" but "we killed him"). Such conditioning methods are useless to the sniper and, in fact, antithetical to the mission. The line soldier's comparison of his responsibility for enemy deaths and the sniper's responsibility for enemy deaths makes it clear that the sniper must be sociopathic. Combined with the underlying knowledge that the line soldier does unnecessary violence in carrying out a mission compared to the force used by the sniper, it's easy to see how the line soldier can carry an additional load of guilt which becomes sniper hatred.
Unfortunately, the sniper is probably the most delicate instrument for delivering force that the military has. In Iraq, the US. Army has delivered something like 250,000 rounds down range for every claimed insurgent killed. The motto of the U.S. Army sniper is "one shot, one kill". They would have to be off by more than five orders of magnitude to reach the level of overshoot used in Iraq.
Wouldn't we be better off if, when making war, we tried to do it with as little wasted force as possible?
[Edited 2008.12.16 21:35 PST: fixed several spelling errors]