The Psychology and History of Snipers – Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability.

Snipers have always been feared by their enemies. Unlike conventional soldiers, they are trained not for brawn and obedience but for skill and independence. They work alone or in pairs and often get to know their targets as they stalk them. In a 2012 article for BBC Magazine, the Israeli anthropologist Neta Bar, who has studied snipers, said, “It’s killing that is very distant but also very personal. I would even say intimate.”

The first recorded use of snipers comes from the army of ancient Rome. Each legion carried into battle about 60 “scorpios”—a crude-looking crossbow, almost like a portable catapult, that could deliver a precision shot at more than 300 feet. The effect was terrifying, as the rebellious Gauls discovered in the first century B.C. when trying to defend themselves against Julius Caesar.

After the fall of Rome, Western attitudes toward the sniper turned negative. Crossbows delivered long-distance, devastating wounds to a victim who had no chance of defending himself. The aristocracy also disliked the weapon, since it gave peasants the same kill power as a knight. In 1139, the Church condemned the use of crossbows against Christian enemies, though they could still be used against infidels.

No such inhibitions existed in China, whose crossbow marksmen were probably the best snipers in the world during the Middle Ages. Crossbowmen were considered the army’s elite and trained accordingly.

Crossbows eventually returned to the field in the West, but the advent of the rifle in the 16th century made officials see the true value of snipers. In the 1770s, British soldiers in India coined the term sniper to describe someone who could hit a little bird, such as a snipe.

Unfortunately for Britain, its enemies could train shooters to achieve the same level of proficiency. During the Napoleonic Wars in 1805, a French marine sniper on board the Redoubtable shot and killed Lord Nelson, just as the British achieved their crushing victory over the French fleet.

Those who underestimated the skill, determination and luck of snipers did so at their peril. At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864, the Union General John Sedgwick chastised his men for ducking, insisting: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few minutes later a Confederate sniper shot him dead.

In our own era, the most famous sniper was Chris Kyle, who among other things saved a group of Marines in 2003 from being blown up in Iraq. Killed in Texas in 2013 by a disturbed Marine vet, Kyle became famous for his skill and heroism as the subject of the phenomenally popular 2014 film “American Sniper.”

The snipers of Stalingrad, by contrast, are mostly just names to history, if their names are known at all. The final seconds of many a Nazi soldier were shared with an enemy he neither saw nor heard. But the battle was a catastrophe for Hitler, and it helped to turn the course of the war.

‘WHAT BOOK would historian Amanda Foreman take to a desert island?’ – The Daily Mail

Historian Amanda Foreman shares that she is currently reading The Dry by Jane Harper

. . . are you reading now?

The Dry, by Jane Harper. The hero, Aaron Falk, is a Melbourne-based federal agent, whose life has settled into a narrow furrow of work and more work.
However, he harbours a dark past that comes back to haunt him after his childhood friend inexplicably kills himself and his family.
Falk reluctantly returns to his home town and finds a seething community that’s suffering from more than just a prolonged drought. A complete page-turner.

. . . would you take to a desert island?

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. One of the reasons people love the LOTR so much is because it’s both familiar and strange at the same time.

Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and, when he wasn’t writing about elves and hobbits, he was analysing Beowulf and other epics. He poured all his scholarship into LOTR and then disguised it through layers of mythology and imagination. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Lemonade’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The lemonade stand has symbolized American childhood and values for more than a century. Norman Rockwell even created a classic 1950s drawing of children getting their first taste of capitalism with the help of a little sugar and lemon. Yet like apple pie, the lemonade stand is far older than America itself.

The lemon’s origins remain uncertain. A related fruit with far less juice, the citron, slowly migrated west until it reached Rome in the first few centuries A.D. Citrons were prestige items for the rich, prized for their smell, supposed medicinal virtues and ability to keep away moths. Emperor Nero supposedly ate citrons not because he liked the taste but because he believed that they offered protection against poisoning. Continue reading…

‘Austen, Anonymous Writers and History’ by Amanda Foreman

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

It is a truth universally acknowledged that “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen —who died 200 years ago this month—is one of the most romantic and popular tales ever written. Behind the global adoration she enjoys today lies the irony that in her own time Austen’s name never appeared on her books. Continue reading…

‘The Perils of Cultural Purity’ by Amanda Foreman in The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

“The Song-Cycle Ancestors of ‘Sgt. Pepper’” by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

The cover art for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ PHOTO: © APPLE CORPS LTD.

When the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” turned 50 on June 1, many critics and music lovers praised it as a work that both helped to create the modern concept album and became the anthem for the Summer of Love generation. From the innovative cover design to the musical mashups that included a 40-piece orchestra and a “kazoo” made of toilet paper and a comb, “Sgt. Pepper” seemed to be all about change and freedom. Continue reading…

‘On the Trail of Art Looters’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A relief from Rome’s Arch of Titus showing the spoils of Jerusalem. PHOTO: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Since 2014, Islamic State has been doing its best to destroy all traces of pre-Islamic culture in Iraq and Syria. Hammers and explosives aren’t its only tools. The antiquities trade is worth billions, and the self-styled caliphate is funding itself in part by looting and selling ancient treasures.

In late May, the Journal reported that U.S. and European Union authorities were scrutinizing a pair of art dealers as part of a wider investigation into who has been facilitating the market for ancient coins, statues and relics stolen by Islamic State. The dealers say they have done nothing wrong.

Continue reading…

‘Don’t sneer at historical fiction, it’s keeping the past alive’ by Amanda Foreman’ – The Telegraph

I know it’s old hat to complain that students are becoming more stupid by the hour. But can you blame me when the Cambridge historian John Guy revealed to a Hay Festival audience this week that he keeps meeting prospective students who admit to knowing nothing of Tudor politics outside of Hilary Mantel’s novels.

I mean, what idiot turns up unprepared for an Oxbridge history interview and expects to be taken seriously? When you’re applying to one of the world’s best universities, do you a) read voraciously to ensure that you outsmart the competition, or b) parade your total ignorance of even the most basic tenets of your chosen discipline?

This shouldn’t need spelling out, but here goes: if you plan on discussing a particular era, then make an effort to know it before the interview. Read the books of at least two different academics and have an opinion on whose arguments you find most persuasive. Continue reading…

‘A History of Colors and Their Owners’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it. Continue reading…