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.

‘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…

‘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…

‘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…

‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

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

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

‘Barbie and Her Many Ancient Sisters’ – The Wall Street Journal

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

From left, Presidential Candidate Barbie (2004), Registered Nurse Barbie (1961) and Career Girl Barbie (1963).

Since her arrival in 1959, Barbie has evolved into an international phenomenon with a grip on modern culture. Her success testifies to the genius of the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler—born 100 years ago this week.

Some social commentators call Barbie, with her strikingly varied career choices, an avatar for women’s liberation. Others call her a tool of patriarchal oppression, beginning with her anatomy—which, according to one scientific analysis, would force her to walk on all fours if she were alive, due to her tiny feet and top-heavy body. Continue reading…

‘HMS Terror—and the Moral Challenge of Exploration’ – The Wall Street Journal

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled 'They Forged the last link with their lives'. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Engraving showing the end of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 entitled ‘They Forged the last link with their lives’. This engraving was taken from a painting by W. Thomas Smith exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1896. PHOTO: MARY EVANS/ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS LTDT/EVERETT COLLECTION

Earlier this month, searchers found the HMS Terror beneath the Canadian Arctic ice, solving one of the most famous mysteries in maritime history. The ship was part of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin that vanished in the 1840s while trying to locate the Northwest Passage.

The disappearance inspired more than 50 search expeditions, as well as an outpouring of literature. Charles Dickens had a major hand in a stage production about the disaster, and an elegy by the poet Algernon Swinburne, “The Death of Sir John Franklin,” asked poignantly, “Is this the end?” Continue reading…

‘The Risks of Trading Abroad, From Mesopotamia to Apple’ – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Doing business overseas has put many enterprises on the road to making big money—but it can also be a quick way to lose a lot. Apple is vigorously fighting a bill for $14.5 billion in back taxes that the European Union says it owes Ireland. The iPhone maker will survive whatever happens, but the dispute illustrates the risks that businesses face when dealing with foreign governments. It’s a challenge that has grown more serious in recent years with the rise of aggressive nationalism in many countries.

In much of the ancient world, the presence of foreign merchants was regarded as a boon. During the third millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian ruler Sargon the Great boasted of his modern port facilities and the international trade that they attracted. The ancient Greeks went further and built specially protected ports for trade. There, taxes were low and legal rights were guaranteed, and foreigners could enter into contracts with confidence. Such arrangements enabled the Greeks to profit from extensive long-distance trading networks and proved inspirational to the Romans. Continue reading…