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.

‘Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

Continue reading…

‘Money, energy and cunning, the US’s new Cold War armoury’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Blair Fraser

Photo: Blair Fraser

MORE THAN 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s annexation and despoilment campaign. It is not as though the EU and the US have looked the other way during this bloodshed; it’s just that every attempt to engage or contain Russia has so far ended in failure.

Does Russia’s dismantling of Ukraine mean that the Cold War has resumed after a 25-year hiatus? Or is it a new Cold War with America? Or a neo-Cold War against liberal democracies, or a frozen conflict with Nato, or just a regional conflict within the old Soviet bloc?

The reason the categorisation is so important is that the naming of the crisis brings with it a set of ideological and practical responses.

The term “Cold War” carries the unmistakeable baggage of an existential conflict between irreconcilable systems of government. It implies that democracy itself is once again on trial for its life. This is all rather unfortunate timing considering that the major democracies are still reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and in many cases have yet to prove themselves capable of restoring public confidence or fiscal order.

Continue reading…