On Snipers

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Earlier today, documentarian, social commentator, and bad film maker Micheal Moore enraged some and emboldened others when he declared the late Chris Kyle, subject of the current box office front-runner American Sniper, was — like all snipers — “a coward.” I believe Mr. Moore to be incorrect in his assessment of military snipers; while I do not ascribe any particular courage to snipers, I am certain they are in no way cowards. In fact, of all the combatants on the modern battlefield embroiled in modern warfare, snipers know better than any other the true face of war and its unfathomable costs.

Long years ago, warfare was bloody, smelly, claustrophobically close, and violently personal. In ancient times, men would stand in the heat of a summer day hacking at one another with swords, spears, and axes of copper, then bronze, then iron. A soldier saw the face of each opponent he killed. Often he would leave the battlefield soaked in blood and gore which was not his own, but belonged to his foes . . . or his friends. War was serious business.

Beginning in the Medieval period, however, the distances between combatants changed. Longbows and a little later crossbows lengthened the battlefield from face to face out to a couple of hundred yards. Unquestionably men would still finish the day with sword and axe in hand to hand combat, but the archers and crossbowmen firing in massed formation seldom saw the person who fell pierced to the heart by their projectiles.

Then came firearms and the game evolved dramatically. Now men stood at distance and blasted at one another with muskets while their compatriots in the artillery corps shot cannonballs through the ranks opposite them. Some military historians debate if the smoothbore musket was a great improvement over the longbow in terms of accuracy and rate of fire. One thing is certain, the Brown Bess took much less training and practice than the yew stave stringed with gut cord so common people rather than warriors started becoming more active participants in war.

Long about the American Revolution (sure, leave it to the Yanks) though, some enterprising gunsmith rifled the barrel of a musket. Now, instead of a range of a football field, a man with good eyesight could shoot an opponent through the vitals at over 400 yards. Thus were the first snipers born on the battlefields of North America.

From the beginning, snipers have been a hated group. The British during the American Revolution repeatedly wrote about how “unsporting” and “barbaric” the rag tag American riflemen were for refusing to stand in neat ranks and march resolutely towards another line similarly arrayed whilst shooting at one another all the while. The early Kentucky rifle carrying militia men were hated, but they lived to shoot another day . . . and they taught the British the folly of those bright red uniforms with the big brass buttons.

Ever since rifles became widespread in combat, every military — at least in times of war — maintained units of snipers. Sometimes, they were professional hunters or of similar occupation allowing excellence with a rifle and superior marksmanship. Later, men would train in the art of sniping. No matter what their background, however, it was (and remains) the sniper who carries the tradition of the personal, bloody killing of the ancient battlefield.

Today, snipers don’t carry an assault rifle capable of spraying down jungle and plain alike with hundreds of rounds in a blink. Snipers don’t have the conscience clearing luxury of blindly firing during battle at some movement and later being able to say to themselves, “Maybe I didn’t kill anyone.” Snipers KNOW they kill people. It is what they are trained to do and every time they look through their telescopic sight atop their high powered sniper rifle and pull the trigger, the SEE the target — the person — crumple and fall. Combat for snipers is ALWAYS personal, even if it may not necessarily be close.

On the battlefield, snipers are always certain of one thing — if they are captured, they WILL be summarily executed. EVERY army kills enemy snipers unlucky enough to be captured, “international laws of war” be damned. Captured snipers are killed out of hand for one simple reason — RAGE. Nothing on the modern battlefield is as terrifying as a trained sniper. If you get killed by a mortar round, it was your time. Shot during a firefight? Same thing. But sitting quietly eating an MRE and your buddy’s head explodes next to you like a pumpkin dropped from the roof? You know he died because a MIND, a THINKING person deliberately WANTED him dead. Snipers rob an army of its peace even in the rear area.

A sniper can change history with one pull of the trigger, or one shot not taken. For example, in 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine, British sharpshooter (sniper) Capt. Patrick Ferguson had an unusually tall, American officer in his rifle’s iron sights but he chose not to shoot the man because the officer had his back turned and it wouldn’t have been very “gentlemanly.” That tall officer was George Washington. Imagine how different the American Revolution might have been if Ferguson had pulled the trigger.

So, to answer Mr. Moore simply, “no, snipers are not cowards; they are soldiers.” Of all soldiers save medics, the sniper knows the blood of war most intimately. He is a hunter of men; a killer of men. A killer, but not a murderer. The sniper kills those who would kill him, his friends, and his fellow soldiers. I’ve personally known two snipers and also heard Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock speak at a dinner I attended. None of them bragged about the men they had killed. They did what they were trained then instructed to do, just like Capt. Paul Tibbets of the “Enola Gay.” They put sights on a man, pulled the trigger, and watched him die. I can’t imagine a coward being able to do that.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.

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