Posts Tagged ‘sniping’

Trench by Stephen BullTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

This is a detailed history of trench warfare in World War One, from the early days of improvisation and error to the later sophistication of flame-throwers, phosgene and tanks. One thing that stayed constant was slaughter: the war involved hundreds of highly intelligent men devising ever better ways of mincing, mashing and maiming bodies and minds. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches then put those ideas into operation:

The infantry battalion soon included grenades of many types, new machine guns and snipers, catapults and light mortars. The Engineers adopted gas, flame and other examples of frightfulness. … For some this was the start of a new age, when, as Ernst Jünger put it, “the spirit of the machine” took possession of the battlefield and new leaders were born. (Conclusion, pg. 255)

But artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front”, Stephen Bull concludes in chapter one, which examines “The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack”. That problem arose from an important and overlooked point he makes in the introduction: “trenches were designed to, and did, save lives” (pg. 8). Wars are won more by ending lives, not saving them, so each side sought to overcome the protection offered by trenches to the other side. Gas was one solution; tunnelling to lay explosives was another. And the tank was, in a way, a mobile trench. It wasn’t decisive in this war, but it was indirectly responsible for one of the war’s most memorable photographs: New Zealand troops “holding a German ‘T-Gewehr’ anti-tank rifle” in a “captured German emplacement near Grévillers, 25 August 1918” (ch. 9, “The Tank”, pg. 215).

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

The grins and the gun are included here with many other photos and illustrations: churned mud, stagnant pools and tree-stumps (pg. 99); a “male Mark IV tank ‘Hyacinth’” stuck in a ditch (pg. 201); a “German NCO and his Soldatenkunst [trench-art]” on brass shell cases (pg. 88); laughing British troops wearing captured German helmets (pp. 146-7); a “louse hunt” conducted by “Württembergers of the 123rd Grenadier Regiment ‘König Karl’” (pg. 189); a “bullet-riddled steel loophole plate” (pg. 155); a canvas-and-steel “dummy tree” used for artillery observation (pg. 198); and gas-masks for horses and dogs and a “gas-proof pigeon box incorporating air filters” (pg. 137). Bull discusses the Western Front from all three perspectives – Anglophone, Francophone, Teutophone – and describes how the three groups both fought and thought in distinct ways:

Interestingly many pictures of German soldiers in the latrines exist, whilst British sensibilities make this subject something of a rarity. George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps – no stranger to hardship or death – professed himself shocked by such exhibitions. (ch. 1, “Trenchtown”, pp. 76-7)

The three groups looked distinct too: the faces and expressions differ both between the big nations and within them. But one photo could be of any nationality and from almost any war of the past hundred years: “Snipers of the US 168th Infantry” wearing camouflage hoods and garments “in May 1918” (pg. 163). They look both anonymous and ominous and though the photo is black-and-white, it might have been taken in the Second World War or in Iraq or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. What happened in the First World War carries on now and learning about any war tells you something about all wars. But trench-warfare will probably never return on this scale and if you want to understand what it was like, this is a good guide.

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Front cover of A Hell for Heroes by Theo KnellA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

The title and sub-title suggested that this book would be heavily sentimental or highly warnographic or both. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting, enlightening and well-written war-books I’ve ever read. If it’s not ghosted – and it doesn’t seem to be – Theo Knell must be a very intelligent man. More unusually still, he can write good prose and help you understand what war and soldiering are like: loud, frightening, mind-and-marriage-destroying. I’m not so sure about the vers-libre poems that end some chapters. They’re interesting to read, but they aren’t as skilful or understated as the stories that precede them.

His first stories are about his childhood, which was disturbingly violent and loveless. Lots of children wouldn’t have survived it. In some ways he didn’t, but it made him tough and good at fighting, so he chose the army as a career. Like many others, he was also looking for family and comradeship: there is no bond like the bond of facing death together. Knell has come close to dying many times and can give you some idea of what it’s like. One of the earliest times was on what seemed at first like a routine armoured patrol through a country district in Northern Ireland. An armoured car got a puncture and the patrol stopped while it was repaired. Then a Land Rover drove up from behind carrying technicians on their way to repair a TV mast. They received permission to proceed and carried on up the road. A few seconds later, there was a huge explosion. When the patrol went to investigate, they found a twenty-foot crater in the road:

Although they had initially been invisible, as I now looked around me it became apparent that what I had thought were pieces of rubble were in fact human body parts, arms, legs and chunks of raw flesh. As I took in what lay before me the corporal said something that shook me to the bone:

“That landmine was meant for us. The Ferret getting a puncture and that Land Rover coming along the road when it did was the best bit of luck we’ll ever have, though the same can’t be said for them.”

… There were few visible signs of blood, considering that five men had been literally blown apart, but the smoke, with its smell of iron mixed with cordite, had now invaded my nose, mouth and throat and still hung mercilessly all around us. (“Like a Demon at My Shoulder”, pp. 84-5)

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a soldier, but it must help at times. Knell isn’t a psychopath, but he’s done things that are very cold and callous from the civilian point of view. Later, in “No Second Chances”, he describes sniping against a sniper, who’s rumoured to be a “Russian or East German” brought in by the IRA to kill a difficult target. It’s a real version of Ian Fleming’s short story “The Living Daylights”. He also writes about the hardships of training and selection, a vomit-inducing practical joke on a parachute jump, serving as a mercenary in Africa, working as a bouncer and saving someone’s life as a medic. It was a difficult job and required all his skill. But he was warned not to do it:

“Don’t work too hard, mate. He won’t thank you for taking him home in that state. Although his wife and kids will initially thank you, he will never forgive you.” Sadly he was right. Although I managed to keep the injured man alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair, he never did forgive me, and although he didn’t die until some years later, he never spoke to me again. (“Angel of Death or Mercy?”, pg. 193)

You have to experience war to fully understand it, but this book will take you as close as paper can go.

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StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Sniper: Sniping Skills from the World's Elite Forces by Martin J. DoughertySniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the spice of reading. I wouldn’t want to look at books like this regularly, but once in a while is good. Sniping, or shooting at long range from hiding, is an interesting topic in a number of ways: historically, strategically, psychologically, biologically, mathematically. And this book – subtitled an “SAS and Elite Forces Guide” to make it even more attractive to psychotics, psychopaths and spice-seekers – is a good introduction to the art of dealing death at a distance. It’s a well-designed mixture of line-drawings and uninspired but easy-to-read text:

As early as the 1770s, the term “sniper” was in use … although the context was different than today. The term originated in the sport of hunting small birds, of which the snipe was one of the hardest to hit. Thus a “sniper” was an extremely accomplished hunter who won the respect of his peers, and the term came to be applied in the same context as other words such as sharpshooter or marksman. (“Part One: The Sniper”, ch. 1, “A Brief History of Sniping”, pg. 18)

As he describes the development and techniques of sniping, Martin J. Dougherty also describes some famous snipers, like the Finn Simo Häyhä (1905-2002), nicknamed “The White Death” for the hundreds of casualties he inflicted when the Red Army invaded Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. Snipers are valuable not merely because they have a higher kill-ratio than an average soldier, but because their kills are often more harmful to the enemy: they try to target officers, radio-operators and other specialists. But a sniper’s most valuable target is often an enemy sniper, so snipers sometimes fight duels, like that between the Russian Vassili Zaitsev (1915-91) and (perhaps) a German called Major Erwin Koenig during the Battle of Stalingrad.

But sometimes enemy snipers are best left alone:

During the Vietnam War, US troops positioned near Da Nang came under fire at the same time every day by a particularly persistent enemy sniper who became known as Five O’Clock Charlie. Various attempts to eliminate the sniper having failed, the troops were in the process of moving a 106mm (4.17in) recoilless rifle up to the top of a hill when the realization came that this sniper had not actually managed to hit anyone. Rather than blast his suspected position with 106mm high-explosives, it was decided to leave him alone in case he was replaced by someone more competent. (“Part Three: Snipers in Action”, ch. 12, “The Effect of the Shot”, pg. 290)

So that sniper became funny rather than frightening, though I have to wonder whether his missed shots were deliberate rather than incompetent. Effective snipers are certainly frightening, so sniping becomes a branch of psychological warfare:

The ordinary soldier often has no way to respond … and this is a most demoralizing position to be in. Even in fairly low-threat areas there is always a suspicion that a sniper may, even now, be drawing a bead. … A lone sniper can hold up a large body of troops for some time. There have been cases of companies or even battalions halted for lengthy periods by a few shots. (“The Effect of the Shot”, pg. 291)

This fear means that capture is more dangerous for a sniper than for an ordinary soldier: “combat troops … have a special hatred for enemy snipers, especially if they have recently taken casualties from sniping” (“Part Three: Snipers in Action”, ch. 8, “The Sniper in the Field”, pg. 196). So a good sniper needs to be good at much more than shooting: he has to be able to move into position and fire without being seen. Camouflage and concealment are essential parts of a sniper’s training. But he needs to be able to improvise too: Simo Häyhä used to “hold snow in his mouth to prevent his breath condensing and giving away his position” (ch. 1, pg. 34).

In deserts, jungles or cities, different techniques are needed but some things don’t change: snipers always need patience, coolness and good judgment. This is where biology comes in: snipers are drawn disproportionately from certain races and sub-races. The book has an appendix listing “Top Snipers from the American Revolutionary War to the Present” and it’s no surprise to find Scottish and Irish surnames like Murphy, Ferguson, Hulme, Mawhinney and McGuire. Furthermore, ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that mimic vegetation and break up the human outline, were invented in Scotland for stalking deer.

More exotic surnames might have been in the appendix if some races were less clannish and had fought larger wars:

Afghan tribesmen have managed to achieve a surprising degree of accuracy with home-made flintlock weapons called jezails. These weapons outranged the muskets of British infantry, and some remain in use today. (ch. 1, “A Brief History of Sniping”, pg. 19)

This book also talks a lot about rifles and, in the final section, about the ways bullets pulp flesh, shatter bone and destroy internal organs. Or not destroy them: Dougherty also discusses the economics of killing versus wounding. A dead soldier is often far less costly than a wounded one. Dead men don’t fight, but they don’t have to be cared for either.

Less grotesque and in some ways more interesting is the question of how bullets get to the target. Firing at long range is affected by things that soldiers firing at close range don’t have to take into account:

On a very long shot, wind calculations become highly complex. The strength and even the direction of the wind can vary over the distance covered by a long shot, and there may also be eddies around the corners of buildings and other objects. Air temperature and humidity also affect a shot by changing the amount of drag the air exerts on a bullet as it passes through. … A sniper needs to be able to estimate the aggregate effect of these many factors on his shot at the precise moment he squeezes the trigger. The only way to learn this is from experience. … All snipers are trained to estimate wind speed from the movement of vegetation or litter, and how this will affect a bullet in flight. Yet, even with all this knowledge, picking an aim-point is something of a “black art”, with some snipers being instinctively better at it than others, sometimes without really understanding why they can fit all the pieces together to make a perfect shot. (“Part Two: The Making of a Sniper”, ch. 6, “Marksmanship”, pg. 164)

It’s the black art of training white matter: of supplying the brain with repeated experiences and allowing it to form implicit rules from them. The speed and efficiency with which these rules are formed and then applied will be related to the intelligence of the sniper. It’s not a job for stupid men and other groups are excluded too: the reckless, on the one hand, and the squeamish, on the other. Snipers have to see and understand the effects of their bullets in a way ordinary soldiers don’t.

But brain-training and bullet-aiming are mathematical processes no less than ballistics and bone-shattering. Sniping itself is one of the variables fed into the vast calculus of war, which is part of the even bigger calculus of history. Good snipers must be worth much more than their weight in gold. But the Iraq war is discussed and illustrated in this book and prompts me to raise a dangerous idea. The most cost-effective use of American or British snipers in recent history might have been to shoot neo-conservatives rather than Iraqi insurgents or members of the Taliban. One bullet, one Bush, Blair or Obama?

Alas, if you like the sound of that, then monitoring-devices hidden in this review have already beamed your details to all relevant agencies and a drone is speeding on its way. Sniping is centuries old now, drones are much more recent. But both are expressions of a very old phenomenon: war. Thanks in part to the neo-conservatives, who like mass immigration as much as their liberal opponents do, that phenomenon may return to Europe and America. If so, sniping will come with it and books like this will become more than spice in a diet of reading.

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