It is a common myth throughout the world that "snipers are cowards." I have heard that phrase uttered hundreds of times, yet I continue to shake my head at these misinformed people. Far from cowardly, snipers are very brave individuals. Nevertheless, this misconception about snipers persists and hurts our profession. I will, therefore, seek to dispel this myth of snipers being cowards with facts, experience, and my own opinion by covering what a sniper is and what a sniper does to establish that snipers act out of bravery, not cowardice.
Before we consider the sniper's courage, we must address some misused terms, including "sniper," and "assassination." What is the origin of the term "sniper" and what does it mean? The term was first used during the 1800's in British India. The British hunters often hunted a long-billed wading bird of the genus Capella commonly known as a snipe. This bird's quickness and small size made it a hard target to shoot. As a result, the best of these snipe hunters became known as snipers. Later, the German Army appropriated the term for military use.
A review of dictionaries and official government documents provides some understanding of the modern definition of the term "sniper." "Sniper," as defined in Webster's University Dictionary, is "a skilled military rifleman detailed to spot and pick off enemy troops from a concealed place." In 1992, COL. W. Hays Parks (U.S.M.C), Special Assistant for Law of War Matters, published his "Memorandum of Law on the Legality of Snipers." (Department of the Army Pamphlet 27-50-241.) Parks summarized the various definitions and descriptions of the term "sniper". Parks concluded, "[a] sniper is a lawful weapon system. Sniper use by the armed services of the United States is entirely consistent with the law of war obligations of the United States." His work makes clear that snipers engage lawful military targets, just as do regular soldiers, but do so at greater ranges.
What then, of the terms "assassination" and "assassin." In 1989, Parks addressed these terms in his "Memorandum of Law: Executive Order 12333 and Assassination." (Department of the Army Pamphlet 27-50-204.) Parks opined that "assassination," in peace time, "would seem to encompass the murder of a private individual or public figure for political purposes, and in some cases also require that the act constitute a covert activity, particularly when the individual is a private citizen." Colonel Parks then went on to define the legal use of military snipers in a wartime mission against "civilians who work within a military objective, the substitution of a civilian in a position or billet that would normally would be occupied by a member of the military" counterinsurgency or Guerrillas, and any other person connected with the military or it purpose." Parks distinguished the lawful targeting of military officials and civilians for military objectives from assassination as a purely political tool. Further, the Random House Dictionary, 2nd Edition 1987, defines assassination as "to kill suddenly or secretly, especially a politically prominent person."
A comparison of sniping and assassination shows that while they may have some overlap or interchangeability from a layman's perspective, they are legally distinguishable and are not completely synonymous. Moreover, the comparison of these definitions does not address the ultimate goal of this paper, the question of a sniper's courage. It is necessary then to take a closer look into the primary mission of a military sniper and his training.
The Army sniper's primary mission is to deliver long-range, precision fire on key targets and targets of opportunity. His secondary mission is to collect battlefield information and report it to the command and control structures. These are very specific missions with very real dangers. To be able to carry out these missions, a sniper performs most of his work behind enemy lines. At best, a sniper may have with him a lightly-armed security contingent -- but more likely, the only person accompanying a sniper is his "spotter." Without minimizing the importance of the spotter, his main function is to observe a target area and provide data to the shooter. This job is not nearly as easy as it may seem. The spotter must also be fully qualified and trained as a sniper to carry out the mission.
The two team members usually will train as a team during normal peacetime operations, which is critical to the cohesiveness of this unit in carrying out a mission. The U.S. Army Sniper School is five weeks long in duration, nearly 400 hours of intensely-packed training. The classes are usually small and have a high failure rate. Before a student can even be considered for attendance to sniper school, he must meet stringent qualifications and pass a mental examination. Once enrolled in the school, the "express train" (called training) starts moving at top speed. The first week consists of physical training every morning followed by a long day of classroom instruction. These first few weeks' worth of nights are spent pouring sweat and hard work into the construction of a ghillie suit. The ghillie suit is a special hand-made form of camouflage. It was originally designed during the 1800's by Scottish game wardens to help aid them in catching poachers. The sniper students spend an average of 30-50 hours of labor and love in this construction process. The allotted time for construction does not begin until around 1800 hours, at the end of class.
The classes themselves cover a wide range of topics. Some of the most important to the actual shooting process are range estimation, wind classification, and ballistics. Ballistics, the external and internal functioning of the rifle and bullet, is the first important lesson. A sniper must know the why and how of ballistics intimately. Without this basic stepping stone, the concepts that are taught later will be lost. The next big lesson is range estimation. The sniper's rifle is set up to achieve MOA (minute of angle) accuracy. In more common terms, this means that the bullet should impact within a one-inch circle for every one hundred meters. This works out to 2" at 200 meters, 5" at 500 meters, and 10" at 1000 meters. The military sniper's rifle is equipped with a special mil dot reticle to help him determine range to a target. The mil dot reticle is a laser-etched pattern made up of eight horizontal and eight vertical dots placed on a normal-looking crosshair reticle. The sniper learns a formula that is applied to the information gathered with the special scope. The algebraic formula is "size of target height (or width) in inches x 25.4 then divided by the size of the target in mils as determined with the mil dot scope." This means that the sniper must very closely know the size of his target and accurately determine its relational size using the rifle's specialized scope. Once the sniper determines the target's range, he can adjust the scope for elevation. When shooting at a 700 meter target, the rifle already shoots (+/-) seven-inch groups. A normal human head only represents a 10-inch target. This only leaves 3" for error. Improper range estimation, being as little as 20 meters off, can result in a missed opportunity and a failed mission. As important as range estimation is, it is not the greatest cause of missed targets -- wind is.
The sniper must learn to take into effect both the wind's speed and its exact direction. At the longer ranges, there can actually be several different winds. There may be one wind from left to right at 8 mph and then farther out a second or third wind in a different direction and speed. All these winds must be calculated. The sniper must learn to properly gauge the wind speed using natural indicators like grass, smoke drift, and trees. Of the many types of wind indicators the most accurate is reading mirage. Reading mirage is the act of watching and interpreting the heat waves moving above the ground. The sniper plugs this information into another algebraic formula along with distance and time of bullet flight then divides that answer by a "constant" number, which is dependent upon the target's distance. With this new data, the sniper can dial in his scope to cancel out the effect of the wind. In the working sniper team, the two members work together to gather and utilize all necessary data. At school however, the sniper learns these lessons on his own. After the first long week of classroom training, it's finally time to start getting lessons in a field environment and learning the mechanics of proper shooting.
With the first week of classes out of the way and the students having completed their ghillie suit construction, it's time to hit the wood line. The second, third, and fourth weeks are comprised of practical exercises and tests covering everything taught during week one. Almost every day brings a new stalk site. Stalking is the term used when a sniper maneuvers into his Final Firing Position (FFP). The sniper moves on his stomach by pulling with his fingers and pushing with his toes while lying flat on the ground. The sniper's equipment is dragged behind him in a bag that he constructs at the same time he builds his ghillie suit. The sniper measures his progress in inches, not feet. In the school environment, when a sniper is detected he receives zero points for that test, which could very easily result in his failure of the course. On a real life mission behind enemy lines, when a sniper is detected, it will certainly result in his torture and death. (Given the widespread misunderstanding of snipers and the general dislike of the profession by opponents on the battlefield, a sniper knows that his rights as a prisoner-of-war will not be respected.)
After the fourth week, with all field-oriented tests completed, the remaining students participate in a four day Field Training Exercise (FTX). This is run just as a real-life mission might be conducted. The snipers form two-man teams. They receive an operation order, which explains their first mission. The sniper team must then plan their routes of movement and places for FFPs. As they reach each objective and accomplish that mission, they receive another follow-on mission via their radio. For the entire four days, the sniper team is on the move. During the FTX, everything the sniper team learned during the course is put to the test. Most students that make it this far have what it takes to pass the sniper school's version of a final exam.
Graduation is not the end of the training process for the sniper. The sniper must constantly practice and update his skills. Now that some of the training a sniper goes through is understood, we can begin to address his true courage and dispel the myth that "snipers are cowards."
Any consideration of the level of courage necessary for a sniper begins and ends with Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock, II (U.S.M.C.). Written by Charles Henderson, the book Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills covers the exploits and life of Hathcock and allows the reader to relive the dangers and victories of this famous Marine. Pertinent to this paper is Henderson's discussion about the special kind of courage that it takes to be a sniper.
"It takes a special kind of courage to be alone; to be alone with your thoughts, to be alone with your fears, to be alone with your doubts. This courage is not the superficial brand stimulated by the flow of adrenaline. Neither is it the courage that comes from the fear that others may think one a coward.
It is the courage born of honor.
Honor on the Battlefield is a sniper's ethic. He shows it by the standards and discipline with which he lives life in combat. By the decency he shows his comrades and by the rules he adheres to when meeting the enemy.
The sniper does not hate the enemy; he respects him or her as a quarry. Psychologically, the only motive that will sustain the sniper is the knowledge that he is the best person to do it. On the battlefield hate will destroy any man - and a sniper quicker than most.
The sniper is the big-game hunter of the battlefield, and he needs all the skills of the woodsman, marksman, and poacher. He must posses the field craft to be able to position himself for a killing shot, and he must be able to effectively place a single bullet into his intended target." (Henderson, 1986)
This description eloquently explains the skill and courage necessary needed to be a true sniper. Indeed, Hathcock -- time and again -- acted with great honor and true bravery in dispatching the enemy, as recounted in Henderson's book.
The clearest picture of the courage necessary to be a sniper is found in Hathcock's stalk of a North Vietnamese Army General. The stalk covered 2000 meters of flat ground with nothing more for cover and concealment than grass that was only two feet high. Carlos Hathcock crawled "inches per minute and yards per hour" for two days and three nights to cover a distance that could be walked, by a man at normal speed, in ten minutes. The entire time Hathcock was moving into his FFP, enemy patrols were walking all around him. One NVA soldier even brushed Carlos' leg as he walked past the sniper hiding in the grass. On the morning of his fourth day, without having eaten any food and having had very little water, Carlos finally made it into the right spot. He found himself 800 meters from the target area. At the appropriate time, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock fired his devastating shot, killing the NVA General. Only after having made the shot, did Hathcock exit his FFP to escape the furious search for the sharpshooter who had seriously damaged the command and control structure of the NVA units operating in the area. A coward could not have accomplished this mission; only an extremely skilled and very brave man could.
There are many snipers, military and police, past and present, who have shown their bravery in real-life situations. What coward would risk his life behind enemy lines with nothing more than his skill and a five-shot rifle for protection? What coward would take the time to painstakingly construct a firing hide from within a building, to be able to later make the perfect shot on a perpetrator holding innocent people hostage, before the criminal suspect begins taking the lives of his hostages? Cowards don't risk themselves to protect the lives of others, nor do they act with decisiveness after deliberation of their intended actions and consideration of the consequences of those actions. Snipers must -- and do.
In Vietnam, the average number of rounds used by a soldier was 2,200 bullets per kill. The average of rounds used by a sniper was only 1.3 rounds per kill. A sniper is a force multiplier whose abilities should be praised, not condemned. It takes a special kind of person to be able place his own life on the line for the good of his country. We have discussed how some definitions are interchangeable, but the terms "sniper" and "coward" aren't. In condemning the quacks and murderers who have used rifles to hurt others we have besmirched the reputations and honor of courageous men. This is dishonest, sloppy and ultimately harmful to society. Let's not condemn the sniping profession because of a few bad people with guns who were nothing more than good (or just lucky) shooters with criminal -- sometimes demented -- minds. The term "sniper" is reserved for the courageous rifleman who, time and again, risks his life in defense of his country to take that one shot -- that, if successful, will make the difference between victory and defeat.