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Snipers - Cowardly assassins, or surgical soldiers?

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In fact, the hated invisible sniper - remorseless, cold-hearted, often responsible for more deaths than the blackest-hearted serial murderer in civil life - has some of the cleanest hands on the battlefield. He is surely one of the most economical combatants, generally requiring fewer than five bullets (in well-trained militaries, fewer than two) to kill an enemy, where line troops will fire thousands of rounds to achieve the same effect. And the sniper's kills are often high-value enemies, too; officers or valuable specialists. Snipers on the whole tend to avoid mowing down hapless footsoldiers en masse, certainly when compared to the rest of the armed forces.

But the hate effect is real nonetheless. Consider this World War Two infantryman's account:

As we stood there talking over the battle so far, a sniper shot one of the Worcesters and I dragged him to safety, but his foot was still sticking out of the doorway where I got him to, and that bastard shot him through the foot. I had never really hated the Germans until that point, but there was something so nasty about that act that I decided never to give them the benefit of the doubt after that...

As we crossed the barbed wire fence I got caught, and I reckon it saved my life because by the time I got myself free the others were all dead. Killed by sniper fire ... I ran back and got a tank to fire at the trees where I thought the Germans were, then out they came, 30 odd Germans. I went among them, looking for the sniper badges, I don't know what I would have done had I found any.

A more modern example is the urban legend which has sprung up in the Russian forces regarding female mercenary snipers from the Baltic states, said to have fought for the Chechens and, more recently, for the Georgians during the recent Russian military incursion. Russians with overheated imaginations refer to these deadly fictional ladies as the "white tights," apparently, and believe in them strongly enough that women from the Baltic area often have passport problems getting into or out of central Asia via Russia.

It isn't just the snipers' enemies who don't seem to like them. Their own armies don't care for them much either. The default position in the British army, for instance, has generally been to encounter enemy snipers in a war, build up a good capability in response, then after the war let it wither away again. By the 1990s, while every infantry battalion still held sniper rifles as part of its standard kit, it was a rare battalion which had enough men trained to use them. Many battalions had no properly organised sniper section at all.

During the long decades of neglect, however, a few units kept up their sniping skills. Marines worldwide have something of a tradition of sniping, and the Royal Marine Commandos maintained their expertise. So did the special forces, the SAS and SBS, and some infantry units such as the Paratroops.

But the Balkan wars of the late 1990s rekindled interest in sniping. The sniper's traditional advantages were part of this, but there was also a new factor in play - that of modern Rules of Engagement (ROE). Ordinary modern infantry rifles shoot intermediate-power ammunition and are seldom intended to be used at ranges greater than a few hundred metres. In the Cold War mindset, this didn't matter - targets further off could be more quickly and surely wiped out by heavy weapons of one kind or another.

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