Since I’m a subscriber, I can’t tell whether y’all would be able to read this WSJ piece or not, but in case you can, I thought I’d share this link to a piece that was in the paper over the weekend headlined, “Hero or Killer? The Ambivalence of the Word ‘Sniper’.” It’s something I’d been wondering about, and I might not be the only one.
The hed is a bit misleading. The piece doesn’t really meaningfully get into the deeper moral implications of the word. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, in terms of that. There’s no doubt that there’s a great deal of moral ambiguity attaching to the sniper’s role. As I’ve written before, I don’t see how a sniper ever justifies his job to his own conscience, however many comrades’ lives he saves. As for the false dichotomy offered in the hed, well, I don’t see why a sniper (or any soldier) can’t be both hero and killer, whether deeply conflicted or cold-blooded about it.
Whether you can read the piece or not, here’s an excerpt:
The word has its roots in “snipe,” the name for a family of wading birds….
Game lovers found the bird notoriously hard to hunt, thanks to its erratic flight pattern….
In the 18th century, hunters with an accurate shot pursued “snipe-shooting.” Shortened to “sniping,” it took on a military meaning among British soldiers in colonial India.
In 1773, newspapers in England carried a “Letter From Bombay” about the previous year’s siege of Broach (now known as Bharuch) on India’s west coast. The letter-writer described how native combatants were skilled with a long musket that would allow “a man to hit an orange at the distance of 150 yards four times out of six.” The letter also told how soldiers, when erecting a battery, would draw fire from these sharpshooters by putting a ribboned hat on the end of a staff. “The soldiery,” the correspondent said, “humorously call it sniping.”…
Back in India, harassing shooters came to be known as “snipers.” An 1807 report by Major Jasper Nicolls, which was used in a court-martial trial, told of clearing out an area of soldiers, “though much annoyed at times by snipers.” For another century, press accounts of “snipers” in India and elsewhere invariably described such “annoyances” from enemy lines. That began to change with World War I, when the “sniper” became a military specialist trained on high-value targets….