March 12, 2003: Reading Room

New ways of war
Former Marine captain and novelist Bing West *67 looks at today’s reservists

By Louis Jacobson ’92

A former Marine captain who fought in Vietnam, Bing West *67 has drawn on his own combat experience in writing his first novel, The Pepperdogs. Published in December, The Pepperdogs tells the story of five infantry reservists who cross into Serbia against the orders of their superiors, in an effort to rescue a kidnapped comrade. The reservists use wireless Internet hookups to stimulate the support of sympathizers back home, heat-sensing devices to locate their enemies, and performance-enhancing drugs to maximize their endurance.

Technological developments like these have served to improve the quality of America’s infantry, says West. In fact, he wrote the novel, in part, “to explain how the new technologies have dramatically changed things” in ways that most people haven’t grasped.

West has carved out his own role in advanced military technology. After a long career in the Pentagon — including a stint as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Reagan administration — he founded a war-gaming and combat-training company called GAMA Corp., based in Springfield, Virginia. Since 1997 the company has used interactive digital-video simulations to train members of the military in instant decision-making.

The Pepperdogs isn’t West’s first book on the ways of war. As a Marine in 1966, one of West’s assignments was to assemble a training manual about the nuts and bolts of modern warfare. “The senior officers really wanted to know at a small-unit level what the Vietnam War was all about, because it was so different from World War II and Korea,” West says. So West packed up a clunky, reel-to-reel tape recorder along with his rifle and headed to the front lines for regular patrols with American and Vietnamese soldiers. His personal account of close combat in Vietnam, The Village, was first published in 1972, and was recently rereleased by Pocket Books. The Village describes how in 1966 and 1967, West’s Marine unit protected the small, thatched-roof village of Binh Nghia for 485 days, losing seven of the unit’s 15 men in the process.

A Marine with several years of service under his belt by the time he enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School as a master of public affairs student in 1965, West couldn’t wait to get back into the field, so he spent his summer vacations in uniform in Vietnam.

This sense of going above the call of duty remains important to West, and was a major reason that he wrote The Pepperdogs. “These are reservists, but they’re not just guys guarding our airports — they volunteered because they wanted to see action,” he says.

“Certainly many of the SEALs, Marine infantry, C.I.A. special activity division, fighter pilots, and others whom I’ve met would seek action, not desk duty,” he says. “They were highly trained, they sought out challenges above and beyond, and they volunteered for the action when conflict came. Are they numerous? No. Are they needed? Yes.”


Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine in Washington.

Click here for West’s assessment of the combat readiness of U.S. troops for a war with Iraq.



Miscarriage: Why it Happens and How Best to Reduce Your Risks: A Doctor’s Guide to the Facts — Henry Lerner ’71 (Perseus). A guide for doctors and women, this book addresses causes of miscarriage and describes current diagnostic tests and medical procedures. It also offers advice for recovery and for coping with the anxiety and depression often associated with pregnancy loss. Lerner is an obstetrician/gynecologist in Newton, Massachusetts.

Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 — W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 (Yale). The author traces the development of American architecture from the age of Jefferson to the antebellum era. He examines American architecture’s dependence, in both theory and practice, on Europe and particularly Great Britain. The volume reproduces rare historic prints of important buildings that have been demolished or altered. Maynard is an independent scholar living in Newark, Delaware.

Southern History Across the Color Line — Nell Irvin Painter (Chapel Hill). The essays in this book offer a social analysis of the lives of blacks and whites in the 19th and 20th century South, concluding that their lives, far from being separate, were thoroughly entangled. Painter explores such themes as interracial sex, white supremacy, and the physical and psychological violence of slavery. Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History and the author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996).

By Jeanne Alnot ’04

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