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Combat readiness

March 12, 2003:

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

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 since the Vietnam era, 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 been grasped yet.
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 decisionmaking.
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 it was recently re-released by Pocket Books. The Village describes how in 1966 and 1967, the Marine unit West was attached to 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 back 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, CIA 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."

By Louis Jacobson ’92

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

Q: Are our troops prepared for the kind of hand-to-hand combat we're likely
to see in Iraq?

A: Having watched these soldiers in action and having helped with their training, I'd say it's the Iraqis who have to be concerned, because the fighting will go very fast. If last time — the Gulf War — we beat them 100-0, I think this time we can beat them 200-0, with fewer troops. It bewilders me how the Iraqi Army could be sitting there waiting for us a second time. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if once we really have moved troops over there and Iraq knows we're coming, some military officer will say, "Well, Mr. Saddam, we think it's time for you to go."

Q: Are you worried about biological weapons?

A: In terms of fast warfare, biological doesn't play at all. If there's a germ, it won't affect you during the 5-10 hours of the attack. You may get sick days later, but it doesn't affect the battlefield outcome. It's a terror weapon, not a battlefield weapon. And if they use it, you can certainly ensure that every captured Iraqi involved will go before a war-crimes trial.

Q: What about chemical weapons?

A: They will slow you down somewhat because you have to put on protective gear as you move through, which can be cumbersome. But if your troops are prepared, it doesn't affect the outcome. In World War I, gas attacks accounted for between four and seven percent of total casualties, despite being used in a vast way. Sometimes it would affect local battles, but it was not in a league with the machine gun or artillery in devastation. If he does loose chemical weapons, I fully expect us to fight our way through it. Then it will just be a question of the trials that come later.
In addition, if you stop to think about how much Iraq would have to do to make it work. You'd have to persuade your troops to use it and deal with the wind currents. The logistics would be overwhelming. And how is he going to disperse it if it's hidden?

Q: Why are some top military officials, often speaking off the record to reporters, expressing so much concern about how difficult it will be to fight in Iraq?

A: I can assure you that our soldiers are very well trained. But that doesn't mean that generals can't have a thousand different concerns. A general is paid to think of everything that could possibly go wrong. It's like being an NFL coach. If you ask him how the next game is going to be, he's never going to say it's going to be an easy game.

Q: Have Americans now gotten so used to low-casualty wars that they have unrealistic expectations about the cleanliness of war?

A: Overall, it is an erroneous conclusion to think that we or anyone else can fight wars with fewer casualties than you have from auto accidents. It's a false security. We're going to run into some tough guys and bad situations no matter how good you are. By Louis Jacobson ’92
Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent at National Jour
nal magazine in Washington.