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Rotten to the Corps

There is success and then there is huge success. “Jarhead” has enjoyed the second kind: best-seller status, fawning reviews and the “relevance” that only war can bring to a book by a military man. Would it be uncharitable to question whether such success has been deserved? Perhaps. Well, then, let us be uncharitable. The author certainly is.

In the opening pages of “Jarhead” (Scribner, 260 pages, $24), Anthony Swofford says that he repeatedly stole and sold the gear of other Marines, knowing it would cost his fellow soldiers weeks of pay and poor fitness reports, compromising their future in the corps. Is he remorseful? Not a bit. And why should he be? He portrays the Marines, generally speaking, as homicidal delinquents.

The New York Times gushed about Mr. Swofford’s “searingly honest portrayal of the combat soldier,” but his combat experience was brief: He experienced no firefights and two shellings in Desert Storm, which caused him to lose control of his bladder. But “Jarhead” isn’t mostly about combat; it’s about arrested development: part dysfunctional family, part boot-camp ritual, part sex and booze, part existential angst, part high jinks and part antiwar cant — e.g., Desert Storm was fought to protect “the profits of companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House.”

Much of the book authentically describes the boring, often comical, routine of infantry in peacetime. (Mr. Swofford served from 1989 to 1991.) But it also tells tales of cruelty and stupidity. Here are a few of the incidents he relates:

• In Saudi Arabia, waiting for Desert Storm, a colonel in an “air-conditioned Land Rover” (really) and a staff sergeant force the platoon to play football in chemical-protective gear and gas masks to entertain the press. It’s around 140 degrees in the suits, so in frustration the platoon seizes a hapless Marine and simulates gang-raping him. The horrified colonel hastily drives off.

• Upset by a transient love affair, the author decides to kill himself. When he puts his rifle muzzle in his mouth, another Marine hits him and snatches away the weapon. The two then go out for a run — and the emotional trauma dissolves.

• When a soldier falls asleep on watch, the author shoves the muzzle of a loaded M16 into his ear. The author twists the barrel slowly, debating whether to murder the man, who is sobbing and begging. After taunting him, the author lets him live.

• On his only patrol during Desert Storm, the author drains his radio batteries listening to news of the war. The next day, he says, he walks back five miles, dodging enemy tanks. Inside his own lines he discovers that the “men are lying naked . . . weapons strewn about.” The debauching company, having heard the war was over, forgot about the patrol, didn’t notice that the patrol hadn’t checked in on the radio, didn’t post sentries and, not least, didn’t see the enemy tanks.

• A few days later, the author’s platoon finds Iraqi bodies. One Marine, “day after day, with his bayonet hacks into [a] torso.” Others in the platoon, including the author, disfigure corpses until the sergeant major lectures them.

Reviewers have praised Mr. Swofford for depicting the “real” truth about the combat infantryman, so let’s do some real math: (1) For his repeated theft, the author deserved 18 months and a Bad Conduct Discharge; (2) for threatening suicide, a General Discharge and a sojourn in a psychiatric ward; (3) for threatening murder, five years and a Dishonorable Discharge.

Far from telling the story of The Universal Soldier, the grunt’s unadorned truth, as reviewers have intimated, “Jarhead” is the over-written memoir of someone who did not experience serious combat. He either told tall tales or committed criminal acts under oblivious leaders whom he does not name. Either way, this is not how combat soldiers behave. “Jarhead” is to nonfiction what “Platoon” was to the movies: an insult to the American infantryman.

Mr. West, a former Marine combat infantryman and assistant secretary of defense, is the author of the novels “The Village” and “The Pepperdogs.”

Vietnam War Was Honorable

Last Christmas, I went back to a village where I had fought 35 years ago. It is 400 miles north of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The North Vietnamese had also changed the name of the village – to show who had won the war. A solitary Marine squad had fought in that village, living among 6,000 Vietnamese. In 1966, fifteen Americans walked in; 485 days later, eight walked out. More Americans died in the rice paddies around a forgotten place call Chulai than in all of Desert Storm. And for what?

In the village, I visited our old fort, now a kindergarten, and prowled around the moss-covered stone foundations, kicking up old memories. When I walked back out to the paddy dike, I was surrounded by smiling villagers. An old farmer (my age) peered at me and said: “Welcome back, Dai Uy.” A third of a century later, they remembered me, a young captain from decades earlier. They asked by name about the other Marines who had gone home those many years ago and led me through the trails to a palm tree overlooking a bright green paddy. There they showed me a rough marble marker – their memorial to the seven Marines who had lived in that village for a year and a half and who had not walked out.

In the larger geopolitical scheme of things, does the fondness of those villagers for Americans known long ago mean anything? Possibly. It’s fashionable now to say Vietnam was a “bad” war, where even children threw grenades, forcing American soldiers like to do terrible things. It was a country unworthy of our sacrifice. Those who avoided or protested service argued that it was better not to serve. While poll after poll shows that the Vietnam veterans are proud they served, their collective judgment has been ignored by a media which has labeled the war as unworthy.

The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw of NBC News became a best selling book by depicting how ordinary and famous Americans united to fight World War II. As the success of Brokaw’s book attests, winning casts a long shadow; we justly praised ourselves for our efforts in the 1940s. Losing has the opposite effect. No such book will emerge about Vietnam.

The Greatest Generation also were the leaders who sent the next generation into Vietnam. Those same leaders eventually lost heart, abandoned the South Vietnamese people, and transferred to them the blame for failure. Aesop wrote about the fox who, failing to snatch the grapes from the vine, declared them sour. We acted the same way. As a nation, we declared we would help the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the communists directed from North Vietnam and aided by China and the Soviet Union. When the price became too high, many of the same leaders from the Greatest Generation declared the South Vietnamese no longer deserving of our sacrifices. Sometimes we’re not the greatest.

Today, three myths distort the American role in the war in Vietnam. The first myth is that we were defeated on the battlefield. Actually, all American combat forces had withdrawn years before Saigon fell. After their withdrawal, North Vietnam invaded in 1972 and was driven back by South Vietnamese ground forces and US airpower. In recent movies such as We Were Soldiers Once and Young, North Vietnamese willpower is portrayed as implacable and unstoppable.

This is rubbish. As the tragedy of World War I demonstrated, every nation has a breaking point. Three times we had the North Vietnamese on the ropes, and each time it was policy fickleness in Washington D.C. which persuaded them to continue. In the second invasion in 1975, North Vietnam employed Chinese artillery pieces and Soviet-built tanks. We refused to bomb those targets and instead slashed our aid. At the end, some South Vietnamese soldiers were down to one grenade a day.

The second myth is that of moral equivalency – depicting antiwar protestors defying American authorities as being as courageous as the American soldiers fighting the North Vietnamese. After all, the protestors had Woodstock, where it was difficult singing and making love in the rain; the soldiers had the jungles, slogging through the heat and mud, losing 50,000 dead. Some who avoided fighting claimed they were protesting for the sake of those who were fighting. Yet those who fought are proud they did so and in the main saw the protestors as a reason why the North Vietnamese continued to fight. Thanks to the press, we remember the protestors more fondly than we do those who fought. As a nation, we ignored – and often scorned – our servicemen on their return from Vietnam.

Vietnam is depicted as more brutal than World War II. The actions of a few who shot civilians, such as former Senator Bob Kerrey, have received front-page coverage, with the spin angle being that “the war made me do it”. The ‘war’ corrupted American values and decency. The opposite was actually the case. We inflicted less damage on the civilian population in Vietnam than we did in France and Germany. Our soldiers in Vietnam fought as valiantly and as humanely as did the Greatest Generation in World War II.

The third myth is that losing makes little difference. But losing did affect our self-confidence and to this day some countries are wrongly emboldened, believing we can be beaten on battlefield. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, American foreign policy manifested serious dyspepsia. In supplicant fashion, we courted détente – “can’t we all just get along?” – with a supposedly stronger Soviet Union and we permitted a rabble to seize our embassy in Iran. Only gradually did we recover, electing President Reagan, rebuilding our military, challenging the Soviet Union and abetting in its demise.

The historian Stephen Ambrose has observed that, of all the European nations, American GIs in World War II liked best the Germans, against whom they had fought. Similarly, South Vietnamese widely welcome and genuinely like Americans, though they have nothing to thank us for. The septuagenarians in Hanoi control the economic, religious, social, travel, educational, professional and personal freedoms of every Vietnamese. One of the few remaining Bolshevik communist regimes, the dictators in Hanoi memorialize long-ago battles, yet they cannot chart a course into the future.

So Vietnam is mired in a bleak past, while America is the beacon for a shining future. We recovered our geopolitical self-confidence and our martial prowess; for millions of people in Southeast Asia, there was no recovery. That is a tragedy. The South Vietnamese have grace, culture and ambition. Given the freedom to pursue their own opportunities, they would prosper. Some day the yoke will be lifted from the Vietnamese people. But we should have no illusions about the repressive nature of the current regime. Freedom did not flourish when the North Vietnamese took control.

In 1953 when we were fighting a limited war in South Korea, that country was not a model of enlightened democracy. Today South Korea is a thriving democracy, where we still have stationed 25,000 American soldiers to deter an impoverished, hostile North Korea. To our credit, we have stayed the course there.

In contrast, we tired of the limited war in South Vietnam; the war simply went on too long. That we stopped fighting and withdrew most of our aid is understandable if not laudable. In Korea and in Vietnam, we chose two different courses. Today, South Korea’s future is bright and South Vietnam’s future is bleak. That cannot be changed. But we should not let myths turn us into Aesop’s fox and blame the grapes. The day Saigon fell, the Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, sent a message to our armed forces.

It read in part: “Our involvement was intended to assist a small nation to preserve its independence…You have done all that was asked of you…You are entitled to the nation’s respect, admiration and gratitude.”

That is the proper, elliptical epitaph to the Vietnam War.

Appearances

10 Feb –  NYC, Council on Foreign Relations, Paley Center

Film screening and discussion of Restrepo
Sebastin Junger, Tim Hetherington, Gideon Rose & Bing West

12 Feb – D.C. Nixon Center, Ambassador Khalilzad, Mr. Cordesman, Mr. Preble & Mr. West

23 Feb  – Colbert Report, 7PM

24 Feb – D.C. Center for a New American Security, 11AM

24 Feb – Politics & Prose, 7PM 5015 Conn. Ave. NW

25 Feb – Quantico, VA Marine Corps Command & Staff, 1230

28 Feb – San Francisco, Marine Memorial Club

2 March – Los Angeles

3 March – Seattle, World Affairs Council, 6:30PM

7 March – Houston, Word Affairs Council,

8 March – Dallas, World Affairs Council,

9 March – Chicago, Council on Global Affairs

10 March – Chicago, Pritzker Military Library

11 March -Return to Afghanistan for a few weeks

24 March – New York City, Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Gala Dinner

6 April – New York City, Colony Club

14 April – D.C., Army-Navy Club

Welcome to the Jungle

On the fifth sleepless night of the world’s toughest expedition race, three intrepid Playmates crashed down the rapids of the Segami river in Borneo, boulders surging up suddenly out of the black, fighting to control the sampan canoe, headlamps swiveling, paddles digging, shouting warnings. Disaster would be the one boulder we missed seeing. So we tied up to an overhanging tree for a few hours sleep, placing our life jackets under us for cushioning. The jungle was as black as a cave -the triple canopy sealed out the starlight and without the lamps we could not see our hands-and it was incredibly loud with the monkeys screeching, the river roaring, large, thirsty animals crashing through the brush to the water for last call, and the occasional explosive grunt of a meal missed or seized. With thoughts of crocodiles curious about the bump, bump, bump of the canoe against the bank, none of us were sleeping heavily when the snake came for us.

Kalin Olson was on hyper watch, her headlamp gyrating like a berserk lighthouse, when she screamed-a seven-foot pit viper was skimming across the river toward the canoe in the rippling cone of her light. When it reached the gunwale it did not divert but stopped, lifted its head out of the water, and began waving from side-to-side, trying to propel itself into the boat. All hell broke loose.

“Ohmygoditsahugesnake!” screamed Kalin, Miss August 1997. “Get a paddle and hit it!”

“Turn your light off!” screamed Jenny LaVoie, Miss April 1993. “It’s coming in!”

“Cut us free, Owen!” screamed Danelle Folta, Miss August 1995 and our team captain. “Now! Now!”

“AAAHHH!”, was this former Marine’s contribution to sanity. “AAAHHH!”

After I cut, slashed, hacked, and bit loose the tether, the dug-out spun sideways into the next set of rapids waiting in ambush, smashing into a submerged log. The canoe slowly rode up over the log, tilting and slipping toward a capsize, without life jackets, on a black night into a black, fast-running river brimming with reptiles. I had the troubling thought: This could end badly-what am I doing in this crazy race again? And what the hell are three Playboy Playmates doing here?

Founded by Survivor producer Mark Burnett, the Eco Challenge is a brutal competition that pushes its racers to the edges of their emotional and physical limits-then shoves them past. Co-ed teams of four (I was the token male that reversed the usual gender breakdown) paddle, hike, rappel, kayak, climb, swim, raft, mountain bike and run for ten days toward a finish 500 kilometers away. There are no time-outs and the clock never stops; teams sleep only when the bodies refuse to go another step without rest. Racers navigate using maps, compasses, altimeters and their fading ability to make decisions and function as a team, becoming more disoriented with each sleepless night. After the first 24 hours of continuous paddling or running, most carry a lingering nausea, much like after an all-night party binge. Only they will carry with them that retching feeling -along with their other gear-for another ten days.

The Eco Challenge annually attracts insane endurance athletes from around world in pursuit of adventure racing’s World Championship so they might butt their already damaged heads. The 300 racers include some of the world’s best conditioned athletes. All expect to finish well, yet over the years, most fail to finish at all.

After the 1998 Morocco Eco Challenge, I vowed never to race again, a promise I had made at the finish lines of three other Ecos. So when my wife got the call inviting me to join three Playmates as the token male on Team Playboy Xtreme, her response was immediate. “He’ll be there.” A midnight dip in the crocodile-infested Segami River? A small sacrifice for the sisterhood. Danelle Folta founded the Xtreme Team in 1998-a warren of athletic Playmates who competed in various sports around the nation, outclimbing and outrunning college kids on spring breaks, kicking corporate ass in well-attended volleyball and softball tournaments, placing well in miniature, three-hour versions of the Eco Challenge, more triathlons than adventure races. Everywhere she took her team, Danelle took another step toward her goal: shatter the stereotype that Playmates are too soft and coddled to compete on a high athletic plane. In the Eco Challenge, she had a chance at the ultimate test on the ultimate stage, the Mount Everest of extreme endurance, and though it had come a few years ahead of her scheduled workup she leapt at the chance. If we can just do well in this bitch of a withering race, she thought, maybe even finish, we’ll vanquish this irritating myth.

The over-under on Team Playboy Xtreme was established quickly in Borneo-three days, then one of the bunnies will come up with an injury or just quit. There were whispers that Burnett’s race course-kept secret until the gun is fired-was going to be murder this time. Over a hundred miles of ocean paddling. Vicious squalls. Impossibly thick jungle navigation. Leeches everywhere. Terrifying rope ascents and rappels. Brutal 100km mountain bike leg. If one teammate drops, that can end the race for the other three. I had seen many hardcore teams drop because one person’s will had ground up and blown away or because of serious injury, including my Morocco team where one teammate ripped open her quadriceps and another had such severe altitude sickness that only a helicopter rescue could stop his vomiting. In the hardest race to date, British Columbia in 1996, 75 teams crossed the starting line but only 13 finished. I didn’t like the odds on Playboy Xtreme, but I understood them.

So while mountain biking at 3 AM on a jungle road-with just four hours to go before we could take the ‘Three Days’ monkey out behind the wood shed-I was not surprised when Danelle’s bike shattered and proved irreparable. The Eco Challenge does this sort of thing. Kicks you when you’re down and watches to see how you’ll react. If there were any questions about mettle, Danelle answered them when she pushed the bike-you must start and finish each Eco Challenge leg with all your equipment-and began what was to be a Bataan Death March instead of a bike leg, hiking instead of riding the final 40 kilometers, the sun rising, temperature reaching 100 degrees, evaporating the already low levels of water in our bottles and bodies, beating down and down even as the mud trail forced us up and up.

Gender is inconsequential in adventure racing but there are peculiarities when you’re racing with three women: alien conversations-love, boys, waxing and the differences between Playboy and that rag Penthouse-and a constant and drastic shift in emotions that left me feeling like I was on a Mr. Toad’s wild roller coaster, peaks of laughter and valleys of growls a second later. We left a trail slick with tears but, drifting dangerously close to heat exhaustion, we reached the end of the bike leg in 29 hours. The fastest team had finished in ten. We pushed our bike across and finished the leg as a team.

It marked the beginning of the nastiest leg of the race-a 60 kilometer jungle trek that had ruined the feet of some of the fastest racers. The broken bike had prevented us from reaching the checkpoint in time to continue on for an official ranking (nearly half the teams faced this conundrum) so we had two choices-we could still attempt the finish line unranked or we could quit.

The thought of starting a leech-infested jungle trek immediately after a hike that had extracted such a terrible toll was abominable. I suspected that someone would yield but I was proud of our effort. In three and a half days I had seen wondrous things, and I’m not just talking about the women themselves; that novelty disappeared during hour two on the western Pacific Ocean when the wind came up and our tiny ocean canoe was severely punctured by some coral. That night, I had seen the women eagerly dig their paddles into a black ocean as we set off in our freshly patched junk for one of the ocean crossings. There were no signs of other boats or even atolls to use as aiming points, just a dark curtain on a compass heading where low rain clouds obscured the stars. The Playmates were chatting happily when the wind came up but the timorous steersman was thinking, This is for keeps. I had seen Jenny-95 pounds of pure energy-hike up an impossibly steep atoll with a heavy pack, crying most of the time and putting me on ‘mute’ but never quitting on a hump that would have dropped most soldiers. I had seen Kalin, perhaps the best natural athlete among us, paddle non-stop through the night in a race against the sun even though she was badly dehydrated-lips cracked and throat scratched-while the rest of us were forced to take rests. And I had seen the best kind of leadership in Danelle. Period. In a race that puts its premium on teamwork, the captain wears the relentless burden of decision-making, balancing tough orders on food and load distribution with cheerleading and coddling. I tried to get my share of the love hugs by faking a limp and complaining about a tummy ache but as exhausted as she was, Danelle saw through my ruse and devoted her energy to keeping the team moving forward.

“What’s the verdict?” I asked when we dumped the cursed bikes. “We driving on?”

“Hell yes, we are,” Danelle answered for us. “The official ranking doesn’t matter. The finish line does.”

The following morning, in a scene that would repeat itself five more times, Playboy Xtreme lowered its collective head, strapped on its packs and plunged into the next discipline, all the tears and the I can’t go on’s of the previous day forgotten. The Borneo jungle is nature untamed, a raw in-your-face clime filled with hungry critters and stinging plants. I was leading the file when I heard Kalin’s otherworldly scream, nearly human. The women were running toward me so I sprinted too-hey, when you’re an antelope and the herd starts you don’t ask questions.

“Why are you running!” Danelle shouted.

“I’m running because you’re running!” I called over my shoulder.

“Well stop for chrissakes. Kalin’s got a leech.”

I could tell from its dark brown racing stripes that it was a Tiger Leech, swollen and turgid with blood, attached firmly to her calf. We tried our emergency lighters-rusted shut. We tried our waterproof matches-false advertising. We tried Vaseline-little bastard could hold his breath longer than Kalin could contain her temper. When we eventually routed him with Betadine, Jenny began twisting and shouting herself, stripping off her gear and clothing, frantically swiping at her skin. Fire ants. The jungle was quite an experience-after a few hours we were plucking the hitchhikers from our broken bodies like veteran hosts, slipping and sliding down steep mud slides on our mashed feet in squalls so thick we had to tip our heads forward to breathe. But darker things lurked.

Four days and over 150 miles of jungle whitewater and Pacific Ocean later, just a day and a half away from the finish line, we collided head-on with the worst leg of the Eco Challenge, a caving section that had beaten down some of the world’s best racers. It was a train wreck. We entered the caves wearing medical masks and immediately were wading in shin-high (for Jenny it might have crested her knee) bat guano that invaded all the cuts on our ravaged legs and bleeding feet. The smell was a waveringly thick crush of waste and rot that made us wince and hustle forward under the high-pitched screeeecch that echoed off the walls. The cave was boiling with bats that fluttered in the narrow cylinders of our headlamps and made occasional runs at my teammates’ flopping braids.

After a grueling ascent out of the hole on 150-foot fixed ropes that left us painted with guano, the race turned cruel, as it is prone to do. Two more jungle summits, a 500-foot rappel, and a steep foot march stood between us and our canoe, with another 50km of windy ocean paddling to go before the finish line. The obstacles just kept coming and coming, and so did the tears. But I was used to them by now and had evolved, an advanced species of man, force-fed with Playmate sensitivity; instead of going silent, nodding, and trying to hide behind a tree somewhere until the storm was over, I had learned to mimic and mumbled, “I understand your pain and I appreciate it. I’m here for you.” Oh, if the guys could see me now!

Finishing an Eco Challenge is always in question, but I knew we would taste the line when we were steps away from the second summit. Jenny had collapsed under the weight of her pack and she was bawling. With another team I would have been convinced that the emergency radio was about to be activated, but I had seen such furious determination in my teammates during the previous seven days that what happened next did not surprise but buoyed me. Danelle and Kalin offered to hump her pack and this was taken as an affront. Jenny’s eyes were burning and her teeth were clenched when she brushed them off and growled, “Shut up and…Stand. Me. Up!” Now, my teammates had a flair for the dramatic but this was over the top. Down and out one moment. Charging Little Round Top the next. The three of them leaned into the hill and pushed higher and higher, setting a wicked pace, laughing at a joke. Nothing would stop them now.

I was struggling to catch my sine-curved teammates when I saw them pass one of the many tough-as-nails, three guys-and-a-girl teams in front of whom we would eventually finish. In what was a microcosm of the entire race, my teammates-who had been staring into the abyss just minutes before-announced their arrival with friendly shouts as they passed the superstuds.

“Hey there, guys!” shouted Kalin.

“Hi guys! Lookin’ goood!” shouted Danelle.

“Woo, hoo! Almost to the top! Keep it up!” shouted Jenny.

They moved ahead quickly and, approaching from behind, I heard one of the men, a big guy with a flattop who was carrying his friend’s pack, say to his ailing buddy, “Come on, man. Suck it up and step it up. Suck. It. Up! I mean, we just got passed by the fucking Playboy Bunnies, dude.” Ah, but there’s no shame in that, my friend, no shame at all-you have plenty of company.

Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP) 2014 Race Report: Minimalist Training Program

 

Scan 2When I sampled Ironman in the early 90s, I viewed the 45+ age-groupers with curiosity. So I was unsurprised when a kid at my Lake Placid hotel last week asked me why “an older guy” would subject his body to 141 miles. Twenty years ago I was curious about them. Now I was curious about myself.

 Many of you are curious about Ironman so here’s a brief. I finished the hilly Placid course in 10:55, good for 14th of 349 in my age group. Two years earlier I completed Ironman New York in 10:46, which was 28th of 385. This November in Florida I’m gunning for 10:26, which would beat my time as a 24-year-old.

Ironman has three categories: the machines going for Kona qualification on 12-20 hours/week, those who want to finish with support of coaches and family, and the weirdos.

So to all weirdos who read these presents, greeting.

Training

My buddy, Ryan Atkinson, and I decided to test the minimalist training threshold at Ironman Lake Placid. The winter was the busiest I’ve ever experienced in my job. In springtime, I was coaching both soccer and football for both boys in different age groups. I didn’t have time for a conventional workup, with weekends dominated by low intensity rides and runs. With golfing-like time allocation. So we took the only road available to time-crunched dads: make every workout count. Cut out some beer. But not enough to lose our devil-may-care attitudes.

We used neither coaches nor training programs, squeezing in workouts when we could, but I did a lot of internet research. Sami Inkinen, Matt Fitzgerald and Ben Greenfield were particularly inspirational.

I started training on January 1st, 2014. I weighed 215 lbs. I had ridden my bike just a single time since August of 2012, fulfilling a promise I’d made that year during Ironman New York. From January to July we averaged 6 hours per week. At our peak, from June 7 to July 7, we averaged 9 hours per week. I recorded every swim, run, or bike on my Garmin with the exception of occasional Goldman/hotel gym workouts. You’ll find this workup interesting:

I swam a total of seven times, excluding fooling around in the pool with the boys. 2.2 miles/1.1 miles/1 mile (race)/1500 meters (Olympic race)/1500 meters (Olympic)/8×200 meters/6×200 meters. Swimming counts for so little in Ironman (10%) that I’m astonished athletes spend so much training time. Lethargic transitions easily override decent swims. For Florida I may sacrifice a training swim and practice my turtle-like wetsuit change in my garage.

Biking is my weak leg and received 80% of my training (against 55% of the race). By early summer we were commuting 50 miles to work every other week. Three times we rode home the long way (90-100 miles), twice ascending Bear Mountain to prepare for the 6,000 feet of climbing that awaited us in Placid. I mixed in hour interval sessions in the gym, usually doing: 20-minute threshold/2×5 minutes max/10×30 seconds supermax/2x squats. Twice I was so blown up by the intervals I had to fight the pukies.

I ran a half-marathon in April and twice more ran 13-14 miles. Otherwise my weekly run was 9.65 miles to the Harlem train station from Wall Street as hard as I could go.

Approaching July I was drinking less beer, eating fewer carbs, and training on an empty stomach. I wanted to teach my body to more efficiently burn fat. I did give myself a kidney stone during one camel training session, so after that toe-curling experience I added water during these long (low calorie) workouts.

I weighed in at Ironman at 200.5 lbs, still heavy enough to qualify me for (the old) Clydesdale weight but feeling otherwise light. As usual I could not sleep the night before the race, so I did some writing awaiting the false dawn. At 0415 I drank a Ensure plus (350 calories), drove to Placid while sipping a Perpetuem coffee (300 calories), and then sipped Accelerade (200 calories) making final preps. Twenty minutes before the cannon fired, I downed a gel (100 calories) and a Gatorade pouch (120 calories).

Swim

1:04

I entered the water and moved to the far left side of the pack. I’m a right-side breather and let the mob swimming on the buoy line steer for me. At 6’4” 200, I wasn’t worried about the contact, but banging wastes energy. I swam the entire first half mile on the left edge of the whitewater, following three different pairs of feet, before I made the first turn and found a big guy to draft. I followed him like a running back following a guard for the next half mile straight up the buoy line. We crossed the halfway mark back on the beach in 31 minutes. I had not worked at all. During the second lap, he tired, so I reluctantly swam around him in search of other big feet. I rotated swimmers until finding a strong kicker at the 1.75 mile mark. By this time it was pouring rain and I could see lightning illuminating the nearby ridgeline. On the way back to the beach we fought our way through dozens of swimmers who were still on Lap 1, bobbing their heads up like seals as thunder grew louder. When we passed pink caps in the murk I was careful not to kick and used a slower catch when possible. The slower swimmers looked to be in for a long morning.

I completed the swim in 1:04 having taken fewer than a hundred hard strokes. I was 14th in my AG. We later learned that the organizers pulled most swimmers from the water due to nearby lightning strikes. They were sent right to T1.

Bike

5:48

Six minutes later I was pedaling into the downpour. The faster guys transition in five minutes. I ate a Powerbar and inhaled a bottle of Accelerade on the short, sharp climbs that preceded a steep 6 mile decent. My heart rate was 165-172. In other words, out of control for a 112 mile ride. Fortunately the rain kept me cool and the slow decent brought my HR down to 145, where it remained for the duration of the ride (except for the steepest climbs, when it spiked to 160). The highway was covered in water. I hit 35 MPH on the decent on full brake. On the second lap, I hit 52 mph on this stretch.

On the flats, I rode about 22-23 mph.. There were no draft packs that I encountered save one guy who was too tempted by my geeky spinnaker draft profile to resist. But when we got to the 13 mile climb back to Placid, he passed me and did not look back. I averaged ~16 mph on the climb, and 19.3 mph on the first lap, slipping from 14th to 26th place.

I drank 60 ounces of Perform (with a little water mixed in) per hour to mitigate my 4 lb/hour sweat rate and 1350 caloric burn. I ate an additional 300 calories of hard food per hour for four hours until my appetite gave out. In the second lap the skies cleared, giving way to 78-degree weather, 80% humidity, a headwind on the return trip, and my nemesis: the sun. I finished the second 56-mile lap in about the same time as the first, averaging 19.26 mph. Even-splitting placid is rare. I had moved from 26th to 22nd place.

Run

3:53

The Placid run is a real challenge because it starts with two steep downhills. They’re like potato mashers on your damaged thighs. I’ve got chicken legs as it is, and hadn’t put in any 15+ mile runs, so I knew the muscle fiber tears would worsen and eventually trigger crippling inflammation. I tried to slow down but still averaged 7:45s for the first three miles. On the lumpy flats, under the sun, ran 8:30s until I had to climb those to hills back to the halfway mark. I managed to hold 9:30s uphill, but by mile 15 (which I hadn’t experienced since the same leg in 2012) I had slipped to 9:30s on the flats. Yet I had moved from 22nd to 18th in my AG.

I hadn’t come with a specific time goal. I managed to make the calculation (tougher than you think with 9 miles to go at Ironman) that if I held the line, I would go under 11 hours. I must say the last five miles were as tough as I’ve had since getting shelled in a 100-mile ultra in 1998. I had switched to Coke at Mile 13, but could tolerate no fluid past Mile 20. I vomited three times and twice stopped to stretch hamstring cramps. My thighs and skinny calves were twitching wildly. In the last three miles I passed another four age groupers, moving into 14th place. Ironmen talk about the crowd but this finish was internal.

I crossed the line in 10:55. I was like a marionette whose strings were cut by the finish frame. After an hour, some typically wonderful volunteers brought me into the medical tent where I was weighed on suspicion of dehydration. 199.5. After eleven hours on the road, I’d lost a single pound. I managed to sip a cup of soup during the next hour, they helped me to my crippled feet, and I hobbled over to collect my bike and gear for the drive back to the hotel. I had great difficulty getting up the stairs, and could not step over the bath tub basin. So I collapsed on the bed fighting the nausea that lasted most of the night. Sometime in the early morning I fell asleep.

When I awoke at 0600 on the 28th, I had an appetite. I drove to the nearest diner, ordered two breakfast burritos, and started the drive back to work. Luckily we have an elevator. On Monday night after work, I weighed myself. 192 pounds. Huh? When the swelling subsided two days later my ankle began to creak. I’ve got severe tibialis posterior tendinitis. Hopefully it is not slightly torn, because I’m supposed to run the Bozeman marathon on September 8.

Once we old guys get in shape, it’s in for a dime, in for a dollar.

The Wrong War

Overview

Reviews of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan

“West (The Strongest Tribe), a former Marine combat veteran and assistant secretary of defense under Reagan, boldly assesses the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan in this provocative analysis. The author made eight trips to Afghanistan to witness the Obama administration’s counter-insurgency strategy that emphasizes “winning over the population” (“Thus our military became a gigantic Peace Corps… drinking billions of cups of tea, and handing out billions of dollars”). Embedded with frontline troops in Afghanistan ‘s most violent provinces, West eloquently captures their tireless efforts to carry out an “amorphous” mission. The lack of “understandable policy” confused the soldiers, encouraged risk avoidance among commanders, and “created a culture of entitlement” instead of cooperation among the Afghans who are content to accept aid and remain neutral as they wait to see whether the Americans or the insurgents will take ultimate control. Concluding that we can’t win with this strategy but that withdrawal would be “disastrous,” the author proposes that the U.S. immediately “transition to an adviser corps” whose primary task would be to continue training Afghan forces to defeat the Taliban. West’s vivid reporting and incisive analysis provides a sober assessment of the present situation and prescribes a way for the Afghans to “win their own war.” (Feb.)

– Publishers’ Weekly [Starred Review]

“The title [The Wrong War] says much about West’s sense of how the Pentagon has been waging its Afghan campaign. The Pentagon’s current practice of COIN (counterinsurgency) has grown to nothing short of nation-building writ large. Mr. West calls for a shift — to fewer aid handouts and more force — and traces a change in COIN thinking from Vietnam to the present day.”

“Many commanders seem to believe in the doctrine, which has become an institution unto itself. But many other officers are quietly skeptical, and at the lower ranks, a large fraction of the troops I have encountered regard it at best with a raised eyebrow and at worst with foul words and a perplexed shrug.”

– Chris Chivers, New York Times

“No correspondent has spent as much time on this ground as former Marine Bing West, and no one has brought to it as much real-world, infantry-command experience.  The Wrong War should be read (and studied) in the Pentagon and in the Oval Office.  This is not think-tank theorizing, it’s the real shit from a career warrior and first-rate military thinker.  The Wrong War is so fresh, you can practically scrape the dirt off its pages. If there is a path to success in Afghanistan (or at least not catastrophic failure), West’s recommendations point the way.”

– Steven Pressfieldauthor of Gates of Fire and The Afghan Campaign

” Bing West is many things – a battlewise veteran, a skeptical journalist, and above all a brilliant chronicler of America ‘s post 9/11 wars.  His latest book provides a gripping account of the tactical realities in Afghanistan , but no less importantly, it offers strategic counsel at a time when the Obama administration – and the country – needs it badly.”

– Professor Eliot Cohen,

author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime

One Million Steps Overview

“writing of the highest order.”
– Amazon Pick of the Month

“an epic of contemporary small unit combat… a stinging indictment of our strategy.
–Eliot Cohen: Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

“views the Afghan war through the lens of 50 Marines in the Third Platoon—half of whom did not return home…The title derives from the two-and-a-half-mile circuit the platoon patrolled every day for six months—a total of one million steps…Sending Marines into places like Sangin, expecting that the population and the Afghan army would then hold what the Marines dearly gained was an illusion.”
Publishers Weekly

 “Stunning, sobering, and brilliantly written… Every presidential candidate should read it… …  a first step to rethinking 13 years of strategic failure.
Newt Gingrich

“One of the most intrepid military journalists, West delivers a heart wrenching account of one platoon’s fight”
– Bill Bennett, host of “Morning in America”

“Bing has seen more war than most professional soldiers…utterly gripping – and utterly different from the sanitized picture.”
Max Boot, author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare


“Bing uses his infantry experience in Vietnam to great advantage…The losses of life and limb are devastating… the frustration of seeing such great sacrifices…to what end?”
– Brigadier General Thomas Draude, USMC (Ret)

“West has created another masterpiece of war reporting… he was there, mired in the mud and blood with his fellow marines. If you want a firsthand account of small unit, infantry combat this book is it, and few others will ever top it.
Colonel Gian Gentile, author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency

The Village

This is the story of fifteen Americans engaged in a fight for 485 days. No unit in Vietnam had a higher fatality rate.The odds of going home alive were fifty-fifty, a coin flip. More Marines died in the area called Chulai than in Desert Storm. The civil war in the village was as personally complicated, as staggering in its costs and as unyielding in its opposing beliefs as was our own Civil War. In Binh Nghia, the local guerrillas had relatives and protectors in the Viet Cong companies across the river and back in the mountains. The Marine squad walked into the village unaware of the personalities or politics, or how hamlet skirmishes caught the attention of forces ten times their size.

With an average age of twenty, the Marines were professional soldiers. Their authority stemmed from their rifles, just as the short sword distinguished the Roman legions. They brought their training, their rifles and themselves. Either they would defeat their enemy, or they would be driven out.

I patrolled with the Combined Action Platoon, as the Marine squad and local militia were called, in 1966 and ’67. I went back to the village in ’68, ’69 and 2002. I spoke with practically every Marine, village official and Popular Force militiaman. I also spoke with Viet Cong representatives after the war. In this book, I try to describe what it was like to live, fight and die in a village so far away from America yet so close in human values and spirit. The communists now rule Binh Nghia; yet the memorial to the Marines who fought there remains, and the villagers remember them by name, all these decades later.

Reviews of The Village

“…a minor classic about war…a superbly honest, readable work that goes beyond journalism to become good literature.”

–Washington Post

“A vivid and unbiased portrait of one Vietnamese hamlet in the grip of war…exceptional insight into the war…West has told this story with honesty and without embroidery, while bringing out its inherent human drama. ”

–New York Times

“A fantastic, down in the mud and crud book of enlisted Marines fighting to defend a village…West tells of some victories and of the tragic cost. And he tells it well.”

–Leatherneck Magazine

“Whatever one thinks of the war, it will take the sternest ideologue to remain unmoved by West’s perceptive and human treatment of the men who fought it…It’s an account of brave men at war in a far country, honestly told.”

–Peter Jay, Washington Post Book Review

“Pure Hemningway in the best sense of that characterization…West brilliantly portrays the drama of a war few Americans have known.”

–Pacific Affairs

“Professional reading for professional growth.”

–Commandant’s Reading List

“An absorbing account of a 12-man Marine unit…West, who served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, tells the story vividly and well.”

–Washington Post Book World

“Unquestionably the best book to come out of the Vietnam war – human, compassionate, suspenseful, dramatic.”

–Charles B. MacDonald, author of Company Commander

“…one of the small handful of truly great books to come out of the Vietnam war.”

–Keith William Nolan, author of The Battle for Saigon, A Hundred Miles of Bad Road

“This remarkable and moving document is an authentic eyewitness account of nine separate actions at the company and battalion level…Through West’s vivid descriptions, we experience with stunning clarity the challenges of combat on the front.”

–New York Times

“A fantastic, down in the mud and crud book of enlisted Marines fighting to defend villages and hamlets of Vietnam.

Originally published in 1972, the book has lost nothing with the passage of time. It is still the most honest, yet simple work of the war.

F.J. West Jr. accompanied young Marines of combined action platoons. A Marine captain at the time, he removed his shiny silver bars and went into the village of Binh Nghia.

In 1966, a dozen Marines walked into the village controlled by a 120-man Viet Cong company. Two years later, only six Marines walked out, but there was no enemy left. When the book was first published, many felt it was anti-Vietnam. Others were of the opinion that young Marines at war could not be both tough and decent.

The senior Marine of the group was a sergeant. The others were privates and corporals. They were good at their profession, and their profession was war. They stole the night from the enemy and worked hard to earn the trust of the villagers.

The book describes how Marines fought night after night, how they lived, killed and died. It is a story of guerilla warfare as seen through the eyes of the combatant. To members of CAP teams in Vietnam, ‘The Village’ was home and the villagers were family.

West tells some of the victories of Vietnam; he also tells of the tragic cost. And he talls it well.”

–Leatherneck Magazine