Faced with the Vietnam War, many Americans found some way to extend their university studies, hoping to defer their draft notices another year. Bing West took precisely the opposite tack. After serving a few years as a Marine infantryman in the early ’60s, West studied for a master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton University—but being a warrior to the core, he couldn’t wait to get back into the field. So he spent his vacations back in uniform in Vietnam.
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 this war was all about, because it was so different from World War II and Korea,” West says. “Vietnam was about sustained jungle-hamlet operations, not about assaulting beaches en masse.”
So West packed up a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder along with his rifle and headed to the front lines. Though he was a captain by rank, West was treated as an ordinary rifleman in the small unit he was accompanying, and he went on regular patrols with both American and friendly Vietnamese soldiers, experiencing sporadic firefights under a canopy of palm and banana trees. “During the firefights I would tape what was going on, interview people after it was over, then write up a description,” he recalls.
The resulting volume, published internally by the Marines in 1967, caught the eye of Arno Press, a New York house that decided to republish it for a popular audience. In turn, editors at Harper & Row asked West if he could expand one of his chapters, about a group of Marines who protected the village of Binh Nghia for 485 days, losing seven of their 15 men in the process. After 17 months, the Viet Cong retreated to the mountains—giving the Marines a costly success in a frequently ugly and dispiriting war. West returned to Binh Nghia for additional research in 1968 and 1969, and eventually published his account as The Village in 1972.
The book is being re-released this month, coinciding with the publication of West’s new novel, The Pepperdogs, which 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 unit uses wireless Internet hookups to gin up support among sympathizers back home, heat-sensing devices to locate their enemies from great distances, and performance-enhancing drugs to maximize endurance as they keep moving to avoid detection. Technological developments like these—some in use already and some ready to be used if commanders decide to do so—have substantially boosted the quality of America’s infantry from the Vietnam era, West says.
“The Pepperdogs is an adventure story—these guys weren’t going to give up on their buddy just because the situation got entangled in geopolitics—but I also wrote it to explain how the new technologies have dramatically changed things in ways that haven’t been grasped yet,” West says. “These are reservists, but they’re not just guys guarding our airports—they volunteered because they wanted to see action.”
West, 62, 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 outfit called GAMA Corp. Since 1997, the company has used interactive digital video simulations to train members of the military in instant decision-making. West now splits his time between Washington and Newport, R.I.
A year ago, West and one of his Vietnam comrades returned to Binh Nghia for the first time since the ’60s. A small memorial to the Marines who died there inexplicably managed to survive the Communist victory, the village is led now by a man who was a 10-year-old boy during West’s stay, and he and the other villagers were gracious, West says.
“They remembered us by name and didn’t want us to leave again,” he says. “It was extraordinary. The fact is that the war was too long, and mistakes were made by a lot of people. But allowing people to live in freedom was still a laudable goal. And they understood that.” —Louis Jacobson