Friday, June 11, 2010


I have been reading The Unforgiving Minute, subtitled A Soldier's Education.

Every so often, the History Channel will have a retrospective of World War II and they'll include interviews and first-person narratives of the men who participated in the aerial conflicts. Frequently, they are old, and feeble, speaking in halting gasps, or from the confines of a wheelchair, and I find myself a little surprised that people who are in that bad a shape now could ever have been able to do the sorts of things they did. Sometimes, they are still quite hale and hearty, and it's a little easier to believe, but still, I think that while their endeavors could not have been easy, perhaps they were more a matter of gumption and spirit than pure physical prowess. The thing is, I don't really know what it takes to perform at that level. I can read, for example, of one epic air duel in Vietnam that to the participants felt as if it went on for ten or fifteen minutes, but which was actually a much shorter period of time, the intensity forcing a dilation of the perceived time, and I think wow, that must really have been something. But even there, I think But that's an exception; most times, it probably wasn't that intense -- dangerous, yes, but not intense. I bet I could have done it.

And then I read Minute, and come to realize just what intense can come to mean, and the level of performance that that sort of person considers routine. I've read before of the rites of passage of going through West Point, and I suppose I tend to think of it as a somewhat more focused and physical version of my own college, or my basic training, or summer camp at ROTC. Then I read this, and think Bill, you have no earthly idea. None. Zip. At the moment, I'm reading about how this guy, who's just graduated from the Point, and who has earned a Rhodes scholarship, is now face down in thick, reeking mud at Ranger school, clawing to get through the slime, his back inches from barbed wire netting. He's been awake for two or three days, with nothing but the briefest of naps caught in five minute bursts, if that. He's climbed, slithered, jumped, hauled, and staggered. He looks like hell and he smells worse. Through it all, he knows that he can give everything he's got, more, and still be found: unacceptable. Not good enough. Not fast, agile, tough enough. Not Ranger material.

And this is just one guy of all the people who have trained and fought to do that sort of work. In that crowd, he's slightly better than average, but not truly awesome. He knows people there who are awesome, and he is, appropropriately, awed by them.

And I am amazed. What manner of beings ARE these guys?

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