IT is precisely 0630 at Fort Benning, Georgia, and all hell is about to descend on the eighty camouflage-clad soldiers lined up in front of a long set of barracks. Over the next sixty hours, working in teams of two, they will do calisthenics, run, swim, canoe, orienteer, climb, rappel, shoot, and parachute. They will encode messages, decode messages, assemble weapons, and hurl hand grenades. They will march most of the night, and then they will march all the following night. They are here, voluntarily for the start of the Best Ranger Competition, probably the most arduous sporting event in the world.
The contest, held each spring in southern Georgia, consists of twelve events that follow one another with little pause for two and a half days. During the competition the soldiers sleep no more than a few minutes at a time and scarcely eat: only two warm meals are served, neither of them during the brutal final thirty-five hours. Were participation coerced, Best Ranger would undoubtedly violate the Geneva Convention.
Not surprisingly, the competition isn't open to the public. To enter, one must first become a Ranger. These soldiers are elite, highly trained members of the U.S. Armed Forces, often used, like Navy SEALS, for hazardous and tactical missions. To become a Ranger, a soldier must graduate from the Army's sixty-one-day Ranger course, widely considered the military's most grueling program. A line from the Ranger credo boasts, "Surrender is not a Ranger word." Rangers are found in all branches of the U.S. military, and also in the armed forces of several foreign countries; all are eligible for the Best Ranger Competition.