Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

4.3 18
by David Lipsky

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Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer and an award-winning novelist, chronicles daily life at the U.S. Military Academy during the most tumultuous period in its history.

In 1998, West Point made David Lipsky an unprecedented offer: stay at the Academy as long as you like, go wherever you wish, talk to whomever you want, to discover why some of America's most

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Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer and an award-winning novelist, chronicles daily life at the U.S. Military Academy during the most tumultuous period in its history.

In 1998, West Point made David Lipsky an unprecedented offer: stay at the Academy as long as you like, go wherever you wish, talk to whomever you want, to discover why some of America's most promising young people sacrifice so much to become cadets. Lipsky followed one cadet class into mess halls, barracks, classrooms, bars, and training exercises, from arrival through graduation. By telling their stories, he also examines the Academy as a reflection of our society: Are its principles of equality, patriotism, and honor quaint anachronisms or is it still, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, the most "absolutely American" institution?
During arguably the most eventful four years in West Point's history, Lipsky witnesses the arrival of TVs and phones in dorm rooms, the end of hazing, and innumerable other shifts in policy and practice known collectively as The Changes. He uncovers previously unreported scandals and poignantly evokes the aftermath of September 11, when cadets must prepare to become officers in wartime.
Absolutely American spotlights a remarkable ensemble of characters: a former Eagle Scout who struggles with every facet of the program, from classwork to marching; a foul-mouthed party animal who hates the military and came to West Point to play football; a farm-raised kid who seems to be the perfect soldier, despite his affection for the early work of Georgia O’Keeffe; and an exquisitely turned-out female cadet who aspires to "a career in hair and nails" after the Army. These cadets and their classmates are transformed in fascinating, sometimes astonishing, ways by one of America's most mythologized and least understood challenges. Many of them thrive under the rigorous regimen; others battle endlessly just to survive it. A few give up the fight altogether.
Lipsky's extensive experience covering college students for Rolling Stone helped him gain an exceptional degree of trust and candor from both cadets and administrators. They offer frank insights on drug use, cheating, romance, loyalty, duty, patriotism, and the Army's tortuous search for meaning as new threats loom.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line."—Lev Grossman Time Magazine

"[A]ddictive . . . could inspire even nonmilitary buffs to follow the cadets' careers like those of their favorite sports stars..."—T. Trent Gegax Newsweek

"A superb description of modern military culture,...one of the most gripping accounts of university life [I've] read..."—David Brooks The New York Times Book Review

“Illuminating…Lipsky has done a distinguished service to a proud school.”—Wook Kim Entertainment Weekly

“Immensely rich…A genuinely evocative and wonderfully detailed portrait of an absolutely American institution.”—Brian Palmer


The New York Times
Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, a superb description of modern military culture, and one of the most gripping accounts of university life I have read. Lipsky follows several cadets and faculty members through their years at the academy, and their stories are the most powerful parts of this book. — David Brooks
The New Yorker
In 1998, the commandants at West Point offered the author, a Rolling Stone reporter, unfettered access to their students. The result is a sunny portrait of a group of young men and women who, as one of them says, "don't quite fit in." Lipsky touches on some recent, controversial attempts at modernizing the academy -- such as a ban on hazing and the promotion of "consideration of others" (which in the context of the Army could, in an "extreme instance," mean jumping on a grenade to save the lives of your fellow-soldiers) -- but he is more effective as a chronicler of personality than of politics. A cadet defaces his uniform to protest softening standards; a bodybuilder worries that his future wife, following him from post to post, won't have a career; a football star fears life after graduation, wondering, "Can I think for myself?" Though initially ill-disposed toward the military, Lipsky eventually found that "of all the young people I'd met, the West Point cadets -- although they are grand, epic complainers -- were the happiest."
Publishers Weekly
This superb group portrait of the corps of cadets at West Point focuses on the four years of Company G-4, "the Fighting Guppies." Entering in 1999, just after hazing was abolished, its cadets graduated into the post-September 11 world. They include all sorts and conditions of people, as well as, these days, both sexes (women are 14% of the corps of cadets) and varied class, ethnic and national backgrounds. Rolling Stone reporter Lipsky (The Art Fair) focuses on cadets like George Rash, repeatedly passing the physical fitness tests by the skin of his teeth if at all, but finding support and comradeship that eventually brings him to graduation into the Engineers. Then there is "Huck" Finn, a hulking football player whom no one would suspect of leadership qualities until he leads his team to victory in a military-skills competition. Dan Herzog graduates just as G-4 enters and spends four years wrestling with what he wants out of the army (not broken romances), and Col. Henry Keirsey is forced out of the army for backing a subordinate who made a non-PC joke. Lipsky is evenhanded with the Keirsey affair and with other controversial aspects of both the military in general and West Point in particular, even if his prose occasionally lapses into infelicitous journalese. Ultimately, he came to respect and know the people he was following, future officers of the U.S. Army in a world at war. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Nearly everyone has formed some idea of what the US Military Academy is all about: "Duty, Honor, Country"; Generals Lee and Pershing; and the Long Gray Line. Although the staff at West Point has always tried to maintain a cloistered environment in which to change callow boys into dependable officers, today's plebes are a challenge. Just as smart and eager as their more self-disciplined predecessors, they also are more laid back, steeped in pop culture, and in many ways more sophisticated. Mix in an academy that is already trying to cope with female cadets, the Internet, and a high-tech Army culture, and you have something quite different from the West Point that Douglas MacArthur knew. It is unusual that the Army would allow a media reporter four years of absolutely unfettered access to one of the nation's strictest environments. Even more unlikely is that it would turn out to be a writer for Rolling Stone, which might be expected to take an irreverent view of the whole thing. But author David Lipsky kept his balance, and he formed long-term relationships with numerous cadets, joining them in their rooms, parties, and bull sessions. They responded by treating him as a friend and confidant. Lipsky marched and sweated exams with them, ate in the dining hall, attended lectures and their private beer busts, learned their lingo and—most importantly—watched most of them develop into responsible adults and thoughtful professionals. The narrative is a collection of bite-sized observations and discoveries, full of deft insights, humor, and even gossip. Before the reader is halfway through the book, he comes to know numerous cadets and their officers as individuals and, in thenature of people everywhere, is often surprised by them. By the time the final graduation ceremony rolled around, Lipsky found that he had changed as much as his subjects. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 337p. illus., Ages 15 to adult.
—Raymond Puffer
Library Journal
Lipsky, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, was assigned a story about the U.S. Military Academy and became so interested he stayed for four years. This extremely in-depth examination of cadet life explores the history of the academy, the intense physical and intellectual regimen, and the academy as a reflection of our society. Clearly there is, as there has been for 200 years, a role in this country for a professional military, and the academy must develop its curriculum, ethos, and lifestyle as an institution both within and separate from American society. Lipsky had unprecedented access and spent considerable time with students and faculty, unsupervised by the academy. He stayed from 1998 to 2002, an extremely turbulent period that saw the end of hazing, allowing television and telephones in the dorm rooms, changes in training and attitude by the faculty, and the life-changing events of 9/11. While generally sympathetic, Lipsky does not hesitate to report problems that arise, paying attention to the students who fail for academic, physical, or moral shortcomings or simply opt out. Written in a style and vernacular that will be more familiar to readers of the magazine than to scholarly works, this is essentially a popular, though serious, study. Highly recommended for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Edwin B. Burgess, Combined Arms Research Lib., Ft. Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

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Preface I came to love, really love, road marching. It’s called a suck or a haze at West Point, but I think the cadets aren’t being fair to it. There’s something wonderful about being in a column of marching people: the gravel popping under soles, the leather flexing in boots, the kind of saddle-top sounds as the ruck (what a backpack gets called in the Army) frames settle. Occasionally someone, out of sheer misery, sighing Oooh, or just blowing out air, which in the general silence is like a whale breaching and then slipping back under the surface. You can watch a leaf float down from a tree or stare at the guy’s rifle in front of you. The boiling down of life to its basic questions: Can you do this? What kind of person are you, and what can you make yourself finish? Can you hang with the rest of us? Those questions don’t get asked much, in the civilian world.
One night I got stuck with a West Point company that was spending the entire evening on patrol in the woods. They had brought ponchos in their rucks and I hadn’t. It was about two in the morning when the rain started. A nice earth-smelling drizzle at first. Then it became a pretty hard, thundery storm. I’d never noticed that rain makes different noises on different articles of clothing: a kind of spreading, sinking hiss into a shirt, a loud spattery ploink! on jeans. One of the cadets offered me his poncho, but of course you couldn’t accept it. In the dark, I found my way to two trees that had grown so close together that their upper branches formed a canopy. I obviously wasn’t going to sleep, so I marched back and forth all night under this umbrella, rain dripping into my ears and down over my lips. Then, in the morning, at five, everyone shook themselves off and we marched again.
I never liked the military at all as a kid. My father told us it was the one profession we couldn’t pursue: if my brother or I joined up, he promised to hire strong guys to come break our legs. In his eyes, compared to the military, hired leg-breaking was an act of kindness. So when Rolling Stone magazine first assigned me to write about the United States Military Academy, I fought it. And I mean fought hard, as hard as you can fight Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann Wenner, who can be firm and cajoling in a kind of (at least to a writer) irresistible way. When I gave in, and traveled to West Point, I was followed by members of the Academy’s Public Affairs Office. They chose the people I could speak with, they sat in on the interviews. I saw my way out; I was thrilled and relieved. I said I could not do the story under those circumstances, and I left. A few days later the colonel who oversees the daily management of West Point—Joe Adamczyk, a thin, steely man the cadets nicknamed Skeletor—called back to say it was fine. There would be no one picking out ideal cadets for me to interview, no one escorting me, no doors closed. I could have the run of the place. “We have nothing of which we should be ashamed,” he said.
So that was the first step toward my love of road marching. Very different from my original idea of the Army. And there was no avoiding the story anymore.
It had all seemed so foreign, a kind of dense green forest. Slowly, the trees parted a little, enough for me to step inside, and then I could feel the basic goodness of the place. As I listened to the cadets and understood how they were living, I had a strange, funny thought. Not only was the Army not the awful thing my father had imagined, it was the sort of America he always pictured when he explained (this would happen every four years, during an election cycle) his best hopes for the country. A place where everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody—or at least most people—looked out for each other. A place where people—intelligent, talented people—said honestly that money wasn’t what drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings and about trying to make themselves better.
One reason Rolling Stone wanted me on the story was that I’d become a kind of young-person specialist. You specialize at a magazine. On news stories, I mainly covered universities and students. I must have traveled to about thirty-five colleges in the five years before I first went to West Point. From tiny places like Wisconsin’s obscure, homemade- feeling Beloit to a thirty-thousand-student factory like the University of Georgia at Athens to places like Harvard and Yale that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t changing my socks often enough. I’d also written about young TV actors and the young rich and young media executives, people who had every reason to be consistently delighted. And of all the young people I’d met, the West Point cadets—althoughh they are grand, epic complainers—were the happiest. That was probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.
Herrrrre’s three: My friends had reached the phase, in their early thirties, when things slow down and you can relax and look around yourself again for maybe the first time since college. Before that, life is like sticking your head out the window of a fast-moving car: everything is rushing at you, flattening back your skin, your eyes are blinking and you can barely overhear your own thoughts. Most of those thoughts are “Will I find a job?” and “Can I find a partner?” and “What kind of life am I going to have?” By the early thirties, this stuff had quieted down, and my friends were thinking, “OK, I’ve found a life.” And then the second part hit: “Is this the life I want? Does the job I’m doing matter to anyone else?” It was right at this time that the Army and the Academy dawned on me, and I saw what it meant to live as a group, to share experiences, and to have that sense that other people were honestly looking out for you. And I have to say, that looked pretty good to me too.
And so, a road march. Everyone dressed the same. Everyone with a clear assignment: You will depart from this first point and you will arrive at this second point, and it will be clear to you when you have accomplished this. It will be difficult (in the Army, they say challenging). In place of the anxiety that comes from jobs that involve only the brain, the pleasure of a task that would engage the entire body. When cadets faltered, other cadets would softly encourage them. “Come on. You can do this. I know you can do this.” The sound of the boots and the smell of the road and the sun on the leaves and this soft, encouraging undertone. When cadets fell, other cadets would move forward, lift them up. I remember, during my first road marches, feeling simply blessed.

The magazine originally treated the assignment, when it began in 1998, as a journalistic public service. That summer, the West Point superintendent, a three-star general, had parked with some other military leaders at the sort of big roadside welcome center that features a TCBY and a Great American Pretzel Company (so that even rest stops offer the channel-surfing pleasures of a mall) and where there is usually one restaurant with sit-down service. The superintendent was wearing his green class-B uniform, and so were the hungry officers in his party. The hostess looked him up and down, from polished shoes to epaulets, then she smiled and thanked him for the selfless work he was doing as a member of the Parks Department. The superintendent wondered if maybe the gap between the civilian and military worlds hadn’t become too large. A few weeks later, the superintendent and the commandant arrived at the Rolling Stone offices in their full uniforms, marching past black-and-white photographs of Eric Clapton and framed guitars. The initial idea was for me to spend a few weeks on post, follow around a bunch of plebes, write something short. I ended up staying most of the year.
When that time was over, I didn’t believe the story was fully told. I decided to rent a house in Highland Falls, and stayed until the plebe class graduated four years later—the only time West Point has let a writer in for such an extended tour of hanging out. I saw cadets in combat with themselves, unlearning many of the skills and instincts that had brought them to West Point; I saw some cadets thriving; I saw lots of suffering (academic, physical, homesickness); I saw spot meanness and acts of great generosity. My friends were full of questions: What kinds of people still wanted such a regimented life? Why would cadets willingly put themselves through it? Didn’t they realize the way they were living was out-of-date? Those were questions I set out to answer. But I mostly wanted to give people the experience of spending forty-seven months at the United States Military Academy, an experience that only around sixty thousand people have had since the place got up and running two centuries ago. I learned how to read a uniform and how to tie many types of knots. I learned that soldiers are people—that when I flip on the news and there’s some officer in a helmet standing before a tank, I’m looking at someone a lot like myself, who’s lived through most of the same events I have, eats the same drive-through, can trace the same internal map of favorite movie dialogue and TV scenes, but who has made the decision to put on a uniform and serve in the nation’s military.
I’ve changed the names of several cadets, mostly at their request, including people involved in an honor hearing and three cadets who endured various hardships—a consuming relationship, loss of rank, separation from the Academy. Scott Mellon, Kim Wilkins, Loryn Winter, Nick Calabanos, Mrs. Como, Virginia Whistler and James Edgar are fictitious names—real people under a verbal false nose and eyeglasses. Otherwise, the names and nicknames in this book are the cadets’ real ones. I followed the men and women of one company, G-4, from the months they arrived at West Point until the day they graduated; this is their story.

Copyright © 2003 by David Lipsky. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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