From the Publisher
“A superb description of modern military culture and one of the most gripping accounts of university life. . . . Powerful. . . . Wonderfully told.” –The New York Times Book Review
"David Lipsky's up close and personal account of life at West Point is a national service. It takes the reader deep inside one of America's most important institutions.”Tom Brokaw
“Addictive . . . a story that could inspire even nonmilitary buffs to follow the cadets’ careers like those of their favorite sports heroes.” –Newsweek
“A fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line. Take a good look: this is the face America turns to most of the world, and until now it’s one that most of us have never seen."—Time
“Immesely rich. . . . A genuinely evocative and wonderfully detailed portrait of an absolutely American institution.” –Newsday
“Wonderfully engaging, a surprisingly nuanced portrait of these cadets.”—The Atlanta Journal-Consitution
"Duty, Honor, Casual Sex: Plain American hedonism is powerful at West Point, David Lipsky found, but so are discipline and self-sacrifice . . . A superb description of modern military culture, and one of the most gripping accounts of university life I have read. This book must have been extremely hard to organize, and yet it reads with a novelistic flow. How teenagers get turned into leaders is not a simple story, but it is wonderfully told in this book." –David Brooks, The New York Times Book Review
“A labour of love. While Lipsky’s friends back home wrestled with nagging, existential questions, he steeped himself in the demanding yet salubrious routines of cadet life, reveling in the youngsters’ comaraderie and marveling at their commitment to the academy’s core values, “Duty, Honor, Country.” The result is an immensely rich collection of portraits of young men and women put under very adult pressure by an insitution that itself must constantly adapt to the society around it. Lipsky [establishes] a dramatic tension that holds for the next 300-plus pages. [A] genuinely evocative and wonderfully detailed portrait of an absolutely American institution.”–Newsday
“A fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line. Lipsky approaches the cadets like an anthropologist stalking the elusive Yanomamo tribe, and with good reason: he’s in a weird, weird place. Take a good look: this is the face America turns to most of the world, and until now it’s one that most of us have never seen. A mesmerizing and powerfully human spectacle”–Time Magazine
“Masculinity has traditionally been associated with the military. Absolutely American, which vividly traces West Point cadets through their four years at the Academy, deals with both sexes and tells a lot about the changing definitions and conditions of masculinity and femininity in the new century.”–Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post Book World
“Illuminating. . .Lipsky has done a distinguished service to a proud school.”–Entertainment Weekly
“Although confined to one geographic area, Absolutely American covers a vast sociological, political and psychological landscape. . .neither an institutional hagiography nor a scathing, Seymour Hersh-like exposé, [this] is an assiduously researched, evenhanded examination that focuses on the changing value systems of the institution and the people who experience those changes. Lipsky has written an important, insightful book on the current state of our premier military academy and on the intrepid first West Point class to enter the War on Terrorism.”–Houston Chronicle
“A sunny portrait of group of young men and women. . .[Lipsky] is effective as a chronicler of personality.”–The New Yorker
“Lipsky is fascinated by the rigors of the academy and how a divers group of young men and women struggle with its challenges. He achieves the impressive feat of writing from inside cadet culture.Unusually complete and perceptive. . Lipsky’s understanding of their lives is remarkable.”–Chicago Tribune
“Wonderfully engaging, a surprisingly nuanced portrait of these cadets.”–The Atlanta Journal-Consitution
“Most will be delighted to find a new twist on the subject of military education. This book shows that West Point thrives under resilient leadership and a class of future officers that is human, while still being moral, real and enthusiastic. In short, this book is "huah."–San Antonio Express-News
"A once-skeptical Rolling Stone writer spends four years watching teamwork, hard work and self-sacrifice gain meaning for fledgling Army officers, children of a society that glorifies consumerism, individualism and instant gratification."–Providence Journal-Bulletin
“Whether Lipsky is trudging through the woods with tired and hungry cadets or sitting in on barracks-room bull sessions, he marvels at the sense of duty he finds. Wonderfully upbeat. . .a charming book.”–St-Louis Post-Dispatch
“An unprecedentedly in-depth examination . . . [at a time] when all the lessons and discipline, which seemed anachronistic in the sunny days of peace, prove suddenly, vividly necessary.”–Men’s Journal
“A richly anecdotal portrait of West Point during one of the most dramatic transitional phases in its 200-year history.”–The Onion
“An exhaustive and very human account of West Point and its cadets.”–The New York Observer
“Freshman could learn a lot by reflecting on a book that suggests that the main problem with traditional American values is that we do such a poor job of living up to them. So could we all.”–Charlotte News & Observer
“Goes inside the walls of the academy to discover and portray the cadets and the officers who train them, giving civilians an up-close look at the real West Point experience. [Lipsky] captures the language, emotion, history and motivation of the extraordinary people he profiles. Illuminating. . .captivating and compelling.”–The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
“[Lipsky] followed [the cadets] into mess halls, barracks, classrooms, bars and training exercises. He watched them do push-ups, polish their shoes, get drunk, cry, trhow up and grow up. Lipsky chronicles it all. . . [it] reads like a novel.”–Alabama Mobile Register
"Highly Recommended"–Library Journal (starred review).
“The latest, best, and I hope the last of its kind. Shows what West Point does. . .taking apathetic and uncommitted young people and developing them into talented, capable officers, sometimes in spite of themsleves…. Illuminates the real, human complexities of the Military Academy.”–Army Magazine
"Lipsky takes up the problems of maintaining West Point's unique culturethe military squared and cubedin the face of a general culture that offers a host of temptations....Outstanding."–Booklist.
“[Told in a] breathless narrative fashion that routinely builds each anecdote to a climactic finale. This formula provides some of the most memorable passages in the book. These vignettes [can] sound like clichés, [but] the message here is that in an age of irony and cynicism, West Point proudly embracés such clichés, and Lipsky ear for dialogue and his eye for specific detail breath life into these chapters. Lipsky’s book stands out as the most accurate and engrossing look at West Point, warts and all, as it exists today.”–Pointer View
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."
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 andmost importantlywatched 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: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 337p. illus., Ages 15 to adult.
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.
Read an Excerpt
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 PointJoe Adamczyk, a thin, steely man the cadets nicknamed Skeletorcalled 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 everybodyor at least most peoplelooked out for each other. A place where peopleintelligent, talented peoplesaid 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 = although they are grand, epic complainers = were the happiest. That was probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.
Here’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 mat-
ter 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 peoplethat 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 hardshipsa 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 namesreal 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.
From Chapter 1
If you imagine the ideal West Point cadet, you'll come up with someone very much like Don "Whitey" Herzog. Since meeting his first veterans, Whitey has wanted to go military. "Just something special in their eyes," the twenty-one-year-old explains. "They learned brotherhood, servicethey learned what real honor is." For ten years, Whitey ran his life like a checklist: West Point, then the Infantry, then the Rangers, the Army's elite.
At West Point, cadets wear gray, but when they dream about their futures, it's all green, the posts and uniforms of the United States Army. Each summerwhile their civilian peers are walking the beaches or rubbing their eyes at some internship = the United States Military Academy sends its juniors and seniors to spend five weeks in their futures, leading troops with regular Army units. Because he's the number thirteen-ranked military cadet in the one-thousand-member class of 1999, Whitey got his dream in July of 1998 and trained with the Rangers. They outfitted him with laser-sighted weapons, night-vision goggles, a hundred pounds of gear and tackle, and sent him on practice missions: evacuating pretend hostages, breaking up pretend ambushes. They'd fly to some classified place, do the job, swing back to base with the sun coming up. Riding outside a helicopter, Whitey felt the wind slam his face, watched his boots sway over the Florida night. "Three in the morning, going over supermarkets and bars," he says. "I was thinking, 'Man, I wish my buddies back home could be seein' this.'"
Whitey grew up in the cold pubs-and-hockey town of Buffalo, New York. (His brother-in-law, Mike Peca, is captain of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres.) His parents separated when he was tendad a dentist, mom a paralegal. Whitey first heard the words United States Military Academy from one of his mother's boyfriends. First day of high school, teachers invited questions for the guidance counselor, and Whitey was the kid with his hand raised. "How do I get into West Point?" he asked.
Like any mountain, the climb to West Point is cut with paths, the ropes and bridges left by other climbers. West Point wants scholars and athletes with good leadership potential. So Whitey ran cross-country, grubbed for A's, campaigned for student office. On the side, he was moonlighting as an ordinary teenager: smoking cigarettes, chasing girls, getting drunk at Allman Brothers concerts. Next morning, he'd go be student body president at the Jesuit high school. "Real Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff," he says.
West Point cadets make a simple deal: a tuition-free education in exchange for five years as Army officers. Every September, the seniors pick their branches of service. If you like to drive tanks, you go Armor; if you enjoy measuring the world's challenges on a scientific calculator, you go Engineers. (If you're a business major, you hook up with the Finance Batallion and get called a Finance Ranger.) But if you have the true calling, you go Infantry. Tell a West Point administrator you're considering the Field Artillery, he might nod. Tell him you're thinking Infantry, he'll clap you on the back and grin. Of course, Infantry skills are also a hard sell should you ever decide to leave the military. "Think like a civilian employer," one senior explains. "Say 'Engineers,' that implies you can think a little bit. Spend five years with the Infantry, OK, you know how to sleep in the cold and you know how to kill people. It doesn't set you up for success." For the Army, Infantry means you're serious; for Whitey, it was the second stop on his checklist, the road back to the Rangers.
Whitey Herzog is sandy-haired, tall and skinny. He has soldier's eyes: entering a room, his eyes do a quick reconnaissance skim, picking up the areas of interest, filtering out what's nonessential; then they turn friendly. On his uniform, he wears the bronze star that indicates he's in the top 5 percent of his class militarily, which means that for four years he's performed West Point's duties the way West Point wants them done.
None of that meant squat to the Rangers. First couple of weeks he was there, none of the Rangers would talk to him; the enlisted guys wouldn't even salute. Like many male cadets, Whitey is a dippera tobacco chewer. (His third-year roommate taught a bunch of guys to dip, and in May there were awards. Top honor: Grand Master Dipper. Whitey got Rookie of the Year.) One afternoon, Whitey gave an operations briefing, forty minutes with a mouthful of dip, and something told him not to spit. "I only did one time," Whitey says. "I gutted the rest, which is swallowing it." A sergeanta burly thirty-year-old, a Rangerpulled Whitey aside and told him everyone was impressed; they thought he'd be spitting every thirty seconds. "You're one of the We now," the sergeant said. His last morning, Whitey ran the Ranger obstacle course, and when he finished the enlisted guys were waiting with an official Ranger poster. They'd covered it with signatures and messages, like a kid's yearbook: "Gain Weight," "Go in the Infantry," and "We'll See You in the Ranger Battalion."
So when he got back to West Point, Whitey gave his measurements for the uniform to the Academy tailor. He'd decided to be an Infantry mud crawler with his roommate, Rob "Harley" Whitten, and his buddy Antonio "Iggy" Ignacio. "That's when the stress just started building," Whitey says. One July night his Ranger platoon leadera twenty-five-year-old first lieutenant, hard-corehad taken him to a bar in Columbus, Georgia, the low-roofed town outside Ranger headquarters. When they were very drunk, the PL announced, "After the Rangers, I'm done." Army life had left him feeling cut off from everything that wasn't
Army. "I don't remember the last time I was out on a dateI don't even know how to act in front of a girl anymore," the lieutenant said. "I'm so burnt, I just want to get out." Whitey kept thinking about it.
"I was choosing what to do with my life," he says. Infantry meant sticking with the military for a career. With his high rank, he knew he'd qualify for a slot in Aviation. And Aviationpiloting helicoptersis a skill you can sell outside the military. You could even fly helicopters for the FBI.
And then the whole notion of service began to work on Whitey like a guilty conscience. He couldn't shake the idea that Aviation was a sellout move. For weeks, wherever he went, he felt two futures dragging over his head like a pair of clouds: he could be loyal to everything he'd always wanted or to all the things he might want. The weekend before branch selection, he got drunk at an Army football game, stumbled into a Porta-Pottynot one of religion's glory spotsand started praying. Basically, he asked God to pick the branch for him. "I was looking up at the sky, I was like, 'Someone, please, someone reach down and tell me what to do. How much do I sacrifice if I choose Infantry, and how much do I do for myself if I choose Aviation?'" Twelve hours left, he ended up drunk in Iggy's room. "Igs, this is it," Whitey said. "I'm doing it. I'm going Infantry."
"You sure?" Iggy asked. "I'm not sure you're sure."
But Whitey was the number thirteen-ranked military cadet, a man who'd never wanted anything except to serve his country in uniform. "This is why I'm here," Whitey said. "I may not like all of it, but I can do it, and I can do it good." Iggy nodded, said he supported him. The next morning, Whitey sat down at his computer, dialed up the branch selection Web site. Clock ticking, ten minutes to go. He kept trying to make himself type the word Infantry.
West Point, the United States Military Academy, is a formation of chapels, playing fields, cannons and buildings on the banks of the Hudson River, fifty miles north of the first towers of New York City. The Academy has a single mission: take civilians, produce officers. You enter the Academy through a Military Police checkpoint and pass rows of stately granite buildings until you're on a green hill above the river. On a clear spring day, you can look across to the rolling treetops of the Hudson Valley, or upriver where powerboats leave creases on the water, and feel that God himself has issued you a uniform and notebook and sent you to one of the most crisply beautiful places on earth to study the practice of war.
When you look into Academy history, you keep bumping into America's history, as if the same story is being told two different ways. Just before his death in 1799, George Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton, "The establishment of a military academy [has] ever been considered by me to be an object of the highest national importance." Three years later, classes were in session by the banks of the Hudson. In its early decades, West Point trained officers to be engineers = men who squinted at rivers, cleared forests and laid the first bridges and roadways for America. Most officers you see in old-time photographswide hats, sweeping mustacheswere graduates: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War was an armed West Point reunion, old friends catching up by firing at each other. Out west, graduates like George Custer chased Indians. In World War I, General "Black Jack" Pershing (class of '86) exported West Point standards of bearing to Europe. (One French general wrote home, "Why, these Americans even die in neat rows.") World War II shaped up as a big overseas alumni project, with Generals Eisenhower (class of '15), Patton ('09), Bradley ('15), and MacArthur ('03) as leading class officers. General William Westmoreland (class of '36) commanded all U.S. forces in Vietnam. General Norman Schwarzkopf (class of '56) commanded all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. When officers like Schwarz-kopf talk about the Academy, they don't say "West Point," they say "this national treasure we call West Point."
But with the Cold War one decade in the past, the Academy's history has ceased to be a useful guide for its future. (The military misses the old Soviet threat the way rich families miss the simple, pressing clarity of being poor.) What the military fears now is called the culture gap. By the final months of the Second World War, one in ten Americans was serving in uniform; that number today is closer to one in three hundred. When the draft ended in 1975, civilian culture and military culture shook hands, exchanged phone numbers, and started to lose track of each other; military theorists worry that most Americans have no firsthand knowledge of how their Army lives or what their Army does.
In its campaign against the culture gap, the Academy has retained a glossy New York public relations firm. It has also participated in a Discovery Channel documentary about service academies and allowed a TV crewthe same team responsible for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Womanto film a pilot called West Point at West Point, in hopes it would do for the Academy what the successful series Pensacola: Wings of Gold has done for Navy flight school. (I have watched the pilot, which turns cadet life into sixty-minute story lines: hazing, binge drinking and the love that flowers between the ranks.) For the same reason, West Point invited Rolling Stone to the Academy; as a reporter I was granted unprecedented access to training, personnel, barracks and cadets. In all, I spent four years on post, to find out what kind of men and women would subject themselves to the intense discipline of West Point, and to discover what it means to attend the Academy during the most trying time in its history.
A West Point entering class is literally a high school all-star team. The median grade point average is 3.5; 14 percent are Eagle Scouts, 20 percent are class presidents, 60 percent are varsity team captains. Candidates are flagged from a long way off, like aircraft approaching on radar. The Department of Admissions boasts of having the most sophisticated database in the country: drop a line to West Point in the sixth grade and you'll receive correspondence from admissions every six months until you hit high school, when the rate doubles. More than 50,000 juniors open Academy files; from there, admissions becomes an endurance contest that produces 12,000 applicants, 6,000 physical fitness exams and 4,000 official nominations (from senators, congressmen, the vice president or the president); at the end, 1,200 cadets are left standing. (Even medical histories are fair game: if you have flat
feet, asthma, diabetes or any experience with Ritalin or antidepressant drugs, chances are you're out of the running.) The staff spends a careful forty hours with each file. Cadets receive an education that's famously valued at $250,000, and earn $600 in Army pay a month. Each year brings an unforeseen problem. In 1998, when Saving Private Ryan was sparking its resurgence of bystander patriotism at multiplexes around the country, the effect on West Point was very different. "We had a number of people call in and close their files after seeing the movie," says Colonel Michael Jones, director of admissions. "They couldn't make the leap that we don't fight those types of wars anymore."
Plebes spend their first summer at Cadet Basic TrainingBeast Barrackswhere they get soldierized. Five weeks of all the things you've seen in movies: sudden-death haircuts, buckle-shining, wall-jumping, scrambling cadets looking perplexed. Plebes report with underwear and a toothbrush; everything else is Army issue. After surviving Beast (the drop rate is about 10 percent), they enter a world where students don't even have the same names they do everyplace else. Sophomores are yearlings or yuks, juniors are cows, seniors are firsties. They join one of the Academy's thirty-two companies, in which every aspect of their lives is overseen by an adult officer called a TAC. (Each company is assigned a letter, number and name: there are the A-1 Apaches, the E-4 Elvis Lives!) They pledge to follow an honor code: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do." And their developmentas they say at West Pointbegins.