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Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

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by David Lipsky

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As David Lipsky follows a future generation of army officers from their proving grounds to their barracks, he reveals the range of emotions and desires that propels these men and women forward. From the cadet who struggles with every facet of West Point life to those who are decidedly huah, Lipsky shows people facing challenges so daunting and responsibilities


As David Lipsky follows a future generation of army officers from their proving grounds to their barracks, he reveals the range of emotions and desires that propels these men and women forward. From the cadet who struggles with every facet of West Point life to those who are decidedly huah, Lipsky shows people facing challenges so daunting and responsibilities so heavy that their transformations are fascinating to watch. Absolutely American is a thrilling portrait of a unique institution and those who make up its ranks.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

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.
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

"Superb"–Publisher's Weekly

“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 culture—the military squared and cubed—in 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

Product Details

Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Abridged, 5 CDs, 6 hrs.
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 6.15(h) x 0.89(d)

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
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
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 nightunder
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,
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—although they are grand, epic complainers—were the happiest.
That was probably step two on the path toward 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 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 so 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
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.

Meet the Author

David Lipsky is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories, and his novel, The Art Fair, won acclaim from The New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, People, and others. His honors include a MacDowell fellowship and a Henry Hoyns fellowship. He lives in New York City.

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