Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point
David Lipsky (2003, Vintage Books)
In 1998, David Lipsky's assignment from Rolling Stone magazine was to spend a few weeks at West Point, for an article about a bunch of plebes. Finding that story incomplete, he wound up sticking around for their whole four years. He had unprecedented access, at a particularly interesting time: the Army was trying to train a new kind of leader for new kinds of conflict. Hazing was Out, Respect was In.
West Point accepts a wide cross-section of highly fit candidates. They are Eagle Scouts, class presidents, and varsity athletes; some are the children of soldiers, others are accepted from the ranks of the army. The Academy subjects them to a grueling four years of study and training, under constant scrutiny and assessment. Lipsky says, "The process of character-building is designed to be exhausting, and when it's not exhausting, to be irritating."
For the results, Lipsky turns a microscope an Company G-4, home to some cadets who look the part, and others whose resistance to having their characters built takes idiosyncratic forms. Will 'Huck' Finn sleep through another class? Will George Rash break 15:54 for the two-mile run? Who will get caught with drugs, or 'sharing a piece of furniture with a cadet of the opposite sex'?
On a larger scale, Lipsky introduces us to the culture wars, West Point style. In the late nineties, the Academy's senior authorities embraced Samuel Huntington's idea that they should be turning out 'professional' military officers, who would thus command the respect and stature that society gives lawyers and doctors. But, Lipsky asks, is that enough? "In the best cases, cadets choose West Point because of hopes and dreams, the chance to feel strung to something larger than themselves--their shot at a range of emotions beyond personal consideration. The moments cadets treasure in Army movies are the unprofessional ones."
The senior year of the class of 2002 was marked, of course, by yet another critical moment in the Army's history. These officers will be serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, sooner than later, and they'll be leading America's sons and daughters into hazardous places. Absolutely American does the country a great service by putting a human face on that fact. Reading it, you'll want, more than ever, to support our troops and bring them safe home.