Individuality would not seem to be a highly prized virtue at West Point. After all, new cadets arriving at the military academy are not required to pack anything more than a toothbrush and some underwear since they will be issued everything else. But despite their uniformity and disciplined bearing, the cadets profiled in David Lipsky's Absolutely American
are still college kids who have moved away from their hometowns to figure out what to do with their lives. Lipsky was given unprecedented access at West Point and spent a full four years following a class from wide-eyed arrival through graduation. The most fascinating cadets are the ones who don't fit the gung-ho West Point stereotype. George Rash faces expulsion on a regular basis but persistently hangs in, "Huck" Finn just wants to play football but becomes more enamored of the military life than he ever expected, and Christi Cicerelle stays perfectly coiffed and, as she says, "girly," even while becoming a highly skilled soldier. Lipsky's tenure came at a pivotal time in the institution's history: hazing had recently been discontinued (part of a series of reforms referred to with both gravity and a little remorse as "The Changes") and the attacks of September 11, 2001 placed the United States in a war which the cadets would have to fight. The academy, in Lipsky's portrayal, demands much of its charges, its standards are high, and the possibility of being "separated" from West Point looms large for any cadet not up to par. Yet the cadets are shown as largely happy people, using the harsh demands of a West Point experience to find the kind of structure and purpose that other college students would envy. Lipsky, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone
, creates portraits that are, by turns, hilarious, touching, harrowing, disappointing and joyful. As his subjects finally graduate and launch their careers, readers may feel like a proud parent or friend standing in the crowd and cheering their accomplishments. --John Moe
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."
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