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Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point Hardcover – July 4, 2003
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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
From 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."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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He sets about following one class that reports in July for "Beast Barracks" where new cadets or plebes are whipped into shape, must learn military courtesy and how to march. Lipsky must also develop an ear for the traditional jargon of West Point, some of which are many decades old. First, it is not West Point Military Academy, but the United States Military Academy at West Point, a promontory within academy borders. Freshmen are fourth classmen or more commonly known as plebes. Sophomores are third classmen and informally known as yearlings or yuks. Juniors are second classmen and are informally known as cows. The seniors are called first classmen, and are informally known as firsties.
The author starts out with a brief history of cadets fighting in past wars and fighting each other in the Civil War with the utmost lethality while maintaining the utmost civility for each other. Where the country could not stay together, the bond amongst cadets was inseparable in spite of uniforms of different color. I wish Lipsky had spent a little more time on this, which he managed to write with some humor.
He quickly attaches himself to a group of cadets called the corporation, the cadet who cannot pronounce the name of the game he plays (fooball), and a keen interest in a hapless, but likeable cadet named George Rash who is on the verge of being thrown out of West Point for lack of physical agility on several occasions. George skims just above the waves of academic and physical disaster. Other cadets mention his name "Raaaash" with emphasis, not as an act of unkindness. In George, they see their own worst fears as real and tangible.
The author asks for and receives permission to follow the class to graduation. You can tell that he is gaining respect for the men and women of West Point.
The most telling story for the author seemed to be his recounting of a lieutenant colonel (LTC) who takes responsibility for one of his captains who has an inappropriate anecdote on his computer. His computer being open, the cadets soon download the message, and pass it throughout the academy. The colonel tells his captain: "You're my subordinate. That means I'm responsible for your actions." The LTC, who has his enemies, stands up for his captain, takes the responsibility, and is forced out of the service. In retelling this account in New York restaurants and bars, the author's listeners do not understand why the colonel was punished, and not the captain. This is the telling point for the author, because in spite of his anti-military upbringing, he has learned enough about West Point to not only know the language, but to know how they think and even more, understand it. Lipsky makes his admiration quite clear for a man whom he sees as the embodiment of the academy motto: Duty, Honor, Country.
He follows the class through their romances, competitions, and obstacles. In the third year, the cadets are sworn in. Now they must serve in the army as enlisted men if they fail or drop out, and repay the army the cost of their education. In the fourth year, cadets request their branch. In the army, branches mean infantry, armor, artillery, aviation, quartermaster, etc.)
The author follows many of them through graduation, and into their first assignments. And George Rash? George finishes second from the last in his class. This is probably the worst spot because the lowest in the class, also known as the goat, which happens to be the mascot of Annapolis, collects the lottery which consists of $1.00 from every cadet in the brigade. Even in this George misses, but he didn't miss being posted to one of the army's least desirable places--Ft. Polk, LA.
This is an excellent narrative for one who wants to learn about modern day West Point, and the men and women who still attempt to live by a code of honor that seems almost archaic in our modern society.
Keep in mind, this is a story about West Point, not the army.
But still, GO ARMY! SINK navy!