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Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point Hardcover – July 4, 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 105 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin; First Edition edition (July 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061809542X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618095421
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #383,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Edwin C. Pauzer VINE VOICE on March 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and the son of self-proclaimed hippie parents whose zip code is in Greenwich Village is assigned to write about a class of cadets and write his story after a year. Nurtured with a distrust and dislike for anything military, he anticipates that West Point will throw up one roadblock after another. He is surprised when they give him unrestricted access the academy.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
As someone originally from one of the small American towns that supplies West Point with candidates (Winterset, Iowa) but who now lives in the artistic community of Chicago, I read this book with personal and nationalistic interest. Most Americans get the news about the war and our military without knowing anyone who participates in them. Lacking that human information, we can too easily regard the armed forces as just that--forces without faces. This book supplies the faces, names and stories behind Rumsfeld's briefings and New York Times articles, and it does so with a novelistic style that is engrossing and truly moving. The reason for the book's title is simple: the people who go to West Point dedicate their lives to both the most abstract and the most concrete goals of the United States. For every American, those goals are often hard to handle and assimilate, and for none more so than West Point cadets and officers. Absolutely American looks at what it costs individuals to devote themselves to honor, discipline, responsibility and the arts of war. The kind of people with whom I spend most of my time almost never think about the kind of people who make it possible for us to live the way we do. Absolutely American shows us who they are and how they got that way. It's also funny and sexy. I don't think any woman could read this book and not want to dump her civilian boyfriend or husband for one of the "steely-eyed, flat-bellied" officers like Hank Keirsey or Huck Finn (Huck's on the cover; Hank's the centerfold with the cigar). That aside, however, this is an important book. In difficult times, our country depends on the military; the military depends on the Army, and the Army is largely run by West Point graduates.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Absolutely American is the quintessential American feel good book. In the face of a pervasive cynicism in our culture and perhaps a generation's collective amnesia, the characters who grace the book's pages remind us of what has made us great as a people. It's the Herzogs, the Ignacios, and the Supkos who have responded to the call to arms... who have accepted the responsibility of preserving our liberty... who have embraced the higher ideals of duty, honor, country.

In their West Point and post-West Point experiences, the characters display an up-by-the-bootstraps tenacity that is so much a part of our country's heritage. Absolutely American casts the best of our country's young people in the bright light of hope: They are human; they love their country; and they will steward our precious legacy.

Author Lipsky brings to every reader the essence of what one of our most cherished institutions means to us today. The book's greatest strength is that it does not indulge us endlessly with U.S. Military Academy history and lore. (Make no mistake - the Academy's ardent supporters among us get our fill.) Rather, the author offers us an amazing glimpse inside the minds and hearts of his subjects - real people with real feelings handling real challenges. Why do they do what they do? What drives them? What are their hopes and dreams?

No sugarcoating here. West Point cadets live in a complex world in which they might trade loyalty for duty, where uneasy bonds are forged in a crucible of unrelenting demands, where a 4-year series of rapid-fire "wake up calls" defines one's coming of age.
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