Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

by David Lipsky

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This chronicle of daily life at the US Military Academy is “a fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line” (Time).
In 1998, West Point made an unprecedented offer to Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky: Stay at the Academy as long as you like, go wherever you wish, talk to whomever you want, to discover why some of America’s most promising young people sacrifice so much to become cadets. Lipsky followed one cadet class into mess halls, barracks, classrooms, bars, and training exercises, from arrival through graduation. By telling their stories, he also examines the Academy as a reflection of our society: Are its principles of equality, patriotism, and honor quaint anachronisms or is it still, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, the most “absolutely American” institution?
During an eventful four years in West Point’s history, Lipsky witnesses the arrival of TVs and phones in dorm rooms, the end of hazing, and innumerable other shifts in policy and practice. He uncovers previously unreported scandals and poignantly evokes the aftermath of September 11, when cadets must prepare to become officers in wartime.
Lipsky also meets some extraordinary people: a former Eagle Scout who struggles with every facet of the program, from classwork to marching; a foul-mouthed party animal who hates the military and came to West Point to play football; a farm-raised kid who seems to be the perfect soldier, despite his affection for the early work of Georgia O’Keeffe; and an exquisitely turned-out female cadet who aspires to “a career in hair and nails” after the Army.
The result is, in the words of David Brooks in the New York Times Book Review, “a superb description of modern military culture, and one of the most gripping accounts of university life I have read. . . . How teenagers get turned into leaders is not a simple story, but it is wonderfully told in this book.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547523750
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 12/16/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 81,825
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

David Lipsky’s books have been Time magazine and NPR Best Books of the Year as well as New York Times and USA Today bestsellers. He has received the National Magazine Award and the GLAAD Media Award, and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Short Stories. Lipsky is the author of 5 books, including Three Thousand Dollars, The Art FairAbsolutely American, and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. In 2015, the latter became a motion picture directed by James Ponsoldt, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. Lipsky currently teaches at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

Absolutely American

Four Years at West Point

By David Lipsky

Houghton Mifflin

Copyright © 2014 David Lipsky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-547-52375-0

Preface 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 the 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 guy’s 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 night under 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, the trees 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—althoughh they are grand, epic complainers— were the happiest. That was probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.
Herrrrre’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 soft, 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 of 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.

Excerpted from Absolutely American by David Lipsky. Copyright © 2014 David Lipsky. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Preface xi Part One THE FIRST YEAR • 1 Part Two THE SECOND YEAR • 81 Part Three THE THIRD YEAR • 139 Part Four THE FOURTH YEAR • 243 Bibliography 313 Acknowledgments 315

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Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
ennie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A chronicle of what it's really like to go to West Point. The author followed cadets at the military academy for four years. This environment is completely foreign to me, and one where I'd never survive. It was still interesting to read about. I learned that the "Scent of a Woman" expression "Huah!" is actually used to describe gung-ho-ness. In a June, 2001 graduation address, Paul Wolfowitz talks about surprise attacks and not heeding warnings. He meant Pearl Harbor. A few months later, "instructors are switching on TVs like parting the curtains on the same inexcusable view. 'We're not going to stick with the syllabus today,' one professor declares ... 'This is going to affect your lives more directly than any lesson I have to teach.'"
dallasblue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great look at one of America's most storied institutions - West Point. Written by someone who starts as a skeptic and grows to care for and respect the subjects he follows, it's an interesting spotlight on a somewhat machoistic and sometimes miserable university experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a great book about a great place! You don't need to be bound to The Point to read this! It is just a great inside tale of one of the nations cherished places! The inside detail is stupendous! The feelings you will have for those who do attend is only going to be more hightened by reading this.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
wonderful insight into who and why Americans volunteer to sacrifice to defend our country rather than consume it's liberty. The author follows a West Point class thru their 4 year experience and a bit beyond.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One reason why i chose this book is because my uncle, who is in the 108th infantry unit worked with this man (the author) and has told me many stories about his dedication.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a wonderfully writen and is very entertaining. I read this book for my independent readind assignment for my Honors Lit. class at a private high school. I would recommend this book to all those interested in the US military / history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My cousin went to West Point and my brother is applying, and I found this to be the most outstanding book I have ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Journalist, David Lipsky, did what in my opinion is an outstanding job on bringing to life the stories of West Pointers, several cadets in particular, in his book, 'Absolutely American'. Having spent a great amount of time during four years to accomplish this book, he is the only one, other than researcher Norman Thomas Remick for 'West Point: Thomas Jefferson: Character Leadership Education' (who spent ten years), to devote that much time to a book about West Point. Anyone interested in West Point should read Mr. Lipsky's 'Absolutely American'. I highly recommend it. And, quite honestly, I would be remiss if I did not strongly recommend that you also read the Remick book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have wanted to attend West Point since I was tweleve. When Mr. Lipsky's book came out, I thought it would be a good idea to read it. I simply could not put it down. It went everywhere with me, and I finished it in under three days. It was very informative, and it gave me a much clearer view of West Point and Army life. I am more bent then ever on attending. I would recommend this book to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing. As a 'civilian' with a civilian education and a very civilian lifestyle, I have always been intensely intrigued by the military. This book gave me such access into life at the Academy and the type of men and women that are sculpted there. I found myself emotionally tied to several of the books 'characters' and full of pride and patriotism in understanding our great military in general.
Guest More than 1 year ago
to really understand that the newly minted officers churned out at our military academdies are steeled and prepared to lead our troops in times of war. They are the best of the best. As a wife of a former Air Force fighter pilot who served in Vietnam, I was interested in reading this book. The book grabbed me and pulled me into the lives of the 'plebes, yuks, cows and firsties.' Just as I was not more than a few pages away from finishing the book I learned that Ben Smith (a helicopter pilot and graduate of West Point who is from my small hometown in Misssouri) was killed in Irag. Thank God for Ben and all the young men like him who serve and are willing to sacrifice their lives for our safety and our freedom. God bless them all and their families.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the peek inside west point, it was neither glamourized nor trashed. The storyline follows cadets though the reality of USMA, the relationships of cadets with staff, family and others. The cadets almsot universally grew to love the Academy and thier patriatism is lacking elsewhere in everyday America. I served in the Navy and come from a West point family, this book rang true and should be shared with others.
Guest More than 1 year ago
...., I have to say that David Lipsky's 'Absolutely American' does a great job giving the reader an idea of what happens inside the walls of West Point, but, before you make any kind of decision whatsoever on the merits (or demerits) of West Point, you should go on to also read Norman Thomas Remick's 'West Point: Character Leadership...Thomas Jefferson' for the rest of the story and true significance of West Point to the United States of America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gosh. What a letdown. I had to write this critique because I feel used. I bought this book expecting something great from the way it was built up. I found it to be boring and unimportant. In my opinion, the book tarnishes West Point's image. I cannot recommend this book. To me, the daily trivia, and all the rest of it, make the book much ado about nothing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After the first fifty pages, HUAH, and all it stands for was nowhere to be found. The book starts off great and captures my attention easily, being a retired Army officer, after that, the story just drags on with mostly the daily trivia of Army life in the non-combat arena. I finished the book but found very little to hold my attention. I was disapointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I have ever read about West Point. I live near Ft Drum and the accuracy displayed makes me proud to be a writer!