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David Lipsky: Absolutely American: Four Years At West Point


Absolutely American: Four Years At West Point

Author: David Lipsky
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

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Five years ago, on assignment for Rolling Stone, David Lipsky visited the United States Military Academy at West Point, reluctantly preparing for another of his patented pieces on campus life. Given his anti-military background, Lipsky was privately relieved when West Point's public-relations office restricted his access, prompting him to walk out with his journalistic integrity intact. But when the school came back to him, promising unprecedented freedoms, the assignment ballooned into the four-year odyssey chronicled in Absolutely American, a richly anecdotal portrait of West Point during one of the most dramatic transitional phases in its 200-year history. The PR office's surprising reversal in policy calls to mind the "embedded" reporter experiments of Gulf War II, a strategy that paid off in gripping stories and images from the front, but also induced a dangerous myopia, if not a fatal compromise of journalistic standards. In that sense, the military will likely raise few objections to Lipsky's book, which among other things documents his transformation from a deeply skeptical civilian to a sympathetic observer. Though it stops well short of exposé, Absolutely American nonetheless bristles with conflict and discontent under the surface, as modern cadets grapple with sweeping changes in military culture, often reconsidering their proscribed future as Army lifers. Some are merely shaken by the punishing conditions at West Point, from the long marches, unforgiving schedule, and draconian honor codes to the lack of ordinary campus vices like parties and sex. But others are disappointed with 1998's policy alterations (or "The Changes," as they're commonly called), which eliminate hazing rituals and include other steps toward a more "professional" atmosphere. As Lipsky puts it, some of The Changes read "as if the Academy has been receiving transmissions from Oprah," encouraging greater sensitivity and political correctness, and even cautioning on stress management and eating disorders. Many cadets and officers worry that the new rules take the all-important "huah" factor—popularized by Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman—out of military life. Their fears are realized when Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, an almost mythic warrior who's "the embodiment of huah," loses his career over an unfortunate e-mail. Lipsky considers West Point's sudden evolution through the eyes of several students, including a disgraced football recruit who transforms into a top-flight officer, a standard-bearer who embarks on an interracial romance with a female cadet, and a charismatic leader who nearly goes "five-and-out" on his military commitment until he becomes a finance officer in Kosovo. Yet Lipsky reserves special compassion for George Rash, an ugly duckling whose annual struggles to pass the basic fitness test bring him literally seconds from expulsion, as does a trumped-up honor hearing that typifies the resentment he receives from fellow cadets and officers. Threatened with a $250,000 bill for his education if he gets "separated," Rash grows into the most compelling figure in Absolutely American, a man who at once typifies the "soft" soldiers that might come out of The Changes, and the indomitable spirit of West Point's old guard.