Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky

4 February 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverLately, I’ve been trying to trace the evolution in my opinion of military service, and frankly, I’m not sure how I got to where I am today.

For much of high school I wore an Army coat, bought at a secondhand store. For a while it even bore on one shoulder a 1st Infantry Division patch that I had found in sixth grade. Though I was too young to vote, I fell for Reagan’s charisma in both 1980 and 1984, not realizing how much danger his “Evil Empire” posturing would put us in.

Yet somehow I believed in the anti-military line: that all enlisted are meatheads, every officer the purchaser of a $600 hammer. Films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon didn’t help, especially considering I saw that particular movie on the day before my eighteenth birthday. I walked out of the theater with the stylized horrors of war in my head and knowing that when the sun next rose I would be compelled by law to register for “selective service,” aka the draft. I was a cynic and an anti-authoritarian, and seeing myself in the potential line of fire rankled.

I suppose that was the start of the hippie peacenik phase of my life. I actively protested the Gulf War in 1991. And being a know-it-all, I “knew” that I was right, and the entire military-industrial complex, to use a popular phrase, was wrong. I fell in with a group of similarly minded people, yet ironically, much of that supposedly “free-thinking” community—myself included—was incredibly closed-minded. I tried to migrate away from that, and those days are now just a hazy memory.

I’m not sure yet what changed my mind over the past several years. I hate to give too much credit to Robert Heinlein, as so much of his philosophy is specious at best. Yet I’ve begun to agree with his notion, as expounded in Starship Troopers, that citizenship should be predicated on military service. The soldier is the only one who knows, first-hand, the true cost of going to war, and thus knows that every effort in diplomacy is worthwhile.

For me, the closest I’ve ever come to anything quasi-military would have to be the Boy Scouts, and the Spartan Marching Band. The latter has military origins—it began as an Army cadet band and to this day includes vestigial military strictures, such as removing one’s uniform hat when entering a building—yet even that is a far, far cry from military service.

My attitude had quite definitely changed by the time of my ten-year high school reunion in 1997, when I met up with two friends and former teammates who both graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. One was still in active duty, flying ASW missions in P-3 Orions. The other had mustered out after 6 years, having completed two master’s degrees (one during his service, one after, I believe). Both impressed me with their intelligence and success.

Nowadays, I have the utmost respect for those who serve this country, and I have more than a little regret that I didn’t consider the military to be an option when I was young enough to make a difference. I have also become a big fan of Stephen E. Ambrose’s military histories.

And now, further contributing to my positive impression of the military is Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. Author David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, grew up with much the same attitude as me—although in his case, his influence was quite clear: his vehemently anti-military father threatened to break his legs if he enlisted. He was reluctant, to say the least, when RS assigned him to do an article about the U.S. Military Academy, at the Academy’s invitation. But when the USMA told him that he could have full, unrestricted access to the students and the campus, Lipsky found that even several months were not enough to really get the whole story. He wound up spending four full years there, following one class from plebe year all the way to firstie year and graduation. In the process, his view of the military did a complete about-face, from scorn to near-reverence.

The tale Lipsky tells may not be indicative of West Point as a whole, and certainly there must be alumni who take exception to much of it, for he gives us a clear vision of the fact that these are normal, if exceptionally high-achieving, college students. That their attitudes run the gamut from totally “huah” to completely cynical about the military. That they indulge in all the things that virtually all post-adolescents do—drinking, drugs, sexual relations—things that are especially frowned upon in a military environment. Some pay dearly for their transgressions, and some manage to keep them under wraps.

The book is also an important snapshot of a significant period in history. For one, the Academy was struggling at the time with a number of new policies known as “The Changes,” essentially trying to find a proper balance of old-guard military training systems in an era of gender equality and political correctness. For another, the fourth year of the book begins the fall semester with the “firsties” (seniors) watching, with the rest of the world, the horror of 9/11. Suddenly these students had to face the knowledge that graduation would mean not assignment to a quiet homefront base, nor a vague peacekeeping mission, but an overseas deployment to war.

Most of all, even as he dishes some dirt, Lipsky shows us the strength of an institution that Teddy Roosevelt called the most “absolutely American” of all. All the ideals of this nation—of truth and honor, of being rewarded for hard work and taking personal responsibility for failures—are openly embraced there. Every person associated with West Point—its staff, instructors, students and graduates—should take great pride in their accomplishment, and I, as a mere civilian, am proud to know that this country has a place like the U.S. Military Academy.

Most of all, Absolutely American made me care deeply about several very real people who are serving their country today, in a time of intense trial. I would very much like to know how these soldiers are faring, folks like Whitey and Iggy, and “Huck” Finn, and the indomitable-if-dogged George Rash.

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