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You're in the Army Now

David Lipsky's Absolutely American

If America ever became subject to a military dictatorship, it just might end up looking a lot like its premier military academy, West Point. And that's not such a bad thing from David Lipsky's point of view.

In Absolutely American, Lipsky chronicles four years of life at the academy, about an hour north of New York City on the Hudson River, as cadets are put through some of the harshest, most controlled conditions imaginable -- and manage to be the most uniformly happy people Lipsky has ever met.

Lipsky doesn't argue that everyone would be happy at West Point. Most would-be cadets are weeded out by a thorough screening process, and even then, many drop out in the very first week of school. But once they're in, life sounds like a male adolescent fantasy: spin donuts in 70-ton tanks, lift weights, ride in helicopters, blow stuff up, drink hard on the weekends.

Shoot-em-up bacchanalia notwithstanding, West Point is tough. Many cadets come for the legendary challenge; others assiduously avoid it. But all must face it or leave. "Separation," the academy's term for expulsion, comes swiftly and without remorse. Cadets can be "separated" for as little as sharing a barracks room with the opposite sex, but perhaps the most common reason is the failure to pass a biannual physical fitness test of sit-ups, push-ups and a two-mile run. Cadets who don't finish in the allotted time get another chance after 60 days. Another failure brings another chance in 30 days, but a third failed attempt means expulsion. Considering that juniors and seniors who are expelled owe the army up to $250,000 in tuition, the exam can feel like a reality game show gone awry.

When the cadets aren't laboring under fear of separation they're facing a worse pressure: honor. From the very first day, the importance of being honorable is drummed into the cadets like incessant mortar fire, and soon they are marching on cracked, swollen feet, pleading to scrape their way onward lest they disgrace themselves and their platoon. In cadet life, maintaining one's honor is linked to the trust of one's comrades on the battlefield, which can be the difference between life and death.

Even the smallest infractions, then, take on the patina of moral transgression. In one case, a cadet faced an "honor trial" after missing class, returning to the dorm and falling asleep. She was "tried" not for missing class, but for distorting the truth. She told a superior that she slept in her dorm for 15 minutes, while her roommate reported her nap as closer to 30 minutes.

Even though cadets' lives are far removed from what today's Americans, three decades since the last military draft, have ever experienced, their struggles still strike an emotional chord as they face decisions and dilemmas common to us all. Seniors must choose a unit after graduation: should they ask to be stationed in Italy and risk charges of selling out, or join the infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia to win respect but suffer the mire and muck with the grunts? Boyfriends and girlfriends have to make their relationships compatible with the ruthless, rootless Army life. Upperclassmen must enforce prohibitions of the opposite sex in the barracks, even as they share a bed with their significant others. Cadets start out destined for failure and struggle to the top of the class, while others look picture perfect, try drugs, and end up expelled.

With quick, sharp prose that emulates the Army-efficient speech of the cadets he's observed, Lipsky reveals the human stories that seep through West Point's pressure cooker of military conformity and group values. He also covers a lot of ground, combining exhaustive West Point minutiae with a thorough examination of life at the academy.

West Point's own experiment in regimented living is a parallel American universe that one can trace back to the earliest days of our country's democracy, and, as harsh as the academy may be, it is also one of the most color-blind, gender-blind, meritocratic places in America. That makes Absolutely American, a book which studies West Point's relationship with America, an interesting twist in the well-worn "freedom versus equality" dilemma. We may not always agree with how West Point resolves the dilemma, but after reading Lipsky's book we're likely to respect its fair-minded effort.

Absolutely American
by David Lipsky
Houghton Mifflin; ISBN: 061809542X
Hardcover, 336 pages (July 2003)

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