Books: Absolutely American
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; 12:30 PM
In his new book, "Absolutely American," author David Lipsky shares the account of his four years serving as an embedded journalist at West Point. Lipsky follows a future generation of Army officers from their proving grounds to the barracks to their bars. In his time there, he witnessed the arrival of TVs in dorm rooms, the end of hazing and other shifts in policies known as The Changes.
Lipsky was online Tuesday, May 11 at 12:30 p.m. ET, to discuss his book and the what he learned in his four years at West Point.
Lipsky is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and has written for the New Yorker, New York Times, Harper's Magazine and the Boston Globe.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
David Lipsky is not related to Eleazor Lipsky who graduated from Columbia in the 30s, is he?
David Lipton (ne Lipsky)
David Lipsky: No relation -- although Lipsky is such a not-very-popular name that there has to be some connection somewhere. He meant a lot to me, though, as a young writer: All the American writers I admired had very oak-and-beach names like Updike and Cheever, and I had this weird Russian/Polish hybrid. I saw Eleazor's books on the library shelves, and thought: well, alright, if he could find a way to do it, maybe I can too.
Extrat Credit note: All the names like Lipton, Lipski, Lipsky, etc., I've learned, are somehow connected to the Lipseig tree, which grows in the region between Poland and Russia that so many of our families call as their eventual homes.
What interested you in writing about West Point and did you plan from the outset to stay there for four years? Were you worried that commitment might prevent you from pursuing other opportunities?
David Lipsky: What's funny is that I was, at first, not interested at all in writing about West Point. And I didn't plan, if I could avoid it, to spend more than four minutes up there. (The lesson is, don't base your packing list on your first impulse.)
I grew up in New York City, which is sort of the capital for anti-military feelings on the eastern seaboard. My own family had the distinction of being the capital of anti-military feelings actually inside Manhattan. My dad had come of age during Vietnam, and when my brother and I were 8 and 10 he sat us down and said: You boys can do any job in the world. Be a lawyer, shoe horses, get a spot as a groundskeeper at Yankee staidum if you'd like. But the one thing you can never do is become involved w/ the U.S. Army. If either of you do -- if you change your names, get youreslves posted to the most far-off place like Hawaii or Alaska -- I'll hire two strong guys to find you and break your legs.
Now, I didn't want my legs broken, so I'd always steered clear of the Army.
When West Point asked Rolling Stone to send a reporter, because I was the college expert, I was drafted. To get out of doing the story, I told the administration at West Point that I could only report the story if I could interview every cadet, go to any class, talk to any officer -- live, as much as was possible, like a cadet. I thought I'd gotten out of the story, and I went home.
A week later, my phone rang, and a voice I didn't recognize said, "The answer is 'Yes.'" By then, I'd forgotten the question. And then they said a great thing. They said, "You can do all these things, we'll open every door to you for as long you'd like, because we have nothing of which we should be ashamed." I'd never heard an organization more confident of themselves, or more proud. It made me want to really try to find out about it, and the four years I spent there made me prouder than four years I've ever spent anywhere. So I was never worried about missing those other opportunities: what could compare with getting a chance to see all that, and live those people's stories?
Friendship Heights, Md.:
As a Naval Academy graduate I applaud you for your insightful and realistic look inside life at a service academy. Can you give us an update on the whereabouts and going ons of the cadets and officers you profiled?
David Lipsky: Thanks: I feel I should throw in a "Beat Navy" before I answer, so here it is: Beat Navy!
And thanks for liking the book. I knew I was being given a special opportunity to tell the stories of cadets and middies like yourselves, and also to tell Americans about young people they had every reason to be immensely proud of. The really hard thing was graduation on June 1, 2002. I know you know what I mean: I wasn't going to be around all those people again.
Except by e-mail, letters, visits and phones. (Satellite phones let you speak to people in the hills of Afghanistan, while you're drinking a Coke and looking down at New York City traffic: A globally strange experience.) I've kept track of all the people in the book, and added a last chapter to the new paperback because so many readers had written letters asking what happened to George, Huck, Major Vermeesch, Chrissi, Ryan, Whitey, and LTC Keirsey.
The short answer is: Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ryan Southerland went to Fort Lewis to work with the new Stryker Brigade. His until deployed in December; Ryan was nervous and excited, and eager to see how he did and his men did under trying circumstances.
Huck Finn didn't get to play with the New York Giants; he's in Afghanistan right now, helping in the search for Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.
George Rash survived Engineer OBC, found someone who actually wanted to go to Fort Polk, and traded them for their slot in Korea. He came back about two months ago, and is now posted at Fort Lewis, Washigton, where he can have a Bravo Company, Beast, 2000 reunion with Ryan Southerland once he returns from Iraq.
Chrissi spent a year in Kuwait with the Quartermasters. She found it very hot, and didn't get a chance to cut her hair, and found that West Point had, if anything, overprepared her for the challenges of leadership.
Whitey Herzog is a Captain now, leading his company in Iraq.
One of Hank Keirsey's sons had joined up with the Rangers, and was headed back for Iraq; his younger son had just gone into the Infantry; so to do his part to make them safe, Keirsey found a slot as a contractor and went to Iraq to do his part.
Col Adamczyk - the BTO, Skeleltor -- retried from civilian life (de-retired) and the commandantship of Valley Forge Military Academy, and also shipped as a contractor (what he calls "a shirt") for Iraq.
One of my favorite things in the new chapter in the paperback is right on the last page: It's a photo of Huck Finn, in Afghanistan, with three Afghani kids, mountains in the background. It reminds me of how much we have to be proud of in officers and graduates like Huck, and what the mission if of our military forces around the world.
Are any of the soldiers you followed currently serving in Iraq?
David Lipsky: Basically, all of them are either in Iraq or Afganistan now, or headed there, or on their way back: Iraq and Afghanistan have become like the twin hub cities for the military airline. Every Army career is headed in their directions.
Of the main people whose stories the book tells, only George Rash hasn't been to Iraq or Afghanistan yet. (He went to Korea.) Even Max Adams -- the guy from the 100th Night show, if you remember it from the book -- spent a year in country. Jake Bergman -- the big-hearted musclehead kid from Diamond Bar, CA, who pulled and pushed George through that first year -- is in Iraq now. Word is he's doing his job incredibly well and still finding the spare half-hour or hour to work out.
Silver Spring, Md.:
David, thanks for answering our questions. The book is great. What's your next project?
David Lipsky: Thanks. It's a pleasure, and it's an honor to talk about West Point and the Army. Thanks for taking the time to ask them, and also for the good words about the book.
My joke for a long time when people asked "What's next?" was to say, "I wanted to chance of pace" Then I'd pause and say, "So I've just arranged to spend four years at the Naval Academy." It was actually hard to be away from military life -- you miss the rigor and the activity and the honor of the people around you -- so that joke didn't seem unattractive at all to me. I also very much wanted to get to Afghanistan and Iraq -- not so much to write about my friends there, but more to be around buddies I'd just spent four years with.
What's prevented me so far has been a project based on the book. Disney/ABC TV purchased the TV and film rights to the book soon after it was published last year, so we've been all working hard on that since last August.
I read your book and enjoyed it very much. I've recommended the book to several people. I'm pleased that the University of North Carolina has chosen your book as the required summer read for incoming freshman this Fall. Have other colleges or cities chosen "Absolutely American" as a community read?
David Lipsky: Thanks for liking the book, and thanks for recommending it. Please don't stop! I'm kidding, but no writer who says that is ever really fully kidding. You write because you want people to like it enough to recommend, because most writers are readers first and they know how good it feels to be passionate enough about a reader experience to want a friend to have the same experience themselves. I wrote the book because I wanted readers to have the chance to live the story of going through West Point; it's a rare experience, and one that I thought people should have a chance to go through whetehr they were cadets, cadet-age, or not.
I was very flattered and honored by UNC's choice. I know it's being taught at a bunch of other colleges and high school around the country: I think Perdue, some of the UC schools, some high schools here in the East, Deerfield up in Massachusetts. But UNC is the one that I'm most clear on, just because it was a big honor to require the entering class to read it, and I was so pleased that people who would see the cadets as peers would get a chance to live that story with them.
That was what the cadets kept saying to me at West Point: "Dave, don't worry if you make us look good, or you make us look bad. Just be truthful about us, and tell people our story." It was a challenge and a pleasure to get that opportunity. And the stories were such great stories, too.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
What do you think of "The Lords of Discipline", which was a (fictious?) tale about hazing and driving away supposedly "undesirables" from a military school. Do you witness hints of hazing or plans to convince dislike students to leave West Point?
David Lipsky: I think Lords Of Discipline was a good movie and a much better book. I liked Pat Conroy's "My Losing Season" last year, too -- he went to Citadel and obviously had a mixed experience, both good and bad, things he hated, things he loved and misses. Some of it -- I'm sure you had the same sense reading "Lords" -- had the ring of stuff that must have, in at least a partial sense, happened. But of course Conroy's a good enough writer so he could make even fictional things have that sense of truth.
I didn't witness hazing at West Point; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, when he was a superintendent of USMA in the early part of the last century, had tried to get rid of it; other Supes tried to do away with it periodicially.
General John Abizaid, who was commandant when I arrived in 1998 and is now the head of Centcom down in Florida, really began to enforce the no-hazing policy in the mid-90s, and now it's gone. A thing of the past. I have seen some Plebes, who miss it -- what they saw as a big test -- go up to upperclassman and say, essentially, "Please haze me." The especially wanted to be ordered to do a "White Tornado," which is where you eat all the condiments on your mess hall table.
I did see George Rash take a lot of "why don't you leave" questions, espeically during his first two years. What's funny, and fair-minded, about the cadets at West Point, is that when they saw George live through it and improve, they began, almost against their will, to root for him. By the last year -- it was a real run thing to write about -- most of his classmates were cheering him on. They'd say, "George is the biggest miracle we've witnessed here."
I read your book last fall and really enjoyed it.
My question is about the kid from Louisiana who came to West Point to play football, almost quit, but in the end showed real leadership qualities and really impressed his teachers. I remember at graduation his mentor told him, "to make us proud."
Do you know where he is and what he is doing? Thanks.
David Lipsky: Birmingham: thanks for liking the book. A lot of people, at readings and via the mails, have asked the same questions you did, so I wrote a new chapter for the paperback (which comes out this week) saying what happened to everybody.
The kid from Lousiana is named Reid Finn. (He's the big guy on the cover of the book with one eyebrow raised.) At West Point, they want cadets to know they've left their old life behind the day they arrive, so they take away your first name for that whole first year. Cadets usually end up with a nickname based on their family name or where they're from. Reid was from Baton Rouge, was always breaking rules, and had a storng accent. Any smart gambler would have told you his nickname was going to be "Huck."
I loved what his TAC Officer wrote to him at graduation on June 1, 2002. He took a memo he'd writen about Huck from February of 1999, when he'd questioned Huck's ability and drive to be a military officer, and was on the verge of recommending him for separation from West Point. In the upper right corner, the officer had written, "What a transformation. Continue to make us proud."
Huck has lived up to. He's in Afghanistan right now, and isn't going to try to go play for the Giants again. The Army told him he could get out in two years and suit up for football, but Huck knows what he's doing for the Army and for everyone back home is more important. He's a 1LT, a platoon leader, doing weapons checks, securing things like elections in towns, and helping in the hunt for Taliban, al Queada, and Osama bin Laden.
David: count your blessings, namewise. It could be much worse. My great-grandmother's maiden name was Pudlipsky, and I just learned of a variation on that in another branch of the family spelled Podlibski. They mean "under the linden tree," which as you note, grows in the area where our ancestors hail from.
David Lipsky: I smiled at that: Pudlipsky, though, is so tough - and virtually guarantees so much grammer school and high school razzing -- that you know anyone with that name is bound to be cool. And of course, it's the linden tree I was looking for. I used to really envy the branch of my own family that went with "Lipton" over "Lipsky." But as you get older, you learn to accept even the too-yellow toenails parts of yourself like a name that doesn't sound like other peoples'. I wouldn't change it now, and it was fun being called "Lip" at school and then again at West Point. It made for an easy nickname.
Among many sacrifices they make, people in the military give up some of the same Constitutional rights they help protect for the rest of us, correct? Like, they could be prosecuted for actions civilians could take, and they would suffer a different "due process" etc. How concerned about this particular sacrifice, were the cadets you met? For example, did they worry that someday a command might conflict with their individual ethical sense? Thank you.
David Lipsky: Thanks for your question. On the long first day at West Point -- it's called R-Day, Reception Day -- the one moment of relative calm the New Cadets get is when they sign their contract and take their oath. The JAG officers in those rooms spell out just that service equation you mention; that you'll be sacrificing some of your rights to protect everyone else's. The UCMJ - the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- is clear, and has some protections, but it is, as you say, immensely strict. What the JAG officers say, and what CPT Davis in the book says, is that it's a big thing, "So in this room, we give them all the time they need."
So the cadets worry about it, but not that much. They know what they signed up for, and I think they like the chance to measure up to a code.
Now, the second thing that's stressed to cadets at West Point addresses that last question you ask, which is a great question to have asked. Although it's very important to live within your chain of command, an officer is not obliged to follow an order he believes to be unlawful; in fact, he is obliged to not follow it and to question it. It's a built-in safeguard, to make sure that once everybody is out in the field, the same tough, honorable standards that are insisted upon in Highland Falls -- or at ROTC, or in OCS -- are cleaved to. Thanks for asking about that.
My father once suggested to me that I attend a military college, in this case the Coll?ge militaire royal du Canada
in Kingston, Canada, instead of a normal engineering university, with the argument that it would teach me discipline. Since then, I've heard this connection between military colleges and discipline on numerous occasions, in general conversation, but also in various films and books ("An Officer and a Gentleman", etc.). Unfortunately I didn't attend the Military College (perhaps fortunately for the college).
In your experience at West Point, did the graduates there learn a constructive type of discipline that was beneficial and advantageous later on in life, for instance in industry?
David Lipsky: Well, the short answer to your question is that they are a number of head hunting firms -- employment agents that find executives to work at Wall Street corporations -- who specialize in locating West Point and other Academy graduates and convicing them to take off the uniform and put on a suit-and-tie. So many of these companies that in fact before 9/11/01 it was becoming a bit of a problem.
What the companies have found is that the discipline -- the ability to push yourself until the task is satisfactorily accomplished -- is something that transcends the military, and that the leadership skills are of course the same ones you need in industry. Leadership is basically about getting people to do things safely and effectively that they might in fact not want to do at all; it's also about providing a kind of charismatic role model, which says, "You might want to trust my ideas about this, because you trust my skills and deep down you'd like to have my skill level yourself." In the book, and at West Point, that model of charismatic leadership is shown by an officer named LTC Hank Keirsey, who lives the Army values all the way.
The way his son -- now serving with the Rangers in Iraq - boils it down in the book is this way: (He's about to graduate, and is passing on advice to a good friend about to become a senior.)
"Take care of subordinates. This is my only 'leadership lesson.' You know what taking care of subordinates entails: it isn't being nice. It is presenting an attainable goal, a charismatic persona that they can aspire to."
The last thing I'd say is that there are other ways to learn a bunch of these things: discpline and honor and leadership aren't limited to West Point and other military academies, they're just an excellent way to learn about them, in the same way that libraries aren't the only places to find books, they're just the places where the most books are localized.
How has your work with West Point affected the subjects you are asked to write about (by Rolling Stone and others)? Also, any chance you'll do any follow-ups on cadet life if other attactive stories arise -- like the Extreme Vacationers, the cadets who fly to Europe on regular weekends to party and make things happen? Do you think that is a hot story -- and what advice who you give a cadet who is looking to promote outrageous stories of adventure carved between the weeks of academic/military demands of West Point? Go guppies.
David Lipsky: Go Guppies. That's great to see, and it's great to see the "West Point" tag. How're thing in Highland Falls, Mac Long, and G-4? Give my best to everybody. I miss morning formation, and the sight of The Plain.
That's an interesting question, about how the RS articles and the book affected the people in those articles and the book. I think the first thing was that a lot of stuff about West Point life that they had a hard time explaining -- to parents, siblings, girlfriends or boyfriends -- they could more easily get across to civilians. On a very praticial level, I know some of the people "got" girlfriends from the book. (I received some cool thank-you notes about that.) And a bunch of other people just thanked me for saving, inside the pages, their experience of those four years; it's something they can go back and look at when they've forgotten what they were like between 18 and 22. And some other people, who had been controversial cadets when they were at USMA, have had other officers out in the field come up to them and shake their hands. That last one meant a lot to me -- even more than the girlfirend stuff.
I'd very much like to write more about cadet life; I really miss West Point, and the Extreme Vacationer stuff you write about sounds very cool. My advice about carving out and outrageous stuff is close to COL Adamczyk's, the old BTO's: "Be careful; you've got a lot to lose. So please." As in another on this site, a) remember that you rep USMA, and b) that the UCMJ has an understandably long reach.
But write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Because that Europe stuff sounds like a neat thing to hear about.
New York, N.Y.:
I LOVED your book. Well-researched, fascinating, really opened up the institution. Question:
You told the story of George, the cadet who was always on the edge of getting kicked out for various violations, would pull it together just enough to slide by, and then backslide. Did he ever "see the light" so to speak? Why would someone want to remain in such a structured, ultimately ideological (not in a political sense, but I think there is an ideology at WP) environment if he wan't committed in his heart?
David Lipsky: New York, NY -- great to see my hometown here. Thanks for liking the book so much. You spend four years at a place, you hope people will take it into their hearts like that.
I very much liked telling George's story, because he wasn't what I expected to find at West Point, and a lot of the trouble he was having I could have seen myself having there too. What people never got about George until his last year there was that he wasn't slacking off: He was trying as hard as he could; he was doing his best. So rather than not being able to easily finish road marches, he was on the longest road march of anyone is his class -- four years -- and he was getting through it until his last year without that many people rooting for him. When cadets understood that, they began rooting for him like crazy.
I think it became clear to George himself how much he'd seen the light when his TAC officer offered him the unprecedented chance to leave West Point at the end off his third year without penalty. George could have just walked away, finished up one year at a civilian college. What he told me, though, when he was deciding how to say "no" to the offer was simple. "It would mean the three years I've spent here were wasted. And the oath I swore didn't mean anything." He'd absorbed the lesson everyone thought he didn't underestand, which was that dead or bleeding, you don't quit. It's the basic lesson for a soldier, and the basic lesson for any person, really.
During the last few weeks at West Point, I asked George just the question you asked me. Why? Why'd you do this. Everyone was absorbing George's accomplishment of finishing USMA. They were proud of him as a kind of milestone for the transition from civilian to officer; they were calling him a miracle; they were saying no one had so bravely survived such a pounding. I deep down wondered if I would have gotten through it myself. So I had to ask George: Why? Why'd you do this?
What he said is the way I end the new chapter in the paperback, so the way I end the book now, really. He said he promised himself early on that he'd never quit anythng else, and he wasn't going to quit. He said even the people who'd rooted hardest against him were, once you got to know them, often "really decent people."
And then he said what had carried him through was that what he'd undergone at West Point was, for him, what being a human being was about. "It's just," he said, "you have to adapt to life. You've got to do that here -- or anywhere, really. Learn to grow up, get past your differences or difficulties. Otherwise, at best, you're going to end up leading a lonely life."
It seemed a great way to end the book, and a great thing to watch George discover -- another reason to be proud of him, and the other cadets at West Point.
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