When Rolling Stone asked David Lipsky to write a story about the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1998, he declined. A successful writer for such magazines as the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the New York Times Magazine, Lipsky was the child of rabidly antimilitary parents and wasn’t the least bit interested in West Point. He allowed himself to be talked into the assignment, however, and after a few weeks among cadets, he discovered there was more to their lives than severe haircuts, push-ups, and an immoderate love of high-powered weapons. Lipsky was so taken that he stayed on four more years. As he writes in Absolutely American, “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 his best hopes for the country.”
Lipsky hardly finds West Point wartless. He chronicles its struggles with issues such as hazing, disciplinary action, drug and alcohol abuse, and gender integration (women were admitted in 1976)—all of which are familiar to anyone in higher education. But West Point isn’t like other schools. Academy graduates earn commissions in the U.S. Army and go on to, at minimum, a five-year career leading soldiers. Successful cadets absorb West Point’s values so thoroughly that when they speak from the heart “what comes out is army philosophy.”
The academy has two yardsticks: the standard of professionalism adapted from corporate America and something called huah—“a word you hear a lot at West Point,” Lipsky writes: “Want to describe a cadet who’s very gung-ho, you call them huah. Understand instructions, say huah. Impressed by someone else’s accomplishments, a soft, reflective, huah.” (Such studies of usage and language, which crop up frequently in Absolutely American, are also useful for understanding the dialogue in contemporary war movies.)
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Keirsey, the West Point director of military training and a veteran of Gulf War I, is “the huah of huahs.” A talented motivator with a stellar military career, he shoulders the blame when one of his subordinates accidentally circulates a juvenile joke in a computer file. “A good soldier salutes, moves out, and draws fire,” Keirsey tells Lipsky, “… and I thought I could take the hit.” The army, not wanting to appear soft even on someone as huah as Keirsey, lets him go.
Cadet George Rash, on the other hand, is an awkward, gangly, hard-luck case from Georgia. He isn’t a bad kid; he just can’t catch a break. He talks too much (perceiving orders as opening gambits for conversation or debate), eats and idles too much (imperiling his performance on mandatory physical training tests), and is more sensitive to ambiguities than any soldier should be. The only quality Rash displays in huah proportion is obstinacy. He infuriates officers and fellow cadets but never gives his superiors quite enough ammunition to expel him. Rash understands the rules of professional conduct, and if nothing else, West Point teaches him how to survive by using them to his advantage.
Absolutely American’s great gift lies in portraits like these—especially as images of conflict crowd our television screens and front pages. We may shudder to think of George Rash leading troops in Iraq, but at a time when only one in 300 Americans is serving in uniform (compared to one in ten at the end of World War II), the military has become something of an abstraction. Lipsky, a great listener and a huah reporter, helps us understand how and why young men and women decide to put on uniforms. Even more important, Absolutely American makes us appreciate their decision.
Former BAM senior editor Chad Galts is communications manager at the graduate school.