David Lipsky was a reporter for Rolling Stone
when two army officers visited the magazine's home office in New York City to pitch a strange idea: Would the popular youth magazine send a writer on assignment to West Point to profile cadet life?
"One reason Rolling Stone wanted me on the story was that I'd become a kind of youth-person specialist," Lipsky explains in the preface to Absolutely American. The author, however, was not convinced. "I didn't think I could be open about what might be good about the army," he says.
About that, and much more, time proved Lipsky wrong. Occasionally a book comes along that challenges long-held assumptions. Absolutely American does just this and perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise, since the author himself experienced a wholesale change of opinion about the army during the four years he spent at West Point, first writing a thirty-five thousand-word article, then a full-length book.
But wait an important disclaimer: If you hear, "It's a book about cadets at West Point," politics immediately comes to mind, right? War, foreign policy, the Bush administration? But Absolutely American doesn't seek to argue about whether America should be engaging in foreign wars or under what circumstances violence is justified. Rather, Lipsky has penned an evenhanded insider's portrait of the young men and women who choose the education and service commitment West Point offers.
"I wanted to write a book for people no matter what their politics were," the author explains. "And I was assuming it was a book for people who don't like the military, since you're always writing for the self you would be if you were a reader and not a writer. I thought, Beyond politics, what are these people like? Why are they doing this? How can I tell this story of kids like George and Huck and Whitey and Chrissi going through this so that people can really see both the good and the bad, but also what there is to be proud of?"
The result, according to Lev Grossman of Time magazine, is "a fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line."
Dave: When people hear that Absolutely American began as an article for Rolling Stone, I don't think they imagine that the army actually pitched the idea to the magazine.
David Lipsky: The impetus really was when those two officers went to Denny's, which I describe in the preface. The hostess saw them in the class-B uniform; they were wearing their medals. She walked across the dining room and said, "I just want to thank you fine gentlemen for the work you do on behalf of the Parks Department."
I think they really felt they were being forgotten. That's why they came to us. This was seven years after Desert Storm and almost ten years after the end of the Cold War. They were anxious about people losing their phone number. So they came to us. And it was funny when they walked in the office, these two serious looking guys walking past framed smashed-up guitars on the wall. It was wild.
Dave: You were assigned the piece, but you weren't particularly enamored of the idea.
Lipsky: I kept telling Jann [Wenner, Rolling Stone's publisher] that I was the wrong person for the job. I didn't think I could be open about what might be good about the army.
My dad didn't want us to be in the army. He grew up during Vietnam, and he'd seen what was happening to other people his age, so he sat us down when we were kids for the discussion you have with seven- and nine-year-old boys: He said, "You can do any job you want in the world. If you want to be the guy who shoes horses, that's great; I'd love to visit you and see your blacksmith shop. If you want to clean up Yankee Stadium, you can get me tickets. You can be a doctor if you want. One thing you can't do, though, is you can't go and be in the military. If you do, I'll hire guys to find you and break your legs."
I think that must have stuck with me. And I've always enjoyed having full use of my legs.
Dave: So the next question that arises is whether Rolling Stone could be open about what might be good about the army.
Lipsky: The magazine has always been mistrustful of the government. Jann said, "Just go up there, spend a week, and send us back a three thousand- or four thousand-word story about what kind of kids will do this really backward thing and how much they hate it." I still didn't want to do it, but I couldn't just say no because they're my employers. And Jann's leadership style those are words you learn to use when you hang around the military his leadership style is a little different than the army guys, but it's still the same thing: You don't want to let him down.
What I found was a good way to let him down. I told the people at West Point, "You know, I've done a lot of stories and I've always had total access. I didn't have people shadowing me around or choosing who I could talk to, and that's what you guys are doing with me. You're picking out these perfect cadets for me to talk to, then you're sitting in on the interviews, so these kids aren't being open. I really can't work that way. I'd have to have total access and live as much as possible as if I were a cadet."
Civilians are only allowed in the barracks one day a year, so I obviously couldn't go in there. And there are chain fences, which have a sign in the middle that says, "Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point." Of course, beyond that point is everything interesting about West Point.
I said, "I have to be able to get beyond those things, and I have to have no time constraints and no one escorting me." I was sure that's how I would get home and have dinner with my girlfriend back in New York. I thought I'd gotten out of doing the story.
They called me up a few weeks later and said, "We'll do it." I remember saying when they called me, "Do what?" I'd forgotten. But they said, "You can have that access. We're going to take this chance and let you live as if you're a cadet for as long as you want to be here."
What the guy said was, "We have nothing of which we should be ashamed," which turned out to be true. But they were going to let someone do this that was amazing to me. And that showed I might have had them wrong from the beginning.
That's how I ended up being there: just because I didn't want to be there.
Dave: In the New York Times Book Review, David Brooks wrote, Absolutely American "essentially describes a contest between two competing value systems. There is first the pure huah value system of the military, emphasizing discipline, self-sacrifice, duty, honor, courage and controlled but savage violence. Then there is the value system of society at large (and of Rolling Stone in particular), emphasizing freedom, self-expression, pleasure and commerce."
Lipsky: I was really pleased when he caught that because that contest was exciting to me when I first started meeting the cadets. You're trying to make people live in a way that is antithetical to the way people live out in the civilian world; it's totally different. But you need to have people living this way to have a successful military.
The civilian culture the kids come from is all about serving yourself, keeping yourself protected and fat and happy and stocked with luxuries, stuff like that. Suddenly they find themselves part of this other way of life, where what you care about is doing a job that you love and doing it well for other people; a place with a sense of real honesty and connection to people, no real prejudices, trying your hardest all the time, and not for money. Then they go back to their barracks, and the TV is on, and they remember all the pop culture stuff and all those reasons not to live this way they've chosen. That's what Whitey is fighting throughout the book. That's what Huck is fighting. And George, of course, in his way remains civilian all the way through. So it was great when Brooks caught that.
Dave: One common criticism of the military is that it strips people of individuality. The military is all about being part of a team; you have to surrender your sense of self. But you could very easily make similar arguments against the American college system, which every year produces thousands and thousands of graduates with no direction, purpose, marketability, anything.
Lipsky: No question about it. West Point students are trained to be honest; and the more honest you are, the more individual you are. These people know what they're going to be doing, and they know why it matters.
Also, the people who are training them are people they're going to be working with a couple years down the line. When you graduate, the TACs, the officers that run them, will often say, "I'll see you down the road." And they're quite serious. If you're in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, you'll look over and there's a major who was your TAC five years ago.
What I think was great about them, too and this is going to sound dumb, but it appealed to the part of me that's still a boy is that it's the one legitimate path left to adventure, in a sense. And when they graduate, they're actually going to be doing something that tests every part of them: how well they can use their bodies, how well they can make decisions. They're going to be tested at all times, and that's disappearing from the civilian world.
Dave: If you tell someone, "It's a book about cadets at West Point," politics immediately comes to mind: war, foreign policy, the Bush administration. But it's really not a political book. It's not about whether we should be fighting wars or when violence is justified, any of that.
Lipsky: Once I had access and I was out there for a little while, I thought it was extremely important not to make it political. It's about people going through this experience. They, themselves, are trained to approach it without politics, so to make it a political book would have made it untrue to the experience.
What was funny was trying to get that experience right by telling stories about these people real people, Americans. Whitey is a Deadhead. That's what's cool about Whitey as a character. His buddies back home are all guys who didn't go to college. What he loved about America is that people are left alone to make whatever choice they want, to behave in as un-military a fashion as possible. What he was protecting by being in the army was his friends' right to behave that way. Whitey knew he was good at military things; he came to West Point, and he was the number thirteen ranked military cadet in his class of a thousand.
Again, what's interesting about doing this with Rolling Stone is that it wasn't really the politics of the magazine to write something positive about the military. I'd been up there about two weeks, and I said to Jann, "I think I'm going to stay up here a little longer, and I think the piece might be longer than three- or four-thousand words." He said, "Great. It's still going to be mean, though, right? We're still going to be making fun of these guys?" I said, "Yeah, it's going to be accurate. There's some funny stuff up here."
I checked in about a month or two later, and I said, "You know, I think it may be a little longer than eight thousand words, but these kids are great." I'd been doing stories about sex on campus and self-definition on campus and drugs on campus; I did a piece about people having their first jobs, and I'd done a thing about gay kids in Salt Lake City all these stories about what kind of person you're going to be. I said to Jann, "All those stories are in this story, plus these guys are learning how to live with honor. And they're Rolling Stone readers. They're kids who have memorized The Simpsons and talk half the time in rap slang." He said, "That sounds great. It's still going to be mean, isn't it?"
When I turned it in, I said, "It's thirty-five thousand words, it's completely accurate, and it's not mean at all. But it's true. There's something to be really proud of here." It was the longest story we'd run in about ten years. He thought about it, and as shocking as it was for me to be writing a really positive thing about the military, it was shocking for him to find that he knew it was right to run it to run something that said the military in some ways was an encapsulation of Rolling Stone values.
When you've seen the army wholly, it changes your politics about the military. It's why the embedding program works so well. When you live with military people and see they're just like you but they've made this other choice, and you see what they're trying to do and why they're doing it, you walk away proud of what the country can produce. That people will go out there and curse with you about the Coen brothers, then risk their lives for the country.
I wanted to write a book for people no matter what their politics were. And I was assuming it was a book for people who don't like the military, since you're always writing for the self you would be if you were a reader and not a writer. I thought, Beyond politics, what are these people like? Why are they doing this? How can I tell this story of kids like George and Huck and Whitey and Chrissi going through this so that people can really see both the good and the bad, but also what there is to be proud of?
Dave: When you began your research, West Point was in a period of transition. The school wanted to attract better students, and as a consequence the campus was becoming more "professional." Again, I'm thinking of competing value systems on display in this case, traditional military huah as opposed to the professionalism or political correctness within our civilian workforce.
Lipsky: My sense of what was happening in those years before 9/11 and interestingly, things began to change about a month or two before 9/11 is that they were really nervous about losing civilian support. Civilians had been pushing for the peace dividend for that whole ten-year period, and I think they were trying to put a face on the military that civilians would like.
The reality is that what civilians want from the military is what we got from them in Afghanistan, and what I hope we'll continue to get from them in Iraq, which as one officer says, is "tactically competent, strategically superior leaders," people who understand tactics and can protect you effectively. But they thought the time had come to put a more human face on the military, to make it more TV-friendly, in a sense. And I think that was sometimes a little bit upsetting to the cadets because they had joined to be part of something that was quite different from the civilian world. When they saw some officers saying things that seemed tailored toward civilians, things that didn't match what the training was like, it would make them uneasy because honor and truthfulness are so heavily stressed up there.
Dave: Keirsey landed in the center of this conflict.
Lipsky: Keirsey was always talking about combat and what you have to do to be ready for combat. I think that was something people didn't want to hear stressed so much any more.
But he showed what the military's values were about. One of those values is about looking out for other people. If you're out in the field, when people eat, the lowest ranking people, the plebes, go through first. Then the noncommissioned officers; then the lowest ranking officers. The leader, the person in charge, eats last. The idea is that you take care of your people before you serve yourself. That's what Keirsey was doing, too. The code he lived by demanded he do that.
For me, what Keirsey did transcends the military or professionalism. The choice he made was the huah choice, not the personal choice. I had never seen anyone do anything like that anywhere. It was a great lesson for the cadets, though it was certainly awful for Keirsey and difficult for West Point.
Dave: Arguably, the severity of the administration's decision against him contradicts the same values West Point is trying to teach.
Lipsky: Yeah, and what's nice about West Point is that I thought that particular story would make them really not like the book, but the phrase they kept using with me was "warts and all." They embraced the book, and they embraced that story.
For one thing, the leadership of West Point changes every two or three or four years, so there's been a complete turnover in the two people who were involved in that decision. Now, they can look at that and say, "This was the best lesson for the cadets."
Dave: As West Point's academic reputation has improved, more and more graduates are serving their mandatory five years, then leaving the army: five-and-fly, as it's known. In essence, the government is spending incredible sums of money to train intelligent and capable soldiers through this four-year university program, but increasingly the return is only five years of service. Retention rates have plummeted in recent decades. Do you think 9/11 will change that?
Lipsky: No one knows yet. The numbers haven't come out, but I think it will be different. From watching them square up to it, watching them watch the footage that day, and as they've been calling me both when they went to Iraq and when they came back I think it will be different.
There's that anecdote early in the book: When DeMoss went back for his ten-year reunion, only about twenty-five percent of the people were still active. He was shocked. They were saying to him, "I can't believe you stayed." And he kept saying, "I can't believe you didn't stay."
I think that will be different, but it's hard to say. We are a culture that stresses individually pleasing yourself. What surprised me, getting to know the officers and getting to know the cadets who love the army, is that often the best way to please yourself individually is to live that other way. We're group animals. There's a part of us that really responds to meeting challenges together.
Dave: You were just beginning your fourth year on campus when 9/11 occurred. For the cadets, that day seemed to change everything. Huck says, "My class joined a peacetime army we were gonna protect the Somalis, defend the Kosovars, hand around food. Now we're defending the U.S.A., and that's a fucking great feeling."
Suddenly, the vision is tangibly different for these young men and women.
Lipsky: There are people who come up from the Pentagon and do studies on cadets to see how they're responding to their missions. They were finding that graduating seniors and people who'd been out in the field for a couple years just didn't like peacekeeping missions because they didn't see that as their job. And they were wondering if that was one cause of the retention problem.
That's why a lot of people think it will be different now. They saw themselves as people who were supposed to be protecting the country. Protecting the national interest is part of what drives them, but sometimes it wasn't clear to them while they were doing peacekeeping how they were doing that. Although Whitey, when he finally goes and deploys, makes that connection, and it actually makes him want to stay for his whole career.
Dave: You marched, you slept in tents? How else did you spend your day-to-day life on campus?
Lipsky: I took a house about three-and-a-half blocks from the main gate. Every morning I would get up and I would drive my car in. Parking there is kind of a bitch, so after a year or two because I'm kind of slow I realized it would probably be smarter if I was biking. By the end, I'd get up at about 6:00 or 6:30, bike out for morning formation, then just follow people in their days. I tried to avoid eating the food after a certain point because the diet is four thousand calories a day, which doesn't mix well with a 33- or 34-year-old body. And I wouldn't drill with them because drilling is like parade practice. I followed that first year, but then I decided to let them suffer in peace.
I'd be in the barracks a lot. If I was in Huck's room late at night, another cadet might come in and ask me a plebe who didn't know me as well "Hey, what company are you in?" And Huck would go, "Company? Open your fucking eyes! That guy's thirty-five damn years old!" Or if a captain was doing a lights-out check, he'd look at me, and say, "Okay, get back to your room, cadet." And I'd get on my bike and ride home.
It was very funny watching them change toward me, and it felt good. The first year or two, a guy like Huck or Ryan Sutherland would say, "I remember when I was a plebe," or "I remember when I was a yuk." When they were cows and seniors, they'd turn to me and say, "Remember when we were yuks?" Or, "That was our cow summer." Because I'd been with this company for so long at this point. I'd gotten so close to them that the joke at the end was that I was the one member of the class of 2002 who was not getting commissioned on June first.
I knew that no one had ever had this access there, and I was pretty sure that no one would ever have it again, so I wanted to get as much as possible not giving the reader the 14,000 pages of transcript that I had, obviously, but giving them that experience of what it is to go through as a cadet. For me, that meant living as close to that life as possible.
Dave: Initially, when I started reading, the structure threw me. I thought, "This is a little strange. Where is the grounding here?" Because you didn't do the obvious thing, which would have been to simply track that first-year class through graduation. Gradually I began to see that the organizing principle telling the story as a cadet might absorb it, piece by piece over four years actually brings readers closer to experience.
It's during Year Three, for instance, that we see R-Day and Beast in detail. We see what the plebes are experiencing, but by then we also understand what the cows are going through. We can see both sides.
Lipsky: Rising cows: the summer before you start junior year. Exactly.
I come from a fiction writing background. At Rolling Stone, when I wasn't profiling charming actresses, I was writing long narrative journalism, and I think that's why they liked me doing that kind of thing: because I was always finding stories to tell.
I don't think it's fair to ask readers to learn about something difficult like the army without giving them a story. As a reader, I want stories, and so I thought it was very important to open the book with people in positions of drama. You could learn about the rules through their stories; that was the basic way I tried to structure it. I wanted, if it could be, for it to be thrilling. I hope that the Sandhurst stuff is thrilling. I hope that what happens with Hank, which is awful to read about, also works as exciting reading. That's the first goal of anything you write, whether it's nonfiction or fiction: that it thrill the reader, that it pull the reader in, that it move the reader.
If I'd opened with R-Day, people wouldn't know what the stakes were because you wouldn't know what these people were living with every day. You wouldn't know that four years from now these people are going to be choosing how they're going to live their lives in the army; you wouldn't know that a kid like George would always be at risk of separation; you wouldn't know that a girl like Chrissi is trying to find some way to be an officer and also stay a woman. All that was more interesting to me than R-Day itself. Through the summer, what you're really watching is Huck learn to be an officer and George get into the biggest trouble of his life at West Point. That seemed a better way to do it because you would get both sides.
Dave: Do you want to get back to fiction now or do imagine you'll do more reporting?
Lipsky: That's something I've been trying to figure out for a while. I have a joke out there, which is that I want to do something completely different as my next project. People say, "What is that?" And I tell them, "I've just arranged to spend four years at the Naval Academy."
I love narrative. I grew up reading Nabokov and Hemingway and Updike, Evelyn Waugh and Philip Roth, people like that. What I learned from Hemingway although Hemingway sought out situations of great drama is that anybody's life presented honorably would be a great story. And by "honorably," I mean the writer not cheating; that was the word that Hemingway would always use.
When I sat down with this material, I remember thinking, Okay, David, put up or shut up. This is people going through four years of college; how are you going to make this live on the page? You've always said that's all you had to do. I'd like to take on more challenges like that in fiction.
The hard thing about not writing about West Point anymore is that I'm no longer connected to the military. One thing that would be fun and interesting would be following those guys out and seeing how their lives shape up now. It also means I'd get to hang out and see how they do their jobs in the field. I was supposed to go to Iraq this spring, but I was writing the book instead. That made me feel bad because my classmates, essentially, were out there on the line and I was home being safe. They kept joking that I was doing my part, too.
What's funny about the cadets is that they kept saying, "Don't lie. Don't try to make this place look totally great because we all know what's good and bad about it. Just get it right. You had this chance, so get it right, good and bad. That's what matters to us." They would tell me that, and it made me feel better for not being out there with them. But I'd like to be out there.
Dave: I read a few of your profiles online. Gillian Anderson, Kate Winslet? Does any particular profile stand out for you?
Lipsky: I thought Kate was good. Kate's narrative is what's fun about it. I was watching Kate Winslet go from being an actress who was doing really good work to an actress who was a star. That was what I wanted to track in that story, and it was great fun to do because you don't get to see it up close very often. You don't get to be with them literally over the weekend it changes, the weekend Titanic opens. When we were walking on Friday and Saturday, nobody was talking to her. She was just a charming English woman walking through Central Park. By Monday and Tuesday, everywhere we went people were stopping her and talking to her. It was fun watching her change.
Dave: Previously you wrote a novel about the art world?
Lipsky: My mom is a painter, so I wrote a novel called The Art Fair about growing up in the art world. It came out in 1996. That was fun. And actually, the art world isn't as different from the military as I would have suspected.
Dave: How so?
Lipsky: It's people trying their hardest to do something they love. And having to live with incredible, fierce dedication to do it at all.
Everything like that, if you really push and try to make it as good as possible, the effort comes through. Without the dedication, loving what you do, nothing ever rises to the level of being honorable, to having character. Character in every sense. That's how it is with the arts, and that's how it is in the military also.
The lives of the painters I grew up with? They would get up whether they were wrecked, or beat physically (because those people party hard, just the way that the people in the army party hard), but if they didn't push themselves almost fanatically their work would never be good enough to get anyone's attention. And that's true about leaders, officers, people in the army, too.
Dave: What have you been reading lately?
Lipsky: I loved The Corrections [by Jonathan Franzen]. I had to drive back and forth to a lot of posts. On the weekends, I would drive up to Fort Drum or I'd go down to Benning, so I actually listened to The Corrections on tape, which was the great entertainment experience of that year for me. Sometimes when I got to the post I would actually circle, pretending that I was touring it for the visuals, but I just wanted to finish the chapter I was in.
I want to read the Mark Haddon book [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time]. I'm at liberty as a reader now: I don't have to think only of the military. I've been reading Nabokov again.
I'm fascinated by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Hemingway was an embedded reporter also. It was interesting reading his combat journalism. And it was funny to me when people seemed to be anxious about the journalists, the print and the other media in Iraq, getting too close and caring too much about the unit, as if that was a modern problem. It's nothing new. Hemingway actually got in trouble. He took his correspondence tags off his uniform and served as a soldier in a way that they actually brought him up on charges. People had to cover for him. Then he was in the Hirken Forest with, oddly enough, a West Point graduate, and the position was overrun. He had to pick up a gun and fight off Germans. No one held him accountable because that's what you do in that situation, but again, that's a problem we've had before.
Another thing that fascinated me was that we think we have a problem with the difference between our media experience and living. There's always this fear that the media is conditioning our responses to things. People will say, "This is just like a movie." Or, "This is just like TV." But there are people in Hemingway's reporting about the D-Day landing saying, "This is just like a movie." Fifty years ago, sixty years ago.
Dave: Four years seems an awfully long time to spend on the campus of a school you're not officially attending. There must have been times when you weren't so excited to be there.
Lipsky: When I first encountered the five-and-fly thing, it kind of took the wind out of my sails a little bit. I thought, These people have left all the things that are troubling in the world behind. Here is this great place that's not compromised by civilian stuff about serving yourself. I was very starry-eyed about that. Suddenly I was crestfallen. My second year was kind of hard because of that. Also, because I was used to what was great about the army but now I knew that I was in there for the long haul.
The third year, I'd feel good and bad at different times. Then senior year, there were things that were thrilling, but I was also just living for graduation. The cadets took me aside and said, "You're going through the cycle." To them, that was funny because it's what the cadets go through. That's why second year is called yuk year: because you're saying, "This is all shitty and I'm stuck here."
But George always kept me going. Of all the soldiers I saw there, I think I would have been closest to George. And I thought it was funny watching him not quit. Even times while I was writing the book? For example, we knew when the class was going to graduate, and we wanted the book to come out July fourth, so it had to be finished really quickly. There were some nights when I would think, It's 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, I've already had two packs of cigarettes, do I open up pack number three and work till seven?
Do you smoke at all?
Dave: I don't. But I have my own devices.
Lipsky: Then you know what I'm talking about. But I would think, George Rash never quit. Then I would think and this is actually one of the reasons why West Point has to stay a hard place I'd think about stuff I had done at one time or another that I didn't think I had the energy for. When you remember that you've done things in your life you didn't think you could do, things that were harder than you thought you could manage, that helps you when you suddenly find yourself in a daunting situation. And that's part of what the training up there is supposed to do.
I hope George was fun to read about. He was an amazing figure to encounter up there. I thought he was both a heroic and also a comic-heroic character.
Dave: He's great in the sense that he's exactly what you don't expect to find at West Point. The other example that I've been sharing with friends is Chrissi Cicerelle. At the tail end of her four years at West Point, she has an epiphany: What she wants to do after the army is hair. She wants "to do hair." How much better could you illustrate that these people are not all what you'd expect?
Lipsky: And now she's in Kuwait, not really having many opportunities to work on hair. But exactly. I'm glad you responded to that. That's certainly the least correct thing for her to say at that point, that she wants to do hair and nails, but there she is.
And George: I thought people who would be at West Point were fated for it from the beginning, people who had always wanted to be there and were really kind of huah and hard. Then there was George. George found a way to live that way without giving up what was George about him. And I love that there was a character like that, a person like that, who could go through West Point and absorb the basic lesson that you need for the army and for every other difficult thing you ever