A Review of David Lipsky's Absolutely American
Absolutely American: Four Years At
In class, the cadets were
well-prepared and inquisitive; at lunch, they were respectful but also quite
funny. As we walked across the verdant parade ground, one of my fellow
tour-members, knowing that I had served in the Marine Corps (which takes a fair
number of its officers - though not me - from the Naval Academy), asked if I
preferred Annapolis to West Point. I replied that, on that day, I couldn't
imagine a more beautiful place anywhere in
the author of Absolutely American: Four Years At West
Point, has clearly been lulled into a similarly warm feeling. Lipsky begins with the quote from Teddy Roosevelt about
The problem, though, is that Lipsky's approach is not critical enough. He tells stories
that illustrate a number of
Lipsky's own reportage shows that, although
Absolutely American handles the trees very well: its stories of the cadets' experience at "the Point" are engrossing and at times extremely suspenseful. But at the end, one can't help but feel that Lipsky didn't spend enough time examining the forest: What do all the stories, and the other information he collected, add up to? And does that overview suggest a need for change?
Lipsky's Own Four Years At
Lipsky covers the college beat for Rolling Stone magazine.
In the fall of 1998, Jann Wenner,
the editor of Rolling Stone, assigned Lipsky to write
an article about
Lipsky came from a background quite foreign to the military. Indeed, his father actually told Lipsky and his brothers that if they joined the military, he would find a strong man to come break their legs. As a result, he embarked on his assignment with some misgivings.
But once Lipsky
For example, Lipsky details the development of Reid "Huck"
Finn, who came to
By any standard, the
transformation of Huck Finn is everything that
is more puzzling behavior that Lipsky chronicles at
Obviously, there's nothing
wrong with creating professionals; most of us strive for some ideal of
professionalism in our daily life and work. But
Unfortunately, though, the
Two examples of such punishments stand out - one that involves the treatment of cadets, and one that involves the treatment of a faculty member.
Every year, the cadets put on
a show that spoofs life at
In the third year that Lipsky spent at West Point, Cadet Max Adams - who served as
an enlisted man in the elite Rangers before coming to
Without giving up too much of
the story, suffice it to say that to fire up the cast, Adams told an off color
joke about life at
In addition, cadet Dawn Drango, the show's
director, was informed that she couldn't acknowledge
For this, she was stripped of her ranks. She was also forced to spend the remained of the year living as an underclassman (a big deal for her, since she was a senior, and seniors receive a number of privileges).
But were the qualities Adams and Drango showed - a sense of independence and humor, and a sense of loyalty and credit-where-credit-is-due - really worthy of discipline? Professionals might be able to afford not to have those qualities, but leaders are well-served to possess them.
Even More Disappointing Is the Disciplinary Action a Faculty Member Faced
The faculty issue is similar,
but shows the problems with
Lt. Colonel Hank Keirsey was the Director of Military Instruction at
His career had been bright moment after another, including an extremely successful command tour during the first Gulf War. In general, the cadets - and many faculty and staff members - looked to Keirsey as the man who epitomized the way that a leader should behave. Then disaster struck.
One of Keirsey's subordinates created a joke Power Point presentation that mocked, in homophobic terms, the cadet company which had the lowest percentage of cadets entering combat arms fields. (One of the problems West Point faces is that fewer and fewer cadets want to enter the combat arms fields - infantry, artillery, armor, combat engineers - and the misguided subordinate apparently wanted to spur them to do so.)
The presentation was never
meant to air publicly. But - through the vagaries of the
It caused a furor, and it looked like the end of the young subordinate's career. That, in itself, seems extreme. As was the case with Max Adams, it seems that the better approach would have been to sit the young officer down, explain the inappropriateness of the actions, and give a stern warning about the consequences of repeat offenses.
In this case, however, when Keirsey realized that his subordinate was facing severe punitive action, he took full responsibility. Indeed, he said that, as the boss, he would accept any punishment that would be handed out.
Keirsey took this action in spite of the fact that he had not created or sanctioned the presentation in question (though it seems likely that he did know about it). That seems like the essence of leadership, and exactly the kind of "taking of responsibility" that the army would want to encourage and display to cadets.
So how did
Sadly, it seems that there's only one message that a cadet (or any other observer) could draw from this episode: Stand up as a leader and lose your career, or keep your head down and survive.
Lipsky's Book Raises Tough Issues that He Does Not Explicitly Confront
No military organization can afford to create a culture of people who simply keep their heads down. Someone needs to stand up and lead, and the person who takes on that person shouldn't be punished for doing so. For these reasons, the incidents Lipsky relates add up to a disturbing pattern.
Lipsky tells these stories skillfully. But he never seems to
understand the atmosphere
Lipsky clearly loves
I would recommend Absolutely American as an enjoyable and interesting read. Still, Lipsky's failure to grapple with the toughest problems facing the school prevents this book from reaching its full potential.