Showing West Point's Virtues, But Glossing Its Flaws:

A Review of David Lipsky's Absolutely American


Friday, June 27, 2003

David Lipsky, Absolutely American: Four Years At West Point (Houghton Mifflin 2003)

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 America.

David Lipsky, 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 West Point that provides the book's title: "Of all the institutions in this country, none is more absolutely American." From that point, there's no real question about where Lipsky is going with the book.

The problem, though, is that Lipsky's approach is not critical enough. He tells stories that illustrate a number of West Point's flaws, but doesn't draw a number of the necessary conclusions that his reporting entails.

Lipsky's own reportage shows that, although West Point is an important American institution, and clearly a positive force in its cadets' lives, it could be serving the army - and, by extension, the country - better. It's become too wrapped up in producing "professionals," at the expense of producing leaders.

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 West Point

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 West Point. After some initial reluctance, West Point granted Lipsky unlimited access to its students, teachers and staff. And after writing the article, Lipsky stayed for four years, following a number of cadets as they progressed through West Point and, in some cases, entered the army.

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 fell for West Point, he fell with the true zeal of the late convert. And, to be fair, there's a lot to fall for. The students are smart, they're energetic, and the majority of them have come to West Point because they want to do something for their country. It's heady stuff, just as I found on my own visit to the campus.

For example, Lipsky details the development of Reid "Huck" Finn, who came to West Point to play football. At the beginning of his time at West Point, Finn is content to slide by on as little effort as is required to maintain his football eligibility. But by the time he graduates, he has turned into a real leader. He even chooses to join the Infantry - the most rigorous of the military specialties - after graduation.

By any standard, the transformation of Huck Finn is everything that West Point should be about. One staff member believed that Finn had leadership potential, and worked tirelessly to convince Finn and the rest of the campus of that fact. The result is a young man who passes up a number of seemingly more attractive opportunities in order to join the most hazardous part of the army, at a time when the nation believed (correctly) that it was heading to war. Reading this story, it's impossible not to be proud of what West Point can accomplish.

But there is more puzzling behavior that Lipsky chronicles at West Point too - behavior that seems unbelievably petty (or, to use the more common military term, "chickens--t"). Much of this seems to stem from West Point's fixation on creating "professionals."

Should West Point Create Leaders, Or Only Professionals?

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with creating professionals; most of us strive for some ideal of professionalism in our daily life and work. But West Point exists to create military leaders. And while "professionalism" is certainly a necessary component of any leader, it's certainly not the only quality that a leader requires.

Unfortunately, though, the West Point approach appears to levy punishments that actually seem to discourage the qualities leaders tend to have. From these disciplinary actions, the lesson a cadet will likely draw is to simply keep his or her head down: The best approach for career survival in the Army, the punishments suggest, is to keep as low a profile as possible. But of course, a leader can't do that; by nature, he or she must take the risk of standing out.

West Point's Disciplinary Action for A Student Show Was Disappointing

Every year, the cadets put on a show that spoofs life at West Point; it includes specific caricatures of individual faculty and staff members. Not surprisingly, the cadets love it. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, the officers did not.

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 West Point - was the head writer. As the cadets finished their dress rehearsal, the head tactical officer (the person in charge of discipline for the cadets) and a number of high ranking officers observed. For Adams, that spelled disaster.

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 West Point. It was not, in my opinion - having served in the Marine Corps and spent time in men's athletic locker rooms throughout high school and college - an exceptionally off color joke. But it was certainly one that was not complimentary to West Point. The tactical officer went nuclear. For some time, it was questionable whether Adams would even graduate on time with his class.

In addition, cadet Dawn Drango, the show's director, was informed that she couldn't acknowledge Adams at the end of the night. So, instead of mentioning Adams by name, Drango said, "We'd like to thank our head writer back there. We love you - thank you."

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 West Point, and the army as a whole, more drastically.

Lt. Colonel Hank Keirsey was the Director of Military Instruction at West Point, and, as portrayed by Lipsky, a dominating and much beloved figure on campus. Not only did he have two sons attending West Point, he also was responsible for talking to the cadets about military leadership.

The presentation was never meant to air publicly. But - through the vagaries of the West Point intranet, and a mistake by the officer in question - the presentation eventually entered the cadet computer system. When it did, the cadets rapidly disseminated the presentation among themselves.

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.

At West Point, such an approach would be especially likely to work. Not only are people in the military generally wired for obedience, but most successful officers have an uncanny ability to give highly effective butt-chewings. As a result, in the military, a "talking to" generally means that the bad behavior is not repeated.

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 West Point leadership respond? Keirsey lost his career. Apparently, no lesser sanction would do.

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 West Point is creating, and he never discusses the implications of these events on the future leaders of the Army. Will they shirk responsibility, be afraid to speak their minds, suppress their rightful loyalties, and simply bind their time in their careers? If so, it's a terrible shame, precisely because the West Point education is otherwise so fine.

Lipsky clearly loves West Point, and this book is a fascinating portrait of an essentially (or absolutely) American institution. But the picture I came away with was of a school that doesn't quite understand its mission, and an author that had been too taken by the school to provide quality critical analysis.

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.

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York. He frequently reviews legal thrillers and other works for this site. Prior to attending law school, Williamson spent nearly four years as a Marine infantry officer, eventually reaching the rank of Captain and serving as a company commander.

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