West Point education attracts an unwitting fan

David Lipsky peers inside the US Military Academy

Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky wasn't exactly a natural choice to spend four years chronicling the lives of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. After all, he was used to writing about the sex lives of Yale students or movie star Kate Winslet.

But Lipsky says that being the first reporter ever allowed to observe how a group of cadets morphed from rookie plebes to new Army lieutenants changed how he views the military and West Point. The result is his new book, "Absolutely American." Lipsky talked with the Monitor about his experience. Excerpts from the interview follow.

How did this assignment affect your view of the military?

I didn't want to be at West Point for a second. I didn't want to do that story. I come from New York City, which was a locus for antimilitary feeling when I was growing up. My family's household was a locus for antimilitary feeling in Manhattan. I didn't want to do it. I thought the military was the opposite of what's good. It was a very strange experience for that reason.

Why do cadets attend West Point?

You can't generalize. That was one of the surprises when I got there. I thought I would hang around 4,000 patriotic robots. Yet you've got guys going there because their dads were hurt in Vietnam and they don't want that to happen again. There's a daughter of Black Panthers who wanted to subvert the military from the inside and learns the inside is better. There are kids going to play football or because it's a good job or parents think it's a good idea because it's free.

Who succeeds there?

The ones who really become good leaders are the ones who go [beyond] saying "[Those are] the rules." They say, "That stuff is right, it works and means something to me."

Are they like other teenagers?

These are people just like I went to high school with who do all the other stuff teenagers do. What you're seeing at West Point is what happens to normal kids who get high SAT scores and grades who get a chance to live a better way.

Why do you think the Military Academy's approach is a better one?

It's better to talk about your character.... [At West Point] they talk about what kind of person you want to be.

What schools is West Point competing against for students?

West Point made a decision in the 1990s that one Pentagon guy explained as: "We don't want to just get Midwestern boys and girls with good patriotism and mediocre grades." They wanted to get the best high school students around the country who would go to NYU or MIT.

The academy took a calculated gamble that they could attract these kids by promising them that their education is not just useful in the Army, that they can use it in business world, too.

The risk is that some will take you at your word and leave after they serve their required time instead of making a career out of the military.

Has Sept. 11 made them more apt to stick with a military career?

A lot of the cadets had the response I knew they'd have: This is all different now. We're doing our job to protect the country. Ideas about getting out are put on hold to serve the country.

They're extremely fired up in a serious way - not about going and squashing people. They're talking about working at it until things are safe.

What distinguishes West Point from other schools?

You're not talking about character at other schools. There's a right way to do things. There's a confidence you don't get at other places. You don't get a standard of what you should be at other colleges.

At West Point, on the first day, you're seeing what you're supposed to be like: firm, presentable, and sticking to standard.

Is West Point a college or a professional school?

That's the key question the academy has struggled with for a lot of years. Part of that drive to get higher-graded students was emphasizing the college aspect without diminishing the military aspect.

Even before Sept. 11 [academy officers] were saying, "We've made the point about it being a college but we have to emphasize how serious this profession of arms is." It's a struggle if you want to get the best young American teenagers to go into the officer corps; some won't consider it if they don't think they're getting a degree they can use outside the Army.

Does the honor system work?

I was surprised by how many schools have adopted West Point's honor system. One very cool thing about the Army is how it boils things down to the essence.

The honor code boils down what we have to do to live effectively in a large group. That's why civilian colleges adopt West Point's language: "A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." That's basically all you need.

You say cadets are happier, more content than other college students. What do you think accounts for that?

There's the structure, the certainty, the sense you're being tried and tested and learn what you're capable of. For most college students, there's anxiety that you're never quite sure what you're capable of, whereas at West Point, you're tested every week or every minute.

Other college students don't know what job [is] the best for you, whereas in the Army you know you're doing something good to defend the country.

What lessons could other colleges learn?

That sense of community: When you see community being enacted, you see what's lost at other campuses - that sense that people are looking out for each other and being connected to each other. You get it in a march, singing in a cadence, there's a surge, and it wasn't a military surge - just a human surge.

Would you recommend West Point to your own children?

I would certainly want them to know about it, and I'd be honored if they wanted to go.

But your wanting them to go can't be enough. It just won't carry [them]. They have to want to go.

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