Life on the Long Gray Line

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In 1998 David Lipsky visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on assignment for Rolling Stone. He spent the next four years there, attending classes, doing 10-mile slogs in the rain and watching the 4,000 or so cadets polish their shoes, get drunk, cry and grow up. When it was over, the cadets were lieutenants in the U.S. Army, and Lipsky was the author of Absolutely American (Houghton Mifflin; 317 pages), which, despite its Army-issue title, is a fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line.

Lipsky approaches the cadets like an anthropologist stalking the elusive Yanomamo tribe, and with good reason: he's in a weird, weird place. "Cadets entering West Point step into an irony-free zone," Lipsky writes, "a place where sarcasm has been fought to a standstill." When people say "Huah!" at West Point, they're not doing an Al Pacino impression. "Huah!" is the universal adjective for all things gung-ho and military: a huah cadet would never be caught missing a shave or parking sloppily. A huah cadet would never flunk the regular fitness tests, which include 42 push-ups in two minutes and a two-mile run in 15:54. Huah cadets don't wear glasses, they wear TEDs, tactical eye devices. The irony of it all, and they're fully aware of it, is that the students at West Point are hermetically sealed off from the mainstream America they're sworn to protect.

Lipsky wisely zeroes in on a few cadets. "Whitey" Herzog is a studly, overachieving sergeant. "Huck" Finn (everybody at West Point has a nickname) is a malcontent who signed on just to play football. The book's most affecting character is George Rash, the antithesis of huah, a tuba-playing loner in the world capital of male bonding. Take a good look: this is the face America turns to most of the world, and until now it's one that most of us have never seen.