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West Point education attracts an unwitting fan

David Lipsky peers inside the US Military Academy

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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.

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