Preface I came to love, really love, road marching. It’s called a suck or a haze at West Point, but I think the cadets aren’t being fair to it. There’s something wonderful about being in a column of marching people: the gravel popping under soles, the leather flexing in boots, the kind of saddle-top sounds as the ruck (what a backpack gets called in the Army) frames settle. Occasionally someone, out of sheer misery, sighing Oooh, or just blowing out air, which in the general silence is like a whale breaching and then slipping back under the surface. You can watch a leaf float down from a tree or stare at the guy’s rifle in front of you. The boiling down of life to its basic questions: Can you do this? What kind of person are you, and what can you make yourself finish? Can you hang with the rest of us? Those questions don’t get asked much, in the civilian world.
One night I got stuck with a West Point company that was spending the entire evening on patrol in the woods. They had brought ponchos in their rucks and I hadn’t. It was about two in the morning when the rain started. A nice earth-smelling drizzle at first. Then it became a pretty hard, thundery storm. I’d never noticed that rain makes different noises on different articles of clothing: a kind of spreading, sinking hiss into a shirt, a loud spattery ploink! on jeans. One of the cadets offered me his poncho, but of course you couldn’t accept it. In the dark, I found my way to two trees that had grown so close together that their upper branches formed a canopy. I obviously wasn’t going to sleep, so I marched back and forth all night under this umbrella, rain dripping into my ears and down over my lips. Then, in the morning, at five, everyone shook themselves off and we marched again.
I never liked the military at all as a kid. My father told us it was the one profession we couldn’t pursue: if my brother or I joined up, he promised to hire strong guys to come break our legs. In his eyes, compared to the military, hired leg-breaking was an act of kindness. So when Rolling Stone magazine first assigned me to write about the United States Military Academy, I fought it. And I mean fought hard, as hard as you can fight Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann Wenner, who can be firm and cajoling in a kind of (at least to a writer) irresistible way. When I gave in, and traveled to West Point, I was followed by members of the Academy’s Public Affairs Office. They chose the people I could speak with, they sat in on the interviews. I saw my way out; I was thrilled and relieved. I said I could not do the story under those circumstances, and I left. A few days later the colonel who oversees the daily management of West Point—Joe Adamczyk, a thin, steely man the cadets nicknamed Skeletor—called back to say it was fine. There would be no one picking out ideal cadets for me to interview, no one escorting me, no doors closed. I could have the run of the place. “We have nothing of which we should be ashamed,” he said.
So that was the first step toward my love of road marching. Very different from my original idea of the Army. And there was no avoiding the story anymore.
It had all seemed so foreign, a kind of dense green forest. Slowly, the trees parted a little, enough for me to step inside, and then I could feel the basic goodness of the place. As I listened to the cadets and understood how they were living, I had a strange, funny thought. Not only was the Army not the awful thing my father had imagined, it was the sort of America he always pictured when he explained (this would happen every four years, during an election cycle) his best hopes for the country. A place where everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody—or at least most people—looked out for each other. A place where people—intelligent, talented people—said honestly that money wasn’t what drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings and about trying to make themselves better.
One reason Rolling Stone wanted me on the story was that I’d become a kind of young-person specialist. You specialize at a magazine. On news stories, I mainly covered universities and students. I must have traveled to about thirty-five colleges in the five years before I first went to West Point. From tiny places like Wisconsin’s obscure, homemade- feeling Beloit to a thirty-thousand-student factory like the University of Georgia at Athens to places like Harvard and Yale that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t changing my socks often enough. I’d also written about young TV actors and the young rich and young media executives, people who had every reason to be consistently delighted. And of all the young people I’d met, the West Point cadets—althoughh they are grand, epic complainers— were the happiest. That was probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.
Herrrrre’s three: My friends had reached the phase, in their early thirties, when things slow down and you can relax and look around yourself again for maybe the first time since college. Before that, life is like sticking your head out the window of a fast-moving car: everything is rushing at you, flattening back your skin, your eyes are blinking and you can barely overhear your own thoughts. Most of those thoughts are “Will I find a job?” and “Can I find a partner?” and “What kind of life am I going to have?” By the early thirties, this stuff had quieted down, and my friends were thinking, “OK, I’ve found a life.” And then the second part hit: “Is this the life I want? Does the job I’m doing matter to anyone else?” It was right at this time that the Army and the Academy dawned on me, and I saw what it meant to live as a group, to share experiences, and to have that sense that other people were honestly looking out for you. And I have to say, that looked pretty good to me too.
And so, a road march. Everyone dressed the same. Everyone with a clear assignment: You will depart from this first point and you will arrive at this second point, and it will be clear to you when you have accomplished this. It will be difficult (in the Army, they say challenging). In place of the anxiety that comes from jobs that involve only the brain, the pleasure of a task that would engage the entire body. When cadets faltered, other cadets would softly encourage them. “Come on. You can do this. I know you can do this.” The sound of the boots and the smell of the road and the sun on the leaves and this soft, encouraging undertone. When cadets fell, other cadets would move forward, lift them up. I remember, during my first road marches, feeling simply blessed.
The magazine originally treated the assignment, when it began in 1998, as a journalistic public service. That summer, the West Point superintendent, a three-star general, had parked with some other military leaders at the sort of big roadside welcome center that features a TCBY and a Great American Pretzel Company (so that even rest stops offer the channel-surfing pleasures of a mall) and where there is usually one restaurant with sit-down service. The superintendent was wearing his green class-B uniform, and so were the hungry officers in his party. The hostess looked him up and down, from polished shoes to epaulets, then she smiled and thanked him for the selfless work he was doing as a member of the Parks Department. The superintendent wondered if maybe the gap between the civilian and military worlds hadn’t become too large. A few weeks later, the superintendent and the commandant arrived at the Rolling Stone offices in their full...