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Soldier’s Heart: Teaching Literature through Peace and War at West Point

By Elizabeth D. Samet
FSG, 2007

In her new book Soldier’s Heart, Elizabeth D. Samet acts as a guide to the ultimate inviolable college campus: the fortress of West Point, the US military academy on the Hudson River north of New York City, where she has taught English since 1997. West Point’s campus is not called a campus, and little else of the professor’s civilian experience translates easily to the special parlance of the Army. Instead, the place where students – cadets – are taught is the “post,” and this book is a tour for the uninitiated.
Samet is a thoughtful, erudite, and easily distracted guide: in the middle of pointing out a statue or telling you the history of a building or monument, she will bump into a colleague or a student and introduce you; she pokes her head into the private spaces of the barracks and the mess hall and in the process manages to evoke even for the least military-minded reader the complexities of the situation in which she finds herself.

As a civilian outsider armed only with a Yale PhD, Samet’s early impressions are predictably of jarring differences between the ivory tower and the service academy. In her new surroundings she quickly discerns the dominance of an ethic of loyalty first and foremost to the Army, troubling the assumptions that non-military readers might share about a simple equation between the forces and the state, between officers and their civilian commanders. In historical terms too, Samet observes that West Point’s heroes are not necessarily the same as those of its northeastern neighbors; the New York academy is an incongruous oasis of southern pride, judging by the ubiquitous figure of Robert E. Lee:

You jog or drive down his road, you live in or visit his housing area or his barracks, you see his portrait hanging opposite Grant’s in the library’s reference room, you read his quotations on various plaques and monuments, and you meet his adherents around every corner.

These quirks of environment are not just pointed out for the reader’s benefit (although the reader indeed benefits from her unassuming and anecdotal manner of storytelling); Samet describes bringing these same features to the attention of her students, challenging them to examine how the academy’s exhibition of its past offers them models of behavior and service. Taking advantage of their deeply instilled competitive instincts, she sends them “racing across post in the rain to be the first to identify a literary allusion on a plaque or a monument,” in a moment that offers a more energetic echo of a scene in Alan Bennet’s The History Boys, another story about the power and responsibilities of teachers. In Bennet’s play, a Wilfred Owen poem is recited beside the local World War I monument to illustrate for the students the distance between official war rhetoric about noble sacrifice and the real suffering of disillusioned volunteer soldiers. But Samet’s purpose – as a teacher or an author – is not to sow the seeds of conscientious objection or pacifist protest. Her students read Owen’s poetry in full consciousness of the distance between military ideals and the realities of combat, but neither they nor their professor ever forget that they have signed up to be a part of the illusion. Even among experienced senior officers, Samet observes a persistent and pervasive belief that a death in battle is the best of all possible deaths, so it is not surprising that the cadets are susceptible to the same ideals: “Owen’s monitory poetry may have complicated heroic mythologies and helped to revolutionize writing about war, but the battlefield remains as seductive as ever.”

One of the most appealing aspects of Soldier’s Heart is the way that Samet recognizes and examines this seductiveness without judging it, an attitude that characterizes her approach throughout the book. There is not a trace of tendentious partisan speechifying in these pages. On the contrary, her special knowledge of the way the Army works and perceives itself allows her quietly to make some provocative connections. In probing the army’s habitual mythmaking about the glory of war, for instance, she connects this attitude to the insularity of the service in its day-to-day operations, suggesting that martial fantasies are fed by domestic fantasies, and that the further from civilian life the military is positioned, the more those fantasies can mutate.

The army likes to think of itself as a family, and its concern with its members’ wellbeing – that of civilians as well as soldiers – strikes Samet at first as ironic: “One of the oddest things about an army is that when it isn’t getting you killed it works with enormous zeal to take care of you.”

The army’s benevolent insularity is not without consequences; by operating as a secretive club, the military makes it easier for civilian politicians and journalists to mythologize soldiers. It’s a familiar complaint among those opposed to the Iraq war that the rhetoric of military heroism shuts down reasoned debate; Samet makes this point, but she also argues that the soldiers themselves lose out: “In turning them all into heroes, we have lost a sense of the individuality they also fight to preserve.” It is her particular experience – and privilege, as her book makes clear – to know that soldiers are motivated by diverse values and interests, and are as susceptible to mistakes, misjudgments and doubts as anyone else. The officers and cadets who populate her narrative, from gruff, tough captains down to the much-abused teenage plebes, come to life through reported conversations and often in their own words, in the form of extracts from emails, letters and essays that report not on fighting but on art. Samet’s correspondence with a soldier (and film buff) named Max, for instance, gives an illuminating diagnosis of cinema’s capacity to approximate the experience of combat. Max writes,

The uneasiness, fear, anxiety, confusion, and absolute horror felt just before fighting for one’s life can be “summed up” only as follows: watch a horror movie, and by a horror movie, I mean the scariest movie you’ve ever seen. Watch it alone, and watch it in complete darkness. Now just when you positively know something horrible is about to happen or jump out and scare the absolute hell out of you, put your life on pause. Hold onto that feeling and stay at that insanely heightened state of your senses. Chaos is about to ensue, and there’s not a thing you can do to stop it. That’s what being in a war zone feels like.

Such testimony, complemented by numerous excerpts from war novels and memoirs, appear throughout Soldier’s Heart, and the reader feels that Samet’s unprepossessing nature, combined with her civilian status, bring out a remarkable degree of candor in the cadets she teaches. Only around 20% of West Point’s faculty is made up of civilians like her, and so naturally both insiders and outsiders frequently ask what she’s doing there. When her small cohort of seniors speaks up after an intensive semester of writing instruction to say, “it’s time you told us why you teach here,” the professor only ventures a possibility: “I like to think I’m arming you with something you may need…something of value.” It’s indicative of Samet’s wish to place herself in the background of Soldier’s Heart that she is more interested in reporting the question than actually answering it.

It’s a question, she says, that usually comes from the first years – the “plebes” – in her introductory class, many of whom are less confused by their professor’s personal background than by the question of what poetry could possibly have to do with the rest of their lives as cadets. Perhaps in recognition of this disconnect, the syllabus changed in 2001 to a war poetry course, seen (she suggests) as a more “businesslike” use of the cadets’ time. The new emphasis, however, got “mixed reviews” from her students – several were dismayed that even English class offered no respite from hearing and thinking about war all their waking hours.

Yet from Homer to Shakespeare to the cadets’ favorite, Hemingway, getting away from war in literature is not that easy: “You may not be interested in war, Trotsky warned, but war is certainly interested in you.” The responses and expectations of cadets reading war literature are markedly different from those of civilian students; for instance, Samet finds that it matters deeply to them how much the author has personally experienced. Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is one of many texts that crops up repeatedly in this story, like a campus landmark seen from various different angles. Even though the poem’s speaker reports on his own death, and describes being “washed…out of the turret with a hose,” Samet finds that what her students most care about is whether the poet really served as a ball turret gunner, and if not, they complain that “it ruins the poem.”

Actual war experience is critical to the students because it is the reality fast approaching each of them, and reading war literature has ramifications for them that few ordinary professors must consider. Samet quotes a lieutenant named Margaret who writes to her from Germany to report that, “In the near future my unit will be deployed to Iraq…and… “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” [seems] fitting in times like these. Even more so knowing that two of my brother’s friends had to have their own body parts washed out of the HMMWV [Humvee].” Again, and, I think, to her credit, Samet doesn’t offer much commentary or interpretation for these kinds of communications (nor do we usually see her replies) but allows them to stand as evidence for how literature can offer a way of talking about experiences that might otherwise remain incommunicable.

Despite his own questionable military credentials, Hemingway proves almost universally to be a favorite writer, for the way that his heroes manage to balance a personal code of honor with a resistance to conventional morality. Thus Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms can reject the hollowness of big words like “honor, glory, and hallow” but at the same time, recognizes and respects that they still hold meaning for his Italian comrades who are fighting for their own land. Hemingway’s heroes, like film-noir private eyes, exhibit a world-weary cynicism that is ironically dependent on the survival of a belief in heroism. It is a balance that Samet’s students understand, surrounded as they are by a value system that differs in important respects from that of the world in which they grew up. Hemingway famously observes in Death in the Afternoon “There is honor among pickpockets and honor among whores. It is simply that the standards differ.” This might be “the cynic’s code” but it is one that Samet sees resonating with army cadets, especially when they have to confront civilians who only seem willing to see them as heroes or monsters. As she puts it, “Cynicism is the dreaded fifth column of military culture, but a healthy suspicion and a cold-eyed understanding of what you are being asked to do isn’t the same thing as a cynics’ outright contempt for the system.”

It’s a fine line between skepticism and cynicism, but Samet’s refreshing ability to offer perceptive criticism rather than knee-jerk condemnation is what seems to have won the respect of her students, and is also what makes Soldier’s Heart an inclusive experience for the reader who is otherwise shut out of the fortress of West Point. Just as the cadets need to know Jarrell’s biography in order to identify with his poetry, soldiers can trust Samet because she is an insider; but the civilian reader trusts her as well because even as an insider she is peripheral and uncorrupted.

Indeed the English department is significantly located at a distant edge of “post” (campus architecture is all about hierarchy). Teaching her tiny cohort of literature majors, Samet’s position might have remained no more than an eccentric job, and her memoir no more than a fish-out-of-water story of the Ivy League intellectual adrift in a sea of khaki. She suggests that before 9/11 that West Point was not so far removed from an ordinary campus, and that it could even be described as peaceful: “It used to be much easier for me as well as for the cadets to confuse their chosen profession with just another career.” But “the stakes of teaching at West Point,” like the “stakes of soldiering” were raised after 9/11, and nowhere is this clearer than in her opening section, set on one day in 2005 when a colleague’s military funeral coincides with a vicious storm that tears the roof off the English department. At this melodramatic point Samet’s personal story has literally been exposed as part of a larger set of questions about the mutual responsibilities of civilians and the professional military in a new kind of war.

Still, when addressing 9/11 and its aftermath, Samet is careful to retain a voice that will unite rather than alienate the factions on either side of the military and civilian schism. She is everywhere eager to avoid didacticism and preaching, an attitude underscored by her decision to organize the book around loose themes – chapters are dedicated to investigating courage, religion, gender, obedience, and so on – rather than chronologically. This is not a history book; nor is it quite a memoir since Samet gives us only a small glimpse at her life’s story; least of all is it a political book trying to drive home a thesis. Samet’s interest is more simply in observing and commenting on the complex perspectives of young soldiers by means of their reactions to challenging literature.

But though she may be a sympathetic observer, she is never a passive one, and in the spring of 2006, in an atmosphere charged with anxiety and anger over the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guant� namo as well as the faltering leadership of Donald Rumsfeld, Samet organized her plebe literature class around the theme of “defiance.” Her conversations with her students and colleagues reveal officers whose consciences are increasingly torn between loyalty to the army and a desire to defy their civilian leadership. Her colleague Dan, for instance, “received the news of prisoner abuse and other war crimes as a personal and professional affront,” but his “sense of duty would have taken him to Iraq if he had been asked.” She asks whether the generals might not have made more impact if they had spoken out before retirement and resigned in protest, but “Dan insisted that resigning would have betrayed a responsibility to protect as best they could the soldiers under their command.” More than anything else, she learns, good officers fear bad officers; they stay in place to ensure that their soldiers don’t suffer under a poor leader.
Defiance on Samet’s syllabus, inspired by the urgent moral choices the officers around her are confronting, is not necessarily defined as a refusal to serve, but as a more complicated negotiation between social responsibility and moral conscience:

Among the various texts cadets read were Antigone, Prometheus Bound, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. What these texts taught them, among other things, was the value of deliberation and the moral cost that both obedience and disobedience can sometimes exact.

It is clear through her conversations and her course readings that for Samet, the best leaders are those willing to question authority as well as acknowledge their own doubts.

From her privileged position the professor is able to continue a sustaining literary conversation by sending books to her former students and colleagues who write from the war zone with questions and requests. The shock she reports at receiving her first email headed “Greetings from Mosul,” is mitigated by the chance to do something concrete for the sender: “At last, here was a problem for me to solve.” A postscript refashions the traditional academic bibliography into a list of “recommended books and films,” opening up a virtual box of books to help any soldier or civilian make sense of war. The list includes most of the authors that have threaded through the memoir, subdivided into categories of books cadets have found sustaining, books her father read in Armed Services Editions and a foundational list of works for “anyone interested in what literature can tell us about war and war about literature.” The books and authors range from the Iliad to T. E. Lawrence to Tim O’Brien. Less predictably, cadets have appreciated Wharton and Woolf, Zadie Smith and J.M. Coetzee.

The inclusion of the reading list is a final indication of the author’s commitment throughout the book to literature as a powerful means of bridging the gap of experience and understanding between serving soldiers and the majority of civilians. As her book hardly needs to reiterate, this distance remains vast after five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it allows mutual mistrust to flourish. The reading tastes of army officers and literature professors may not usually overlap, but this modest and humane book deserves to reach both groups, and a wider readership beyond them.

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.