Friday, August 01, 2008

Review of “Soldier’s Heart” by Elizabeth D. Samet

I met Professor Elizabeth Samet a few months ago when she came to Boston to do a reading and book-signing of her new work: “Soldier’s Heart – Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.” One of her students, now 2LT David Addams, told me that I would enjoy meeting her and reading her book. Lieutenant Addams was right on both counts. Dr. Samet is a bit of an enigma; she is a civilian professor with solid Ivy League credentials – Harvard and Yale – who has chosen to teach at a military academy. In this book, she blends together artfully the worlds of literature with the world of a warrior.

Professor Samet chronicles her process of acclimating herself to the unique West Point culture and ethos. She describes Dan, one of her colleagues in the Department of English: “Dan’s speech is a wonderfully improbable amalgamation of the scatological and the academic. He wrestles with philosophical theories as if they are calves to be roped or deer to be butchered.” (Pages 6-7)

Samet does a nice job of highlighting some of the ways in which West Point is unlike most institutions of higher learning, especially with regard to the relationship between the Academy and the parents of cadets:

“Organized parental visitations have always struck me as somewhat infantilizing. I remember my mother and father going to elementary school, even high school, open houses, but they never met any of my college professors, nor did they know the names of the courses they were paying for. Mine are not parents anyone would call uninterested, but there was a stage after which it became unseemly to manifest their interest on site. Yet my parents didn’t drop me off at Harvard Yard for freshman orientation with the fear that I might one day be returned to them in a flag-draped coffin. One of my former students, Joey, while serving with the Old Guard in Washington, D.C., routinely escorted such coffins from Dover Air Force Base, and he has told me it is the most difficult assignment he’s had, more brutal in its way than his tour in Iraq. The administration of the Academy recognizes the deep-seated need of the parents whose children it admits to see firsthand something of day-to-day operations. The opportunity to visit with an English professor for a few minutes and to get a report on their children’s progress is therefore something, if not always enough, for parents wrapped in apprehensions as tightly as they are in those black parkas. Some trepidation must always accompany pride for the families of soldiers, but the imaginings of those parents in October 2001 were far more desperate in view of the fact that the stakes of American soldiering had suddenly been raised.” (Page 10)

The author makes it clear early in the book that she wrestles with complex emotions around the issue of teaching cadets who will soon be sent to war:

“I imagine it would be difficult to know your students are going to war under any circumstances. As it happens, I remain unconvinced by any of the stated reasons given for the invasion of Iraq and dismayed by its civilian architects’ apparently cavalier lack of foresight, and because many of my former students, in whom I very much believe, participated in the invasion and continue to serve in the occupying force, it is an adventure that has provoked in me deep sorrow and anger. As I look back on the last few years, I realize how frustrated I’ve become about not only the prosecution of the war in Iraq but also the ways in which our own country, even as it celebrates the abstraction of the military’s sacrifice, has become disconnected in the absence of the draft from the individuals who fight.” (Pages 13-14)

In each of our nation’s prestigious service academies, there is always a healthy tension between seeing the institution as a liberal arts college preparing the whole person to deal with the vicissitudes of life and leadership and the tendency to view it as a “trade school” that teaches warriors the nuts and bolts of their trade. Dr. Samet addresses this tension:

“Champions of the liberal education cadets receive at West Point – and those champions include the general officers who lead the institution – are fond of the following quotation, sometimes attributed to Thucydides but in fact penned by the British general Sir William Francis Butler: ‘The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.’” (Pages 75-76)

The English professor has an interesting perspective on how she views her teaching as providing another kind of weapon in the arsenal that her former students take with them into battle:

“From the Alien and Sedition laws of 1798 to the USA Patriot Act of 2001, American presidents have tended to meet crises with legislation designed to curtail and suspend rather than to enlarge freedoms, including intellectual freedom and freedom of expression. That’s why I relish the idea that ‘books are weapons.’ It is terminology sufficiently combative for someone teaching students who may very well find themselves at the violent margins of experience, and over the past several years I’ve come to understand the many ways in which books can serve as weapons: against boredom and loneliness, obviously; against fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogmatism.” (Page 88)

In one of the most poignant passages in the book, Dr. Samet shares what it is like to be a woman left behind waiting to hear about the fate of the fighting men – and women -she has come to care about:

“In the spring of 2002, I embarked on the Odyssey with the plebes. One of the things that surprised me about this group was their impatience with Odysseus, in particular their anger at his sojourn with Calypso, the beautiful nymph who effectively imprisoned him on an island for seven years, thus delaying his homecoming. This isn’t what good soldiers do, they insisted with a ferocity I couldn’t account for, and it wasn’t what good husbands do. To the extent the poem awakened their sympathies at all, they seemed to be drawn to the hapless Telemachus, searching for his father, and to Penelope. Odysseus’ wife wards off the greedy suitors feeding off Ithaca’s treasure in her hall, with the ruse of the tapestry. Promising to marry one of them once her weaving is done, she sits alone each night undoing the day’s work and thinking about her absent husband.

Given that we were newly at war, it is likely that the cadets would have preferred the exploits of Achilles and Hector to the meandering of the disillusioned Odysseus. They weren’t feeling disillusioned then, and their eyes were on the voyage out, not the coming home. If those plebes, some of whom are now no doubt in Iraq, ever think about the Odyssey today, perhaps its vision seems more explicable. Back then, they just wanted the poem to end. The war has also placed me in a new relation to Homer’s ambivalent Penelope, who sits at home waiting for news of soldiers who have gone to war. I can tell myself I’m not a mother – not a listener and a watcher left behind – I can weave that tapestry every morning, but at night it all unravels to reveal that the fates have conspired to cast me in the most ancient woman’s role of all.” (Pages 120-121)

In a wonderful coupling of literature with the emotional landscape of West Point, the author shares these thoughts:

“West Point is no prison, even if cadets like to call it one, yet in recent years, against the backdrop of NSA wiretapping and the Patriot Act, the feeling that we are all under constant surveillance has grown more intense, and not just at West Point. When, in the context of this course on London in 2004, the seniors encountered Foucault’s theories of disciplinary mechanisms in the Victorian city, they saw a parallel to their own lives. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House provided fictional accounts of watching and being watched that prompted them to reflect on their own status as disciplines bodies. One senior fond of reminding me that cadets are ‘national treasures’ also knew that valuable things tend to be kept under lock and key. When he read in Bleak House of poor Jo the crossing sweeper, who believes that the eyes and ears of the police are always upon him and that Inspector Bucket is ‘in all manner of places, all at wanst,’ the cadet announced, ‘That’s us, ma’am, they are always watching us.’ People who believe themselves under surveillance begin to understand life as a performance.” (Pages 132-133)

In a seminal passage near the end of this fine book, Dr. Samet highlights the skewed and distorted image that much of our society has of West Point, its cadets, and the military in general:

“What worries me far more than any cynicism I see on the part of cadets is a certain cynicism about cadets – the cynicism of Brad’s friend, for instance – on the part of those people who respond to the news that I teach English at West Point with an openmouthed stare of disbelief. My mother reports that on more than one occasion when the subject of what I do has come up in conversation, acquaintances have exclaimed: ‘You mean they read?’ She thinks that such responses stem primarily from ignorance about the nature of the Academy’s comprehensive undergraduate curriculum; she’s more generous than I am. ‘Oh, they can read? That’s a relief. What do they read?’ asked an incredulous clerk at a bookstore one day, holding my bag of purchases out of reach until I gave him a satisfactory answer. As the Army, in the wake of Vietnam, became more profoundly isolated from certain important sectors of the civilian society it serves, the impression grew in certain quarters that the military was, to borrow a phrase from Tim O’Brien, a ‘jungle of robots.’ In the context of today’s conflict, moreover, the transformation of robots into martyrs, heroes, and other symbols of sacrifice has done little if anything to rehumanize soldiers. It is precisely to their ability to wrestle with faith and doubt that cadets most effectively refute the accusation that they are nothing but automatons or victims.” (Page 178)

By telling her story of the role that she and her colleagues play in integrating the wisdom of literature with the machinery of warfare, Dr. Samet has taken a large step in the direction of helping her readers to rehumanize their conception of cadets and the soldiers that they are being trained to be. I am personally grateful for the role that she plays in helping cadets, like David Addams and his ilk, become a more fully realized human beings, so that they can become more effective leaders - in war and in peace.



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