Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

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9780312427825: Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

Includes a New Afterword by the Author

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A USA Today Best Book of 2007
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2007

What does it mean to teach literature to a soldier? How does it prepare a young man or woman for combat? At West Point, Elizabeth Samet reads classic and modern works of literature with America's future military elite, and in this stirring memoir she chronicles the ways in which war has transformed her relationship to the books she and her students read together. While fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Samet's former students share their thoughts on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the fiction of Virginia Woolf and J. M. Coetzee, the epics of Homer, and the films of Bogart and Cagney. And their letters in turn prompt Samet to wonder exactly what she owes to cadets in the classroom. Soldier's Heart is an honest and original reflection on the relationship between art and life.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776–1898. She has been an English professor at West Point for ten years.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER
I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVERSHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3—OVERSHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHT—OVERWILCO—OUT
I have said out when I should have said over. I have taken far too long to figure out that SITREP means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that of my colleague Dan, grumbles that I’m not allowed to end a transmission I didn’t start:
YOU CAN’T SAY OUT, SHAKESPEARE 3, ONLY I CAN SAY OUTOOPS
I had volunteered for this mission: standing guard at the doors of the United States Military Academy’s Department of English, during the school’s annual Plebe Parent Weekend, which is immediately abbreviated—as all things military must be—PPW. This event is designed to gratify the curiosity of parents who have only recently surrendered their children to the United States Corps of Cadets, West Point’s student body. In their first semester, plebes take English 101, an introductory composition course that is part of the Academy’s thirty-course core curriculum, which includes everything from engineering to philosophy, military history to information technology, economics to psychology. The plebes dwell at the bottom of a four-class hierarchy in which sophomores, juniors, and seniors go by the names yearlings, cows, and firsties respectively. All of this terminology takes some getting used to. Even when you think you know what things are, you can’t be sure you know what to call them.
It had been decided that every department needed a presence at the door of its open house. To lend myself the aura of officialdom, I retrieved from the bottom of my desk drawer a name tag I hadn’t worn since new faculty orientation several years before. Identifying me as prof samet, dept of english, it was emblazoned with the belligerent Academy crest of Pallas Athena and the microscopic words civilian service, a designation that turns out to be a statement of the obvious: if you aren’t in uniform—even in civilian clothes most cadets and officers give themselves away by their bearing, their haircuts, and their fashion choices—it is pretty clear what you are. And while a few tourists have mistaken me for a cadet over the years, the cadets themselves have never been confused.
There are civilian professors at all of the service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard), as well as on the faculties of the military’s various staff and senior service colleges. At the Military Academy, civilian professors are considered emergency personnel; we acquire the magnificently redundant epithet key and essential. In weather-related emergencies, when West Point, which like other Army installations is referred to as a post, goes to a condition called Code Red, some civilian employees can stay home, but as the memo issued at the start of each academic year explains, I need to make arrangements for an emergency billet with someone on post in the event that nature threatens to derail my commute. The strategic advantages of the terrain that made this location attractive in the eighteenth century, when Fort Putnam was built high up on the west bank of the Hudson River, make the approach on winter days rather daunting. Civilians who live off post, and most do, must venture over one of the surrounding mountains. Should a dangling modifier need reattaching, a sentence fragment suturing, or a metaphor anatomizing in a storm, however, I will be first on the scene. That’s a set of priorities an English professor can embrace.
The mothers and fathers I greeted at the door during that Plebe Parent Weekend knew none of this trivia. To them, I was simply a nuisance, a guard at a border checkpoint who stood between them and news of their children. Briefed on my duties, I took up my post armed with half of a two-way radio set issued to me with mock solemnity by the head of the department, a position always occupied by a colonel, who had borrowed it from his grandchildren for the occasion. There I waited for the mothers and fathers of the plebes to invade our open house in search of their sons’ or daughters’ professors. I had orders to bar the suspicious, to interrogate all those unaccompanied by a cadet, and to send the rest upstairs.
Why all the fuss? Because it was October 2001, and everything, as it quickly became fashionable to say, had changed. Once an open post with a friendly MP who waved visitors through the gates, West Point, like military installations everywhere, had responded to the events of September 11 by instituting a variety of force-protection measures. Unsettled as I initially was by the idea of being greeted each morning by a soldier with an M-16, I knew I would get used even to that. Before September 11, life at West Point had been—there’s no other word for it—peaceful. When I arrived, in the summer of 1997, the Army to which the school contributes about a thousand second lieutenants each spring wasn’t at war with anyone. Firsties knew that they could look forward to a series of stateside assignments and a tour in Germany or Korea, but they couldn’t really count on combat unless perhaps they joined the Special Forces, and then they wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it anyway. In 1999, I attended a belated but symbolically significant ceremony at which officers were awarded Recognition Certificates for their faithful service during the Cold War era (September 2, 1945–
December 26, 1991). Even the Russians weren’t there to kick around anymore. The most heated debates of the day centered on whether it was appropriate for the Army, and for the country, to engage in peacekeeping and humanitarian-aid missions. These debates haven’t been resolved, only eclipsed.
As I processed the parents, one of my colleagues—usually Dan, who was rather amused by all of this—would check in periodically. Dan had served for several years with the Army’s prestigious 82nd Airborne Division before earning his Ph.D. in philosophy. There are three main constituencies on the West Point faculty: civilian Ph.D.s (20 percent); a rotating military component of captains and majors who earn a master’s degree, serve for three years, and then return to the field Army (60 percent); and a senior military contingent of lieutenant colonels and colonels who have gone back to graduate school for the Ph.D. (20 percent). Dan had done a three-year tour at West Point earlier in his career, but I met him when he returned as a member of the senior military faculty. He is from Montana, and its wide-open spaces have shaped his attitudes toward people and society. He is a man of the west who has spirit, rough humor, and generosity; a cowboy who happens also to have read an enormous amount of Kant. 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.
After he took me deer hunting one winter morning, I took to calling Dan Elmer Fudd. We had gone out to the woods with the aim of knocking something over, but our crunching footsteps in the overnight snowfall made us about as stealthy as cartoon killers: Be vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits. I felt slightly ridiculous (and very cold) tromping around in the snow with my bright orange safety vest and hat. Dan, by contrast, is utterly at home in the woods stalking his prey, alert and light on his feet. Of only medium height, he’s got the athletic build and movements of a former wrestler and the soldier’s no-nonsense, close-cropped haircut. Put all that together with a knowledge of his physical competitiveness and incredible capacity for pain—something I learned when he almost sliced his thumb off but refused at first to go to the hospital—and you behold a fairly intimidating figure in camouflage. At the end of the day, I fired a few rounds from Dan’s .270 rifle, which has a kick so strong that it almost knocked me over. I also had a ringing in my ears for a day, and I suddenly understood why so many of my military friends have suffered serious hearing loss. Like many officers, Dan has especial patience when it comes to training novices, and even the most incurable city mouse can emerge from a day in the woods under his tutelage with a richer understanding of nature, wildlife, and firearms.
On the day of the open house, Shakespeare call signs seemed appropriate:
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, HAVE YOU SECURED THE PERIMETER?—OVERSHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, DO YOU NEED RELIEF AT YOUR POST?—OVERNEGATIVE—OVERROGER—OUT
Relief? No way. Refusing to surrender my post, I processed legions of parents with dispatch. In they pressed, fathers carrying video cameras, mothers wearing black parkas with gold letters indicating their children’s class, usma 05. These parkas are standard issue for cadets, who often buy extra ones for their mothers, girlfriends, and, occasionally, fathers.
In the gray days of winter, when the castellated stone buildings blend with the sky and the wind rips off the Hudson, these parkas and the winter caps that go with them are the emblems of shared misery. There is a profound sense in which an eighteen-year-old plebe needs to feel that he has suffered, and suffered cruelly. Reporting to West Point sometimes only days after high school graduation, the new cadet spends the summer trudging through the humid woods of the Hudson Valley in face paint and camouflage imagining her friends sleeping late or going to the beach. In the fall, when he has exchanged his Army combat uniform (ACU) for a more businesslike as-for-class uniform and plunged into a heavy load of required courses, the shorn plebe’s friends instant-message him with tales of growing beards, rushing fraternities, and signing up for (but not necessarily attending) whatever classes strike their fancy. Surrendering a great deal, pleb...

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