The September 11 attacks, the War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and, most important, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the ongoing occupation have altered the perspectives of cadets and forced them to consider more closely what it is they have signed up for. The nebulous struggle against terror that we have now learned to call the Long War has likewise forced me to reexamine what it means to teach literature to these particular young men and women.
This is the mission and central theme of West Point English professor Elizabeth D. Samet’s Soldier’s Heart. Having taught as a civilian at the academy for more than a decade, Samet gives us a unique look into Army life and explores the meaning and impact of teaching and learning literature in times of peace and war. She emphasizes the point that the West Point tradition emphasizes a strong focus on academic as well as military education, and she discusses the ways in which the cultural awareness and creative and critical thinking skills students develop in their coursework complement and enhance the skills they learn through physical and military education.
During the Civil War, Soldier’s Heart was the name given to the malady we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the term has multiple meanings for Samet as she discusses the ways in which her students were changed by their experiences at war and also presents her students to us an individuals apart from their military identities. She succeeds in honoring these men and women and in making them three-dimensional. They become more than their uniform. Samet also succeeds in challenging civilian readers’ stereotypes and preconceived notions about the military.
Samet tells us that the Army is
the ultimate club, a paradoxically transparent but secretive society steeped in ritual and equipped with a private language. It is defiantly a men’s club.
But she also tells us that her experiences with her students (cadets), colleagues (primarily Army personnel), and the West Point community changed her for the better.
West Point won me back to a kind of idealism. Having been coached by professionals to cultivate ironic detachment, I allowed myself to be seduced by the esprit de corps—by the worth of community and commitment, and by the prospect of surrendering myself to a shared mission.
Educated at Harvard and Yale, Samet brings an intellectual but accessible voice the discussion of the importance of academics at a military institution. Believing strongly that literature has the power and ability to change us and the way we interact with the world, she cites examples from the books and authors her students have reportedly been most interested in and affected by, and she emphasizes the ways in which cadets’ classroom experiences teach them to decipher language (and later, situations) that are “from from transparent.”
The cadet experience is divided into three programs: physical, military, and academic. There is a reassuring clarity and transparent relevance to the first two realms, but in the last, especially those disciplines in which results cannot be quantified, ambiguity holds dominion. In the classroom, cadets have their best chance to prepare themselves for uncertainty—to the extent that anyone can prepare for that.
Samet mentions that outsiders are frequently surprised to learn that the academic experience is such an integral part—or a part at all—of Army education at West Point. Some are thrilled by this discovery and understand that analyzing literature requires cadets to think differently and contributes to helping them become well-rounded invididuals. Others are more ambivalent, believing that Army education should focus on cadets’ military and physical development. Samet acknowledges that
the “uses” of literature have always been more difficult to evaluate, the metrics for cultural awareness, empathy, or knowledge of the human condition being far less precise than the moon’s diameter or the number of gallons in the reservoir.
She then presents a very strong argument for why this cultural awareness, empathy, and knowledge of the human condition are important and are best learned in courses that force cadets to think and learn in a way that is qualitatively different from that required to memorize, recite, and obey. Samet also presents the idea that “books are weapons,” which arm her students with something essential and important.
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; againsty fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogmatism.
She is always conscious of the ways in which the books she teaches and how she teaches them have the power to shape and change her students. She is mindful of their themes, lessons, controversies, and uses, and she works to make them accessible to her students, understanding that their meanings and import change as the world, our country, and our military involvement evolve. Samet began teaching at West Point in 1996, during a time of peace, and following the September 11 attacks, she saw former students deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she began to understand the impact of her work in a new way.
These days the shadow of the battlefield experience bleeds through the language of literature all the time. Often the things we say in class carry different weight than they did before.
All of our ruminations on education, training, custom, and tradition had a different valence than they might have done when we were at peace and everything seemed hypothetical.
The war makes all of the cadets’ experiences seem more urgent and more relevant, and it is clear that Samet worked hard to ensure that her classes, though seemingly far afield from military operations, would be relevant and useful to her students in their wartime deployments.
She stays in touch with several former students and incorporates pieces from their correspondence throughout the book. She writes about receiving letters and emails from soldiers telling her about the books they’ve read in the field and how those books served to distract, entertain, amuse, and and comfort them. Samet finds herself recommending and sending books to her former students and realizes that she has taken on
the physician’s language of palliation and cure. I seemed to be promoting literature as a kind of elixir, as something that had the power to bestow a particular kind of courage and a particular kind of knowing.
Though the primary focus of Soldier’s Heart is on the import and impact of teaching literature at a military institution, Samet also provides insight into and discussion about the history and experiences of women at West Point, the nature of obedience and rebellion in military culture, the interplay of religion and politics in Army life, and the meaning and anatomy of courage and sacrifice. Incorporated into all of these conversations are excerpts and examples from relevant books and stories from Samet’s students that serve to bring the concepts to life.
This book is chock full of literary analysis and sociological exploration, and it is a beautiful meditation on the importance of literature and the many ways in which books educate, enhance, comfort, and encourage us and our men and women in uniform. Samet’s argument that an education in literature and the humanities is important and beneficial for military personnel is persuasive and cogently presented, and her passion for her work is evident.
I loved this book and wholeheartedly recommend it to readers interested in literary analysis, education, and a new perspective on military life, and I think it is wonderful, powerful addition to the genre of books about books. 4.75 out of 5.