Monday, December 08, 2008

English professor Elizabeth Samet arrived at West Point with a perspective much different than that of her students. At West Point, she is a minority in more ways than one: civilian, female and, one has to suspect, politically much more liberal than the vast majority of her students.

Samet, with a Harvard BA, a PhD in English literature from Yale, and no military experience, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to be a West Point instructor. But for the past ten years that is exactly what she has been - teaching the “literature of war” to students likely to experience the real thing for themselves soon after leaving the academy. In the process, Samet offers her students the opportunity to consider the moral and ethical nuances of the profession for which they are so rigorously preparing themselves. Theirs is a world of contradictions, and Samet strives to show them how a study of the great literature of the past can help them function effectively in that world.

In Soldier’s Heart, Samet sets out to prove that the way that the military regards itself is largely a reflection of the way it has been represented in literature. But as she sees it, despite the fact that the military embraces that image, its leadership still largely distrusts literature and those who enjoy it as a pastime, fearing that they are not as masculine as warriors need to be for the good of themselves and their country. Needless to say, Samet does not agree and finds, to the contrary, that her students learn much about themselves through an “unflinching look at both the romance and the reality” of the profession they have chosen. She helps make her point by quoting C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone.”

Samet knows how important books are to soldiers trapped in what must seem to be a never-ending war. Her own father still remembers many of the USO-distributed titles he read during the Second World War and she notes that those paperbacks reminded soldiers that “books are weapons” to be read and passed on to others. As she sees it, books can be weapons in a variety of ways: “against boredom and loneliness, obviously; against fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogmatism.”

She recalls that one of her former students, while serving in Iraq, read at a much faster rate than when he returned to the United States. He found that while in Iraq anything that challenged or stimulated his mind made time go by much quicker than it would otherwise have for him. But back home, far from the conflicts of war, he found that his reading had lost its sense of urgency. He still enjoyed reading at his slower pace, and he still loved books, but “he was no longer reading for his life.”

Soldier’s Heart makes a strong case that soldiers who study “the literature of war” are better prepared for combat than those who do not, that they go into the stresses of combat with a more refined sense of themselves and the morality of warfare, an important skill and a strength that will serve our young officers, and those they lead, well.

Rated at: 4.0

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