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

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

Author: Elizabeth D. Samet
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Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Elizabeth D. Samet and her students learned to romanticize the army “from the stories of their fathers and from the movies.” For Samet, it was the old World War II movies she used to watch on TV, while her students grew up on Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan. Unlike their teacher, however, these students, cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, have decided to turn make-believe into real life.

West Point is a world away from Yale, where Samet attended graduate school and where nothing sufficiently prepared her for teaching literature to young men and women who were training to fight a war. Intimate and poignant, Soldier’s Heart chronicles the various tensions inherent in that life as well as the ways in which war has transformed Samet’s relationship to literature. Fighting in Iraq, Samet’s former students share what books and movies mean to them—the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the fiction of Virginia Woolf and J. M. Coetzee, the epics of Homer, or the films of James Cagney. Their letters in turn prompt Samet to wonder exactly what she owes to cadets in the classroom.

Samet arrived at West Point before September 11, 2001, and has seen the academy change dramatically. In Soldier’s Heart, she reads this transformation through her own experiences and those of her students. Forcefully examining what it means to be a civilian teaching literature at a military academy, Samet also considers the role of women in the army, the dangerous tides of religious and political zeal roiling the country, the uses of the call to patriotism, and the cult of sacrifice she believes is currently paralyzing national debate. Ultimately, Samet offers an honest and original reflection on the relationship between art and life.

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Samet, a graduate of Harvard who earned a Ph.D. at Yale before settling in to teach literature at West Point, might reasonably have expected that she’d be the one doing the educating. But most deeply affecting in her book is what she learned from the army.

One inescapable lesson of Soldier’s Heart is that West Point does indeed attract America’s best and brightest. Contrary to the crude, violent, jarhead image civilians may have of modern-day soldiers, the army men and women Samet encounters—from colorful colonels to shy plebes—are unfailingly courteous, intelligent, and likable. The fact that her students go off to war, and some do not return, places Samet in a unique position. Her lessons mean more. The novels and poems her cadets study carry them through missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and give voice to the inherent moral code that allows them to stand up against Abu Ghraib and other injustices. “West Point won me back to a kind of idealism,” she writes. “Having been coached by professionals to cultivate ironic detachment, I allowed myself to be seduced by esprit de corps—by the worth of community and commitment, and by the prospect of surrendering myself to a shared mission.”

Such idealism has nothing to do with jingoism or zealotry, and everything to do with the highest principles and honor. Soldier’s Heart should be required reading for a dispirited nation.

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