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Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $23

In Patton, the 1970 film, one of the intriguing traits of the general as played by George C. Scott unfolds not in front of that mammoth American flag, or at a party with a lumpish Red Army general, but on a quiet grassy lane in the hills of Tunisia. On a somber afternoon during the North Africa campaign, Patton directs his jeep onto a knoll dotted with ruins, then steps down to resurrect an ancient scene to Omar Bradley (played by Karl Malden) as trumpets echo in the distance.

"It was here," Patton says. "The battlefield was here." He means the Battle of Zama, where in 202 B.C. Roman legions under Scipio routed Hannibal's Carthaginians and ended the Second Punic War.

"I was there," Patton mutters before reciting lines of his own creation on "the pomp and toils of war . . . the age-old strife . . . when I fought in many guises and many names."

The scene borders on kitsch, but Patton's historical sense and literary voice save it. They signify, too, a larger point. In the midst of a major military action, Patton still feels the presence of the past and resorts to poetry to express it. For him, the finer arts complement the martial arts, the general and the humanist are one.

In Soldier's Heart, Elizabeth Samet's memoir of 10 years teaching English at West Point, Patton is, she remarks, a favorite of the cadets, and the same combination happens over and over. She arrived in 1997, a fresh Ph.D. from Yale (Harvard B.A., an all-girls prep school in Boston before that), uncertain how she might fit in. Straight off she saw that "a West Point class is not the gung-ho, red-state monolith an outsider might expect." Cadets come from all regions, income groups, and ideologies--some carrying on a family tradition of service, some whose parents protested the Vietnam war. Most of all, belying the Rambo stereotype, they like novels and poems and plays. In class they read The Iliad, Beowulf, War and Peace, World War I poetry, and also Pope's Essay on Man, Dickens's Bleak House, Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Science," the curious lyrics of Wallace Stevens, Diderot's plan for the Encyclopédie.

Out of class, they keep at it. Lieutenants in Iraq who took her course three years earlier write back to ask about her current syllabus. Another stationed in Korea tells her, "Someone once told me that 'the most important book you will ever read is the first one after your graduation.' I wish I could remember what it was--I have done more reading since graduation than I would have ever thought possible." Still another writes from Mosul, "I have been rolling through books here at a pretty steady clip," and when he returns to the States, he reports, guiltily, that his reading has slipped.

Samet attributes these young people's literary fervor precisely to their combat future. While freshmen down in Manhattan at Columbia and NYU think about jobs and paychecks they'll secure after graduation, and hook-ups they make before it, cadets have a rigorous regimented existence in class and out, and they know they will assume command of 30 men and women when it's over, probably in a hot zone. The prospect throws them into hard questions of life and death, duty and sacrifice, courage and leadership, and they probe great works to figure them out. Samet's chapters ramble from episode to episode, sprinkling reflections on the war on terror, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and her own frequent place as "the Only Woman in the Room" (a chapter title), but the plebe readers are what hold the book together.

All of them, Samet included, "feel a palpable pressure to consider every moment's practical and moral weight." The pressure magnifies the import of Macbeth contemplating the murder of Duncan, Penelope waiting for her husband, Stevens's "Oh! Blessed rage for order"--Samet doesn't have to convince them to respect Shakespeare, Homer, and the rest. The war has done that already.

To anyone who teaches English elsewhere, the enthusiasm is wondrous. One semester, a trio of plebes won't let her alone: "Around whatever corner we met, we would immediately resume discussion about a point left unfinished in class, about the books they were reading." Compare them to students in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a massive annual study of college kids. Asked in 2006 how often they talk to their professors outside of class, fully 43 percent of first-year students answered "Never," while 39 percent gave a middling "Sometimes." While Samet's students beg her to recommend books, when NSSE asked freshmen how many books they had read on their own in the previous year, 24 percent answered "None" while 55 percent opened a measly one-to-four.