The Magazine

The Write Stuff

The hunger for literature among student officers.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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So much for the anti-intellectualism of military cadets. Many other myths about them, too, explode in Samet's portraits. When she gets the job at West Point, a Yale professor informs her, "You'll humanize them." But when she thinks back upon her Harvard/Yale years, she finds them an induction into "doubt and disenchantment," whereas "West Point won me back to a kind of idealism." She finds little sexism in the place, either: "Being a woman is immaterial to many of my colleagues." And while the 1960s counterculture "helped to make the American soldier come to seem a rather strange and exotic creature to many civilians: an anachronistic conformist," Samet encounters "outrageous, uncompromising individuals" and "arch-rebels," and alumni remain "concerned that cadets' minds be exercised with sufficient vigor."

How far the literary virtues of West Pointers extend through the armed forces is an open question, but the institutional commitment to books runs deep. During World War II, for instance, the Army distributed more than 100 million volumes to the troops. Samet's father remembers the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized paperbacks of classics and potboilers ranging from Zane Grey to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Today, the Army Library Program maintains kiosks in Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, along with more than 125 libraries on bases around the world.

The commitment goes back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who authorized the founding of the United States Military Academy in 1802. Samet quotes Adams on one rationale: "I was too well informed that most of the officers [in the Army] were deficient in reading: and I wished to turn the Minds of such as were capable of it, to that great Source of Information." Jefferson thought the officers of the time inclined to aristocracy, and he hoped the curriculum would instruct them in republican principles. Both of them would agree with the British general William Francis Butler, whose summary opinion about the education of soldiers Samet quotes approvingly:

The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.

This explains why the West Point years have affected Samet so deeply. She pledges to cross that line of demarcation, and while her colleagues at Ivies and state universities ponder at length their role as teachers in a post-9/11 world (always an adversarial role), Samet and West Point have had to act on that question daily from September 12 onward, and they've produced an ironic outcome. Literature, history, and philosophy matter, and they do so less to students and teachers in the cozy quads of the college campus, ensconced in libraries and symposia, than they do to bedraggled, bored, and anxious officers sweating it out in the desert.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906.