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.
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.