'Soldier's Heart': Why we ask West Point cadets to wrestle with poetry

Elizabeth Samet writes of her decade spent teaching literature at West Point.

"You mean they read?" her mother's friends sometimes ask in surprise. At least, she points out, that's more generous than the bookstore clerk who exclaimed, "Oh, they can read? That's a relief."

Elizabeth Samet has been teaching literature to cadets at West Point since 1996. It's not a career Samet would have envisioned for herself during her student days at Harvard and Yale (and certainly not as a teen at an all-girls school in Boston) but, as she makes clear in Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point, a thoughtful meditation on her work there, it's become a calling.

Samet was not a complete stranger to the military. Her father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and she grew up enjoying both his stories and films like "Patton."

But leaving Yale for a regimented world focused on the making of war was certainly an odd experience for her. Even now, it seems, when she can spit out her name as SIERRA ALPHA MIKE ECHO TANGO and sometimes orders her mother to meet her at 1800, Samet remains a bit of an outsider

And that's probably a very good thing. In "Soldier's Heart" Samet carefully examines her role at West Point – particularly in the years since 9/11 when combat has become a grim reality for her cadets.

"What is your function here?" a campus gardener asked Samet when she first arrived, and she seems to have struggled with the question ever since. She quotes a Vietnam-era Army colonel who believed that teaching poetry at West Point produced "perfumed princes" who lost the war. She also echoes World War I soldier and poet Wilfred Owen who noted that, "Happy are those who lose imagination:/ They have enough to carry with ammunition."

But built into the very tone and tenor of "Soldier's Heart" are the reasons why Samet's cadets need the mental prodding that literature offers. "In addition to physical courage under fire," Samet writes, "officers need the moral and intellectual courage that enables them to become, as they are sometimes called, 'judicious managers of force.' "

In her early days at West Point, Samet admits, she lived with the fear that "a careless word or missed opportunity for moral instruction would allow these plebes to become Calleys." As a result, she "stopped teaching and started preaching."

But it didn't last. On the contrary, Samet is candid about the degree to which she has been won over by the ideals of West Point and respect for both her colleagues and her students. At the same time, however, a healthy part of her remains skeptical and detached.

In fact, in some ways she lives with the dichotomy that she says pulls at her idealistic students as they read literature: "the tension between a contemporary urge to demythologize and a persistent desire to be seduced all over again by heroic tales."

Samet never seems to stop asking questions, so it's not surprising that her students often come to her with their doubts. (Even after graduation – she routinely receives e-mails with subject lines like "Greetings from Mosul.")

She tells of Nick who worries that he lacks the zeal of his classmates who seem to him too "bloody minded." "Circumspection," she reassures him, "even skepticism, is not inconsistent with responsible service."

Then there is Brad, a sophomore, troubled when a civilian friend says to him, "I don't understand why you want to kill people." Samet turns him to a passage in "War and Peace," even as she admits her own selfish fear that, "on occasion we might be lost, if the Brads of the world decided to sit [wars] out rather than to serve."

The title of Samet's book comes from World War I terminology. Today, "soldier's heart" is known as post traumatic stress syndrome – which sounds more clinical but is every bit as menacing.

Samet never suggests that teaching literature to soldiers will inoculate them from fear. But she does make a compelling case that the values embodied in the liberal arts can do much to steer them to more thoughtful deliberations.

And for the rest of us, it's reassuring just to think that the hearts and minds of young soldiers are in such hands.

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