Soldier’s Heart

soldier's heartElizabeth Samet writes about “soldier’s heart” in several ways in the course of this book. It’s a phrase that can mean courage (“steel my soldiers’ hearts,” says Henry V), or the values a soldier holds dear. It is also the name of a condition that has been diagnosed since the Civil War: at first considered a cardiac condition, and then a nervous condition, we know it today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This use of words to mean more than one thing plays an important role in Soldier’s Heart, a memoir of Samet’s ten years teaching literature to cadets at West Point.

Samet herself occupies more than one role, and sometimes very odd ones. She is a civilian in a primarily military environment; a woman in a primarily male environment; a literature teacher in a place where the main function is to train cadets to serve in the Army. How does she makes sense of all these things, define her function as a teacher? She says that cadets exist in an Army that rarely asks them their opinion. They have little opportunity for reflection, for a contemplative self. They are asked to make snap decisions, to be certain about things we might think would be better off as grey areas. While courage and sacrifice are highly valued in the Army, it can be difficult to pause and ask questions about what courage means, and what, or whom, ought to be sacrificed.

The courage I had in mind was the deliberative variety that could withstand all the accidents that might derail the merely brave. The knowledge I had in mind consisted in an ability to know more than one truth, to rest in uncertainty when uncertainty is required, and to change one’s mind when the evidence demands.

Samet proposes to instil this particular kind of courage and knowledge in her students through literature. She introduces them to the world’s great literature of war, from Gilgamesh and the Iliad to Tim O’Brien’s “true” stories; from War and Peace to Ambrose Bierce’s “One Kind of Officer.” And, of course, with a corps of cadets facing imminent departure to Iraq, there is no necessity to read literature that is overtly about war for the conversation to go that direction. Reading Thoreau leads to questions of obedience and disobedience. Watching His Girl Friday sparks debate about the role of women in leadership positions. Before the events of September 11 and after them, literature leads to thinking carefully about what war means, and has meant, to this country and to human beings through time.

This is a short book, relatively speaking: it clocks in at only about 250 pages. It’s packed. In my opinion, there are really three books here. The first is Samet’s personal anecdotes about West Point — she has dozens of wonderful stories, beginning with her job interview, that range from the funny to the fascinating. West Point is an alien environment to most of us, and I would have loved to see more of this. The second book is the cadets’ and soldiers’ own words. Samet has many friends, colleagues, and former students who are currently in various positions of responsibility, and their words about how literature has shaped their ideas on justice, ethics, loyalty, or responsibility were riveting. The third book is Samet’s analysis of various issues. She has a chapter on what it’s like to be the only woman in the room; another on obedience; another on the religious atmosphere in the Army. Her analysis, which includes military history, current events, and literary tropes, is incisive and interesting.

But all three of these strands — personal anecdote, soldiers’ anecdotes, and analysis — cut across each other and interrupt each other. Samet interrupts her own story about her job interview and never comes back to it. We wonder what happened to that plebe who was speaking about military tribunals a moment ago. She cuts off her analysis of what feminism means to an Army officer in order to tell a story about her own days at school, then cuts off her school days to quote a student. While every example she adduces is interesting and relevant, the chapters begin to feel disorganized and incomplete.

Still, even though I wish the book had been better fleshed out and better organized (and I really got annoyed at some of her facile conclusions in the chapter about women in the Army), it is well, well worth reading. I am passionate about reading and about teaching literature — I do it for a living, so I’d better be passionate about it! — and I was really interested to see what Samet’s rationale was like in the urgent, life-or-death conditions of a student body that is leaving for war at any moment. It turns out that her reason for doing what she does is the same as my reason for doing what I do. I want my students to have courage, to have knowledge, to rest in uncertainty when uncertainty is required, and to change their minds when the evidence demands. That, to me, is a soldier’s heart.

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