Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Book Review: Soldier's Heart

Author: Elizabeth D. Samet
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 13: 978-0-374-18063-8; 10: 0-374-18063-6

It was slightly more than a decade ago that Elizabeth D. Samet graduated from an Ivy League university and accepted a position as a civilian faculty member at America’s oldest military academy, West Point. Her unusual position as a female civilian in an overwhelmingly masculine military environment has given her many opportunities to observe, participate in and think about contrasts.

The first contrast, which I’ve already mentioned, is that of gender. Dr. Samet is one just a few female faculty members at West Point. They are joined by a relatively small number of female cadets who enter the academy with the intention of serving as officers in the US military. Notwithstanding the fact that females have been attending the academy since 1976, West Point is not an easy place for women to live and work. Samet notes, “Women at West Point must make their way in a culture historically charged with machismo and fraternity (p. 100)” and, “Misogyny percolates beneath the surface of discussions about the ‘civilianizing’ or weakening of military culture (p. 99).” She speaks bluntly, but not bitterly, about the obstacles military women face both at the academy and in the military at large.

Another contrast that Samet deals with, particularly as an English professor, is that of the cultivation of physical fitness and toughness with the cultivation of intellect and introspection. Indeed, physical conditioning is a critical component of the academy’s program. The book is sprinkled with wry anecdotes in which Samet’s friends and family express surprise that cadets actually read serious literature, and that they often do so earnestly. Samet describes how many of her students embrace the reading of literature as an opportunity to let their imaginations roam freely – an experience not taken lightly in a military academy’s highly regimented environment – and to examine the connections between moral values and military exigencies. She also shares bits of correspondence she has exchanged with academy graduates as they continue to read and reflect on their field assignments. She says, “I relish the idea that ‘books are weapons.’ It is terminology sufficiently combative for someone teaching students who may very well find themselves at the violent margins of experience, and over the past several years I’ve come to understand the many ways in which books can serve as weapons: against boredom and loneliness, obviously; against fear and sorrow; but also against the more elusive evils of certitude and dogma” (p. 88).

A related contrast is that between the soldier who obeys without question and the one who thinks through and solves problems. She says, “The longer I teach at West Point, the more fascinated I become by parables of obedience…for they illuminate the inescapable tension between ‘knowing’ and ‘obeying’ within military culture and the fear of commanders that subordinates who know too much might choose not to obey” (p. 123). Even though the military requires unhesitating obedience in order to function efficiently, Samet suggests, “The American Army prides itself on the soldier’s ability to recognize immoral or unlawful orders” (p. 129). This ability is demonstrated in one graduate’s struggle, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, to prompt the military to take steps to ensure that such events will be prevented in the future. Samet reports his passionate belief “in the necessary connection between a society’s values and the way in which it fights its wars” (p. 209). This belief was refined, in no small part, by his participation in Samet’s literature courses.

The final contrast that I will note, even though Samet’s examines several more that could be mentioned, is that between the West Point ethos before 9/11 and the ethos that has evolved since then. Samet says, “Before September 11, life at West Point had been – there’s no other word for it – peaceful” (p. 6). In those days, cadets anticipated that they would graduate and assume mundane posts in locales such as Germany or Korea. Nowadays, cadets are acutely aware that the odds are high that, upon graduation, they will be deployed to a war zone. This awareness has transformed the sobriety with which cadets undertake their studies. Indeed, some of the most touching scenes in the book are provided by the reflections of young army officers as they deal with the physical, psychological and moral realities of life on fields of battle.

“Soldier’s heart” is a term that military doctors sometimes use to refer to a condition that has been variously labeled “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” and the currently vogue “post traumatic stress disorder.” In her beautifully rendered portrayal of the sensibilities, desires and fidelities of West Pointers, Samet fills the phrase with a far richer meaning. The young men and women who write stirring poetry and avidly recite Shakespeare in Samet’s classes are keenly aware of the responsibilities they will assume upon graduation. The faculty members, both military and civilian, are thoughtful, intelligent people who strive to balance commitments to a military culture steeped in violence and a democratic culture dedicated to the freedom of its citizens. Cadets and officers sacrifice much – their freedom, their comfort, their safety, their health, and often, their lives – to preserve and protect the lives and liberties of their fellow citizens. Samet does not take those sacrifices lightly. Indeed, this engrossing book is the means by which she expresses her gratitude and invites readers to join her in admiring the noble spirit that is the essence of the soldier’s heart.