Soldier’s heart: reading literature through peace and war at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet, 2007

Elizabeth D. Samet has taught English at West Point since 1997. Soldier’s Heart is her engaging and erudite account of this time, a book about books and so much more: history, education, religion, politics and of course Afghanistan and Iraq. She writes in the prologue:

“My ongoing conversations with students, some of which began when men and women who are now lieutenants and captains were plebes, reveal the ways in which literature helps them to understand their own increasingly complicated lives. Having chosen a profession that cannot afford to indulge their desire for reflection, they make courageous attempts to bridge active and contemplative selves. This is a story about my intellectual and emotional connections to military culture and to certain people in it, but the real drama lies in the way the cadets I teach and the officers with whom I work negotiate the multiple contradictions of their private and professional worlds. Because they serve at the bottom of a hierarchy not especially interested in their opinions, cadets, especially plebes, at once crave and fear the freedom to wonder. Few people really know this part of their story: the courage with which they challenge accepted truths; the nuanced way they read literature and culture; and the ingenious methods they have for resisting conformity in lives largely given over to rules and regulations. Our national fondness for celebrating the physical heroism of soldiers- the apparent readiness with which they sacrifice their lives to larger causes- eclipses the far less romantic displays of moral and intellectual fortitude that also distinguish so many of them. In turning them all into heroes, we have lost a sense of the individuality they also fight to preserve.”

In Soldier’s heart, Samet resurrects this individuality, writing with affection and clarity of the culture of West Point and her various English classes and students. Along the way, she discusses general issues like the appropriate education of officers, differing concepts of courage, duty and honor and the role of women in the armed services. A fascinating book with much food for thought, Soldier’s heart has left me with a richly nuanced view of the US armed forces and an increased desire to read Montaigne, War and peace and If I die in a combat zone. Highly recommended.