Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Soldier's Heart. Elizabeth D. Samet.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. Elizabeth D. Samet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007.

Why read it? The title of the book, Soldier’s Heart, refers to the symptoms of heart disease that appear in soldiers with post-traumatic disorders. They do not have physical heart disease. They do have a disease of the feeling, human heart.

The author, a female English teacher at West Point, who obviously has a close relationship with the institution and its students, reveals much of what it is like to attend West Point—the rituals, the language, the culture of the military. Many of these details make fascinating reading.

The subject she teaches, English, is out of keeping with the rest of the military training that makes up the cadets’ day. But the cadets’ interaction with the literature and the films to which she exposes them, is thoughtful, relating their lives and careers to the ideas of what they read and view. And it is a wide and varied range of literature and film that she uses.

So much of what she writes about is her interpretation of the institution and its training. The reader is taken inside its walls to view the scene from the point of view of the outsider who has willingly agreed to become an insider. She philosophizes about the psychology of the cadet, the duality of obedience and critical thought. She tries to reconcile the contradictions of the military mind. she deals with the many issues of what happens when free Americans volunteer to join the military.

The author has her own agenda that has nothing to do with the theme of the book, the effects of literature on West Point cadets and graduates. For example, she spends considerable time on the treatment of detainees during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While I agree with the position of the soldier she quotes on equal treatment of detainees with the treatment of prisoners in the States, it really has nothing to do with the effects of literature on the West Point cadet and graduate.

One of the interesting characteristics of her writing and teaching is the ways she can interrelate literary works from different eras and places. Truly impressive. She is an eclectic reader who can join the most disparate works by applying them to her themes and did so with her cadets.

In the last chapter, she reflects on how young the cadets are and the contrast with what waits for them after they graduate. But she has helped them to think about life and war through reading literature.

Some sample quotes:

Judge Louis Brandeis: “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties…. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” p. 208. ………. “When I wander through the military cemetery…I think of the unique and unfinished individuals concealed beneath.” p. 27. ………. “They [the cadets] seemed to understand that courage isn’t simply a matter of leading charges: sometimes it consists in speaking up, sometimes in stoic silence, sometimes in forging ahead, sometimes in circumspection, and sometimes in nothing less than preserving our own humanity.” p. 214.

Montaigne: “…stubbornness and rancor are vulgar qualities, visible in common souls whereas to think again, to change one’s mind and to give up a bad case in the heat of argument are rare qualities showing strength and wisdom.” p. 248. ………. “…but they have the courage to meet brutality with imagination as well as ammunition, with questions as well as convictions, with books or without.” p. 248. ………. “For the moment, I found in Grant’s Personal Memoirs a book that could keep one company—a book written by an adult, terminally ill with throat cancer, who confronted without flinching life’s one grim certainty, its end.” p. 35.

Sylvanus Thayer, often called the father of the Military Academy, served as superintendent from 1817 to 1883. Thayer’s innovations included aspects of what educators today call Active Learning: small classes in which the professors did no lecturing; daily cadet participation in activities such as solving problems, answering questions, or reciting material they had prepared beforehand.” p. 64. ………. “Army officers are magnificent trainers and motivators: they make you believe in yourself and sometimes take you beyond your capacity.” p. 197. ………. Montaigne: “Only fools…have made up their minds and are certain.” p. 248.

“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.” p. 13.

A bright human being, an excellent teacher and a deep understanding of how life and literature can help each other. RayS.

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