West Point and War Transform English Teacher

Elizabeth Samet in her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River. i i

Elizabeth Samet at her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River. Tina Tennessen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tina Tennessen, NPR
Elizabeth Samet in her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River.

Elizabeth Samet at her West Point office overlooking the Hudson River.

Tina Tennessen, NPR
Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Professor Elizabeth Samet calls the United States Military Academy at West Point a giant "found poem."

When she joined its English Department in 1997, Samet discovered a world with its own vocabulary and rituals. West Point does not teach freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, she found. It teaches plebes, yearlings, cows and firsties.

In her new book, Soldier's Heart: Teaching Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet shares her decade of experience teaching poetry and literature to future military leaders.

West Point was not an obvious choice for Samet. A graduate of Harvard and Yale, she first encountered West Point while reading The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. She was drawn to the school's legendary graduates, its close-knit community and its sense of mission. Above the entrance to Thayer Hall, where Samet teaches literature and poetry, the words "Duty, Honor, Country" are carved in stone.

On a recent visit to Samet's poetry elective, class began the way every class at West Point begins: with a military formation. After roll call and a salute from the designated "section marker," Samet and her students — most of them English majors — discussed Chinese poetry in translation, then moved on to Wilfred Owen's battlefields of World War I.

A soldier-poet, Wilfred died in action in France in 1918. Samet says she thinks many of her students are drawn to Owen's poetry because he "insists on the humanity of soldiers amid the inhumanity and brutality of war."

In Soldier's Heart, Samet shares some of the letters she receives from her former students fighting in Iraq. In turn, she examines what it means to be a civilian teaching at a military institution, and what she owes to her students.

Excerpt: 'Soldier's Heart'

Book Cover 'Soldier's Heart'

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER

I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6—OVER

SHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3—OVER

SHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHT—OVER

WILCO—OUT

I have said "out" when I should have said "over." I have taken far too long to figure out that "SITREP" means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that of my colleague Dan, grumbles that I'm not allowed to end a transmission I didn't start:

YOU CAN'T SAY OUT, SHAKESPEARE 3, ONLY I CAN SAY OUT

OOPS

I had volunteered for this mission: standing guard at the doors of the United States Military Academy's Department of English, during the school's annual Plebe Parent Weekend, which is immediately abbreviated — as all things military must be — PPW. This event is designed to gratify the curiosity of parents who have only recently surrendered their children to the United States Corps of Cadets, West Point's student body. In their first semester, plebes take English 101, an introductory composition course that is part of the Academy's thirty-course core curriculum, which includes everything from engineering to philosophy, military history to information technology, economics to psychology. The plebes dwell at the bottom of a four-class hierarchy in which sophomores, juniors, and seniors go by the names yearlings, cows, and firsties respectively. All of this terminology takes some getting used to. Even when you think you know what things are, you can't be sure you know what to call them.

It had been decided that every department needed a presence at the door of its open house. To lend myself the aura of officialdom, I retrieved from the bottom of my desk drawer a name tag I hadn't worn since new faculty orientation several years before. Identifying me as prof samet, dept of english, it was emblazoned with the belligerent Academy crest of Pallas Athena and the microscopic words civilian service, a designation that turns out to be a statement of the obvious: if you aren't in uniform—even in civilian clothes most cadets and officers give themselves away by their bearing, their haircuts, and their fashion choices—it is pretty clear what you are. And while a few tourists have mistaken me for a cadet over the years, the cadets themselves have never been confused.

There are civilian professors at all of the service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard), as well as on the faculties of the military's various staff and senior service colleges. At the Military Academy, civilian professors are considered emergency personnel; we acquire the magnificently redundant epithet "key and essential." In weather-related emergencies, when West Point, which like other Army installations is referred to as a "post," goes to a condition called "Code Red," some civilian employees can stay home, but as the memo issued at the start of each academic year explains, I need to make arrangements for an emergency billet with someone on post in the event that nature threatens to derail my commute. The strategic advantages of the terrain that made this location attractive in the eighteenth century, when Fort Putnam was built high up on the west bank of the Hudson River, make the approach on winter days rather daunting. Civilians who live "off post," and most do, must venture over one of the surrounding mountains. Should a dangling modifier need reattaching, a sentence fragment suturing, or a metaphor anatomizing in a storm, however, I will be first on the scene. That's a set of priorities an English professor can embrace.

The mothers and fathers I greeted at the door during that Plebe Parent Weekend knew none of this trivia. To them, I was simply a nuisance, a guard at a border checkpoint who stood between them and news of their children. Briefed on my duties, I took up my post armed with half of a two-way radio set issued to me with mock solemnity by the head of the department, a position always occupied by a colonel, who had borrowed it from his grandchildren for the occasion. There I waited for the mothers and fathers of the plebes to invade our open house in search of their sons' or daughters' professors. I had orders to bar the suspicious, to interrogate all those unaccompanied by a cadet, and to send the rest upstairs.

Why all the fuss? Because it was October 2001, and everything, as it quickly became fashionable to say, had changed. Once an open post with a friendly MP who waved visitors through the gates, West Point, like military installations everywhere, had responded to the events of September 11 by instituting a variety of force-protection measures. Unsettled as I initially was by the idea of being greeted each morning by a soldier with an M-16, I knew I would get used even to that. Before September 11, life at West Point had been — there's no other word for it — peaceful. When I arrived, in the summer of 1997, the Army to which the school contributes about a thousand second lieutenants each spring wasn't at war with anyone. Firsties knew that they could look forward to a series of stateside assignments and a tour in Germany or Korea, but they couldn't really count on combat unless perhaps they joined the Special Forces, and then they wouldn't be able to tell anyone about it anyway. In 1999, I attended a belated but symbolically significant ceremony at which officers were awarded Recognition Certificates for their faithful service during "the Cold War era" (September 2, 1945–December 26, 1991). Even the Russians weren't there to kick around anymore. The most heated debates of the day centered on whether it was appropriate for the Army, and for the country, to engage in peacekeeping and humanitarian-aid missions. These debates haven't been resolved, only eclipsed.

As I processed the parents, one of my colleagues — usually Dan, who was rather amused by all of this — would check in periodically. Dan had served for several years with the Army's prestigious 82nd Airborne Division before earning his Ph.D. in philosophy. There are three main constituencies on the West Point faculty: civilian Ph.D.s (20 percent); a rotating military component of captains and majors who earn a master's degree, serve for three years, and then return to the field Army (60 percent); and a senior military contingent of lieutenant colonels and colonels who have gone back to graduate school for the Ph.D. (20 percent). Dan had done a three-year tour at West Point earlier in his career, but I met him when he returned as a member of the senior military faculty. He is from Montana, and its wide-open spaces have shaped his attitudes toward people and society. He is a man of the west who has spirit, rough humor, and generosity; a cowboy who happens also to have read an enormous amount of Kant. Dan's speech is a wonderfully improbable amalgamation of the scatological and the academic. He wrestles with philosophical theories as if they are calves to be roped or deer to be butchered.

After he took me deer hunting one winter morning, I took to calling Dan "Elmer Fudd." We had gone out to the woods with the aim of "knocking something over," but our crunching footsteps in the overnight snowfall made us about as stealthy as cartoon killers: "Be vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits." I felt slightly ridiculous (and very cold) tromping around in the snow with my bright orange safety vest and hat. Dan, by contrast, is utterly at home in the woods stalking his prey, alert and light on his feet. Of only medium height, he's got the athletic build and movements of a former wrestler and the soldier's no-nonsense, close-cropped haircut. Put all that together with a knowledge of his physical competitiveness and incredible capacity for pain — something I learned when he almost sliced his thumb off but refused at first to go to the hospital — and you behold a fairly intimidating figure in camouflage. At the end of the day, I fired a few rounds from Dan's .270 rifle, which has a kick so strong that it almost knocked me over. I also had a ringing in my ears for a day, and I suddenly understood why so many of my military friends have suffered serious hearing loss. Like many officers, Dan has especial patience when it comes to training novices, and even the most incurable city mouse can emerge from a day in the woods under his tutelage with a richer understanding of nature, wildlife, and firearms.

On the day of the open house, Shakespeare call signs seemed appropriate:

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, HAVE YOU SECURED THE PERIMETER? — OVER

SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6, DO YOU NEED RELIEF AT YOUR POST? — OVER

NEGATIVE — OVER

ROGER — OUT

Relief? No way. Refusing to surrender my post, I processed legions of parents with dispatch. In they pressed, fathers carrying video cameras, mothers wearing black parkas with gold letters indicating their children's class, usma 05. These parkas are standard issue for cadets, who often buy extra ones for their mothers, girlfriends, and, occasionally, fathers.

In the "gray days" of winter, when the castellated stone buildings blend with the sky and the wind rips off the Hudson, these parkas and the winter caps that go with them are the emblems of shared misery. There is a profound sense in which an eighteen-year-old plebe needs to feel that he has suffered, and suffered cruelly. Reporting to West Point sometimes only days after high school graduation, the "new cadet" spends the summer trudging through the humid woods of the Hudson Valley in face paint and camouflage imagining her friends sleeping late or going to the beach. In the fall, when he has exchanged his Army combat uniform (ACU) for a more businesslike as-for-class uniform and plunged into a heavy load of required courses, the shorn plebe's friends instant-message him with tales of growing beards, rushing fraternities, and signing up for (but not necessarily attending) whatever classes strike their fancy. Surrendering a great deal, plebes cultivate a compensatory aura of martyrdom.

On their parents, the parkas seemed a strange show of solidarity. For identification purposes, the mothers and fathers had been issued personalized pins in the shapes of their home states. It was almost impossible to decipher the surnames, but I thought that if I could identify the states, I would be able to gain the upper hand with my dazzlingly thorough knowledge of capitals. Texas was easy, so was California, but the nondescript square states proved a challenge, and I found myself staring a bit too long and hard at the chests of parents from Wyoming and Colorado. Who but a native can tell the difference between the isolated silhouettes of North and South Dakota?

As the day wore on, an entire nation assembled before me. They say every fourth cadet is from Texas, but in fact all fifty states are represented. A West Point class is not the gung-ho, red-state monolith an outsider might expect. I've known of cadets who grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side and cadets who spent part of their childhood on the streets; cadets who were Eagle Scouts and cadets who played in garage bands; cadets whose fathers are ministers and cadets whose fathers have long ago disappeared; cadets from families with a tradition of military service dating back to the nineteenth century and cadets whose parents protested the Vietnam War. Ironically, for a young man or woman in this last category, joining the military proved to be the ultimate act of defiance.

One officer told me he went to West Point in the late 1960s, perversely, to avoid being sent to Vietnam (but ended up being sent after graduation anyway), and more than one has made a career out of the Army largely because their fathers were convinced that they weren't quite "man enough" to do it. Some of my colleagues are zealots; others have come back from Iraq in profound distress. A few haven't come back at all. What everyone who graduates from West Point shares, no matter the personal history, is a willingness to devote their twenties to military service — a minimum of five years on active duty and three more in the Reserves—in exchange for a free undergraduate education.

Like the identical gray uniforms worn by the cadets, the black parkas tended to mask the abundant parental variety. Their individuality was eclipsed as well by a sense of communal predicament. They were all eager mothers and fathers whose concern about their children's progress in composition hid a deeper anxiety about what distant corner of the world they might be deployed to in a few years. Some of them must have wondered what all of their ambitions had wrought, to what violent end their enthusiasm had potentially consigned those beings whose safety had been for eighteen years their chief object.

Organized parental visitations have always struck me as somewhat infantilizing. I remember my mother and father going to elementary school, even high school, open houses, but they never met any of my college professors, nor did they know the names of the courses they were paying for. Mine are not parents anyone would call uninterested, but there was a stage after which it became unseemly to manifest their interest on site. Yet my parents didn't drop me off in Harvard Yard for freshman orientation with the fear that I might one day be returned to them in a flag-draped coffin. One of my former students, Joey, while serving with the Old Guard in Washington, D.C., routinely escorted such coffins from Dover Air Force Base, and he has told me it is the most difficult assignment he's had, more brutal in its way than was his tour in Iraq. The administration of the Academy recognizes the deep-seated need of the parents whose children it admits to see firsthand something of day-to-day operations. The opportunity to visit with an English professor for a few minutes and to get a report on their children's progress in class is therefore something, if not always enough, for parents wrapped in apprehensions as tightly as they are in those black parkas. Some trepidation must always accompany pride for the families of soldiers, but the imaginings of those parents in October 2001 were far more desperate in view of the fact that the stakes of American soldiering had suddenly been raised.

The stakes of teaching at West Point have also been raised by the events that followed September 11. The institution always felt different from a civilian college, but it used to be much easier for me as well as for the cadets to confuse their chosen profession with just another career. The Army itself had encouraged this kind of thinking in the 1980s with its "Be All You Can Be" slogan and its emphasis on adventure and technical training over the deadlier aspects of the military profession. The September 11 attacks, the War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and, most important, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the ongoing occupation have altered the perspectives of cadets and forced them to consider more closely what it is they have signed up for. The nebulous struggle against terror that we have now learned to call the Long War has likewise forced me to reexamine what it means to teach literature to these particular young women and men.

My association with the Army has persuaded some people that I am invested with particular affinities, arcane knowledge, or special powers. When I give a lecture or present a paper at a conference, strangers materialize to tell me of past associations with anyone or anything military. They seek to forge a bond, however tenuous. The most bizarre such encounter occurred at a convention in New Orleans. After giving a paper about poetry and soldiers, I was approached by a spectral figure, turned out in beret and cape, and carrying a silver-headed cane. Following me through the French Quarter, he confided that Robert Graves, the author and World War I veteran, had been his dear friend. Before "Robert" died, he said, visibly moved, "he asked me to forgive him. You see, he had done some unspeakable things in the war. But who was I," demanded my ghostly confidant before wandering off down Royal Street, "who was I to absolve him?"

Others assume I have an intimate knowledge of long-range military strategy or of the inner workings of the secretary of defense's mind. I am routinely asked what "the Army" thinks about x or y. My ignorance about these matters no doubt disappoints the curious. Also chagrined are those who assume that I've met everyone in the Army, as if the entire organization were confined to one tiny post. Most are keenly interested in the generals: "What do you know about Wesley Clark?" topped the list of questions in 2004. Now it is General David Petraeus about whom everyone is curious. Most common, however, are inquiries about cadets or officers who have been assigned to West Point at some stage of their careers:

"You teach at West Point? I know someone who went to West Point! Maybe you taught him. Honey, what was Margie's son's name? William, Willard, Wilbur? Don't you remember?"

"I don't know. I thought it was Mark."

"Well, anyway, his last name is Johnson, and he graduated about two years ago."

"Seems to me it was longer than that. More like five, I'd say."

"Oh, maybe five then. Did you know him?"

Excerpted from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet. Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth D. Samet. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet

Hardcover, 259 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Soldier's Heart
Subtitle
Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point
Author
Elizabeth D. Samet

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.