Reading About War at West Point

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Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, tells Scott Simon about some of the literature she offers to cadets — many of whom are about to go off to Iraq. One choice: poet Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Elizabeth Samet gets e-mails from her former students about what they're reading between attacks, raids and repairing water mains, manning checkpoints and going on patrols. Ms. Samet is a professor at the US military academy at West Point. She teaches literature there and has been trying to learn from her students in the officers class who go on to see duty under fire what literature means to them when they're there. Her article, War Stories: What West Point Graduates Are Reading in Iraq, appears in the summer issue of The American Scholar. Professor Samet joins us from our New York bureau.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ELIZABETH SAMET (West Point Military Academy): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And in these days of e-mails, you can stay in touch with your students.

Prof. SAMET: I can. And it always comes as a shock to me when an e-mail pops up and a former student, who's now a lieutenant or sometimes a captain in Iraq, sometimes in Afghanistan, will write, either telling me what's going on there or simply wanting to talk about some text that he or she has rediscovered in the middle of the chaos.

SIMON: What do they say? What are they reading?

Prof. SAMET: They always surprise me with the different things they find. They read Persian poetry; they read Cormack McCarthy, Faulkner. They read Dickens. You name it, they've read it.

SIMON: When they ask you to recommend a book or even send them a book, do you recommend something about war or anything but war?

Prof. SAMET: Well, it's funny that you should ask that, because that's always the great tension. Sometimes I worry. I say maybe I should send something that distracts them from war; or maybe that's disingenuous, maybe I should send something that is about war. And then I stopped worrying about it and I just put in favorite texts. I put in anything that's wonderful whether it's familiar or totally new to them. And I let them sort it out when they open the boxes.

SIMON: You mention a poem--surprised me a little. Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

Prof. SAMET: Yes, I often read that with the freshmen--or the plebes, as they're called--at West Point. The last pivotal line is that they wash the ball turret gunner out of the turret with a hose.

SIMON: He's been destroyed by a shell.

Prof. SAMET: He's been destroyed and he writes from death.

SIMON: Could I ask you to read that poem?

Prof. SAMET: Sure. `From my mother's sleep, I fell into the state and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its stream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.'

SIMON: I think it might be embracing and informative and reassuring for a lot of Americans to hear that you're not reluctant to teach that poem at West Point.

Prof. SAMET: Not at all. I think that they have to know both the romance and the myth that surrounds war and its very brutal realities, and I think it would be disingenuous and unfair of me not to share with them, if they don't already know them, literary accounts of those realities.

SIMON: Does the reaction of students change perceptively?--'cause you've taught both before and now during the war in Iraq.

Prof. SAMET: I think it does. I think before it could still be--even though, of course, they're at a military academy and they know they've committed themselves to serving in the military, I think before war was still something of an abstraction, surrounded by myth. And now they can't help it, because they, of course, get e-mails from their friends who've just graduated and who are in Iraq and Afghanistan and they know--many of them tell me they have no doubt that they too will be in Iraq soon after their graduations, and so I think that they can't help but read it in a more immediate, visceral way. The stakes are higher.

SIMON: Professor, thanks so much.

Prof. SAMET: You're welcome.

SIMON: Elizabeth Samet teaches English at West Point. Her article on what her students have been reading in Iraq appears in the summer issue of The American Scholar.

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