on Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Having earned her doctorate in literature from Yale, Elizabeth Samet accepted the best teaching job she could get. “When I told my friends and acquaintances at Yale that I was going to West Point, I got a range of responses, ‘You’ll humanize them,’ said one well-meaning professor, leaving me puzzled. They had seemed pretty human to me,” she writes. Samet has taught literature at the USMA for ten years. She portrays her cadets not only as quite human, but as prototypical citizens from various backgrounds, balancing their interests and instincts between the demands of society and the appeal of autonomy. Yet enthralled by this quintessential American story, the media have exclaimed just how human they find her Wilfred Owen-loving young adults. It’s an unavoidable main conclusion for most of her readers – but leading us to it is not her primary mission.

soldiers.jpgWith the map of her story spread before her, Samet tells us what she intends to achieve. In the opening pages she says, “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.” Samet then illuminates those ambiguities and oppositions through seven essays dealing with various aspects of military life and history. She expresses her own “intellectual and emotional connections” with the same confident pitch of mastered facts used to describe the modeling significance of Ulysses Grant or Theodore Roosevelt. For Soldier’s Heart is not a memoir. Samet is as buttoned-up tonally as the plebes who address her as “Ma’am.” Her reserve, however, is an enticement. Has there ever been a fortress that didn’t encourage and tempt an invader? Who is Elizabeth Samet? “I believe as much as ever in the importance of teaching literature to future Army officers,” she writes. “At the same time I feel that I have become ineluctably involved in something much larger than an academic discussion or a particular discipline.” This “something” is her true subject – her self and her society, integrating and separating, a cultural archetype. In this sense, Elizabeth Samet as a character in her book is the equivalent of a cadet – or of any one of us – making critical decisions at the far edge (if we’re lucky) of violence. Soldier’s Heart is a most humane book, animated by longstanding ideals, inspired by the candor of great literature, and unwilling to confuse a disapproval of the current political regime with the more enduring and serious attitudes of an engaged citizen of the republic.

As a student of literature, Samet learned to differentiate between Captains Ahab and Vere. As for ambiguity, Ishmael survives Ahab (who demands consent and cares nothing for reasoning) but Billy Budd gets crucified (despite the reasoned justice of Vere). In 2004, by then fully acclimated at West Point, she published Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 (Stanford University Press). Here, she confronted the difficulty of exercising virtue in extremity. Power must be informed by principles. Volunteered, recruited or drafted, the citizen-soldier willingly surrenders freedom for a greater cause, presuming the social contract is based on those principles. But what if, as Samet portrays herself in Soldier’s Heart, one is “unconvinced by any of the stated reasons for the invasion of Iraq and dismayed by its civilian architects’ apparently cavalier lack of foresight”? This is the native, existential condition of the citizen: Where should one place the moral force of one’s convictions? Literature empowers us to see, to weigh perception against received wisdom. With a both whiff of the subversive and the lingering bite of a spent round, Samet strides into the classroom with the goal of underscoring the nature of contradiction (entanglements of emotion and reason) through the study of literature, thus toughening her cadets. “No one had ever mistaken my classroom demeanor for maternal,” she says. Samet is all about tough love. “Cadets cannot afford the luxuries of indulgence and cosseting – of being reassured that everything will be okay. It won’t, and they, perhaps more than their civilian counterparts, need to know that it won’t.” (Oddly, she writes several pages earlier, “At West Point, a tendency to cosset cadets coexists with the imperative to toughen them up.” Samet, apparently, isn’t one of the cosseters, either by choice, temperament, or both.) Obviously, with Soldier’s Heart Samet has found a more engaging way to address the topic of her former academic thesis. It is also a shrewd narrative, flattering to the liberal obliged to relate to the military and wax patriotic, and the conservative who recalls that picturesque poem by Robert Frost about the snowy woods and the fork in the road. Liberals seem to regard Samet as a sort of weapon against militarism, not understanding that her view of the necessity of her "mission" is much closer to the position of Robert D. Kaplan, as voiced in the July/August sisue of The American Interest: “Holding or not holding a place for warriors in our midst is not just a matter of faith as we normally think of it, or even moral hardiness ... It is also a matter of collective self-regard or, put more conventionally, where and how solidly the boundaries of political community are drawn. It is about nationalism — nationalism of a kind that is going out of fashion among the American elite.”

Elizabeth Samet writes from the perspective of someone who, like her cadets, has made a decision to live among uncertainties and ambiguities. She labors to make “enlightened professionals” out of her students. But there is also the sense, however muffled, that ten years on post have also turned Samet into an enlightened professional, working the active connection between the passions of literature and the risks of commitment – perhaps with a more impactful sense of purpose than that of the other new Ph.D.’s who attended the MLA conference with her in 1996. She says, “For if my undergraduate years launched me into skepticism and graduate school took me deeper still into waters of doubt and disenchantment, West Point won me back to a kind of idealism.” (I’m told that in 1995, when Yale's Graduate Employees and Students Organization refused to release grades unless Yale agreed to negotiate with them about their demands, Samet opposed the strike.) She continues, “I allowed myself to be seduced by esprit de corps – by the worth of community and commitment, and by the prospect of surrendering myself to a shared vision.” The implication is that these values are not readily discovered (and perhaps are discouraged, despite the cant) on college campuses, and not advanced by theory-bound departments of English.

But Samet doesn’t gloss over the difficulties inherent in a cadet’s training. “While the administration endorses, indeed celebrates, intellectual inquiry and academic freedom, education necessarily coexists at West Point with the realms of training and indoctrination, and no one is more aware of this balancing act, or more baffled by it, than a plebe,” she writes. Once the paradox has been established, and the value of literary studies has been promulgated, Samet’s work is accomplished. Much of Soldier’s Heart goes on to discuss other aspects of military life: the role of women in the armed forces, obedience versus initiative, the historical presence of literature in the army, the place of religion, and many other subjects and personalities in passing, including stories about her students and their careers.

samet1.jpgI made my way through Soldier’s Heart looking for Elizabeth Samet. The more care she took to deflect attention from herself, the more insistently I asked: why did she write this book? Its tone suggests a civic duty. She clearly believes in her mission. She is absorbed by the forces dueling for the attention and loyalty of the citizen and the pressures on the cadet both to think and conform. But Samet herself is a bundle of contradictions (as far as she allows one to see) – and her teaching life at West Point is a sort of proof that such contradictions can be managed with some effort. It’s a system she can buy into. As a prep school student, she would exhort her fellow young women to “speak up!” She took such freedoms for granted: “What were the struggles of Steinem’s generation to me?” Later, she found a model for womanly empowerment in the figure of Elizabeth I – and yet another model in the sassiness of certain Hollywood stars. But the army is a meritocracy – so Samet refuses to join “various women’s groups” at West Point (“I feel no instinctive sisterly solidarity and often resent the assumption that I should”). Finally, she backs off altogether from further speculation: “When it comes to these topics, however, I have lately discovered that I am extremely naïve. Meditating on these issues at all is in fact a rather novel experience for me.” Lately discovered? Hard to believe. Samet is 37.

“What, I began to ask myself, did a soldier’s willingness – my own willingness, for that matter – to conform her conduct to a specific set of rules and regulations signify?” she asks, without answering the personal part of the question. “There is a confused and confusing relationship between a soldier’s surface courtesies and inner life.” Yes, and the same could be said for both the typical corporate business manager and Elizabeth Samet, who says the soldier’s behavior includes “a tendency toward platitudes and superlatives meant to assuage (or preempt) discontent and to rally the troops,” also corporate behavior quite familiar to me. The institutional framework, within which she may treat the emotions and intellect with utility, seems to have a great deal of appeal for her.

Samet’s narrative presence reminds me briefly of those famous lines by the unnamed narrator in Heart of Darkness when he says, “I don't like work — no man does — but I like what is in work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know.” There’s a difference, of course: Samet loves her work. But in every other respect, Soldier’s Heart conforms to this statement. Samet has found herself at West Point – but for the rest of us, she rarely pops up from her foxhole.

[Published by Farrar 10/25/2007, 259 pp., $23.00]