A singular mix of literary criticism and memoir from a West Point English professor who helps plebes mold the mindset that prepares future officers for war.
Samet (Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, 2007) began teaching the freshman literature course at West Point in 1997 and considers this “the most important trust I have been given in my professional life.” Throughout this book, she mediates between the universality of great literature—and popular culture in general—and the specific psychic demands placed on the military, not only in combat, but in re-entry to civilian life. In the process, she encompasses everything from the Odyssey and Shakespeare to War and Peace to Catch-22 (which she initially loved but found harder to read the more experience she had with former students dying in battle), with side excursions into baseball, boxing and motorcycle gangs. She explains how the latter arose in the aftermath of World War II, from vets who had difficulty adjusting to the routines of domesticity. She quotes one former student–turned-biker on the sensation of “being in control and out of control simultaneously. On the very razor’s edge….It’s that same…feeling that follows you everywhere in a combat zone.” The title refers to, among other things, the transition by soldiers coming home who have yet to leave the war behind—“a terrain that seems as strange as it ever was: a no man’s land peopled by ghosts yet by the living, too. War vertigo is the order of the day….” This is a book about narrative, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives, about the revisions we make when those stories no longer cohere, about endings that don’t provide resolution, let alone the cliché of closure.
Both the incisiveness and the perspective—of a civilian professor and the military students she loves and mourns—enrich readers’ appreciation for the psychological complexities of war and its aftermath.