Excerpt from Soldier's Heart by Elizabeth D. Samet, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Soldier's Heart

Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

By Elizabeth D. Samet

Soldier's Heart
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2007,
    272 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    272 pages.

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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.

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.

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