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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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.

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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