What does literature - particularly the literature of war - mean to a student who is likely to encounter its reality? What is the best way to stir uninhibited classroom discussions in a setting that is designed to train students to follow orders, respect authority, and survive grueling physical and mental experiences? This is the terrain Samet traverses each semester, a challenge beautifully captured in Soldier's Heart. The excerpt ends with an extensive list of recommended books and films.
Elizabeth D. Samet and her students learned to romanticize the army "from the
stories of their fathers and from the movies." For Samet, it was the old World
War II movies she used to watch on TV, while her students grew up on Braveheart
and Saving Private Ryan. Unlike their teacher, however, these students, cadets
at the United States Military Academy at West Point, have decided to turn
make-believe into real life.
West Point is a world away from Yale, where Samet attended graduate school and where nothing sufficiently prepared her for teaching literature to young men and women who were training to fight a war. Intimate and poignant, Soldier's Heart chronicles the various tensions inherent in that life as well as the ways in which war has transformed Samet's relationship to literature. Fighting in Iraq, Samet's former students share what books and movies mean to themthe poetry of Wallace Stevens, the fiction of Virginia Woolf and J. M. Coetzee, the epics of Homer, or the films of James Cagney. Their letters in turn prompt Samet to wonder exactly what she owes to cadets in the classroom.
Samet arrived at West Point before September 11, 2001, and has seen the academy change dramatically. In Soldier's Heart, she reads this transformation through her own experiences and those of her students. Forcefully examining what it means to be a civilian teaching literature at a military academy, Samet also considers the role of women in the army, the dangerous tides of religious and political zeal roiling the country, the uses of the call to patriotism, and the cult of sacrifice she believes is currently paralyzing national debate. Ultimately, Samet offers an honest and original reflection on the relationship between art and life.
An extensive list of books and films recommended by Elizabeth Samet can be found at the end of this excerpt.
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6OVER
I had forgotten all about the radio in my hand. I was so startled when it crackled to life I nearly dropped it:
SHAKESPEARE 3, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 6OVER
SHAKESPEARE 6, THIS IS SHAKESPEARE 3OVER
SHAKESPEARE 3, GIVE ME A SITREP WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENEMY IN SIGHTOVER
I have said "out" when I should have said "over." I have taken far too long to figure out that "SITREP" means situation report. Somewhere this might be fatal. Here the amused voice on the other end, that of my colleague Dan, grumbles that I'm not allowed to end a transmission I didn't start:
YOU CAN'T SAY OUT, SHAKESPEARE 3, ONLY I CAN SAY OUT
I had volunteered for this mission: standing guard at the doors of the United States Military Academy's Department of...
This is a powerful and introspective book that will appeal to many people in many different ways.
If you've always wondered what goes on behind the hallowed halls of a military academy, you'll like getting a glimpse into what the life of a cadet is.
If you have a loved one serving in the military, you'll read this with renewed interest and perhaps find yourself packing something extra in the boxes from home. You'll like the chapter "Books are Weapons".
If you are a teacher of English, or any subject for that matter, you'll appreciate the challenge Samat faces in making her content relevant.
If you are a history buff, you'll enjoy the references to our country's leaders in connection with West Point—Adams, Jefferson, George Washington, Sherman and Grant, to name a few.
If you are philosophical, you'll be given much to ponder with specific references to the works of Shakespeare, Aristotle, William Golding and Plutarch. As did one cadet, who was skeptical of the value of literature for a soldier until he came across the words "hope springs eternal" in Pope's "Essay on Man". From these three words he deduced that "perhaps hoping for the best even in the face of eternity is what sets humanity apart." (Reviewed by Vy Armour).
Taking Books Into Battle
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If you liked Soldier's Heart, try these:
From the author of the best-selling and beloved The End of Your Life Book Club - a wonderfully engaging new book: both a celebration of reading in general and an impassioned recommendation of specific books that can help guide us through our daily lives.
Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned.
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