Thursday, April 17, 2008

Soldier's Heart (Book #40)

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I dreamed of going to West Point, not out of any real knowledge or understanding of what army life meant, but because my brother Jim started West Point as a plebe the same year I started kindergarten, and from very early childhood I looked to him as a measure of achievement. (Seriously--I watched his high school graduation, where he was the only student to give a speech. I asked my parents about it on the way home, and they explained that he was valedictorian, which meant he had the best grades in the class. I decided then and there that I would be valedictorian, too. And 13 years later, I was.) I ended up choosing different goals and a different life, and, really, I probably would've made a lousy officer. I don't like hierarchies, even the small ones I have to deal with at work. One of the reasons I dream of being a full-time writer is that it's as non-hierarchical a career as you'll find anywhere. Sure, you have an agent and an editor, but they're not your bosses, and they're not there in the office with you telling you what to do. And unless you're one of the rare authors who hires a researcher or an assistant, you don't have to order anyone else around, either. But I retain a love for West Point (which I visited regularly during my own college years at Penn, because Jim was a math instructor there at the time), and I admire and respect my friends and relatives who've served in the military. I opposed the Iraq War from the time it was a dream in the neocons' eyes, but I'm no pacifist, because sometimes there's nothing short of war that will stop a great evil run amok. And I've found myself drawn to writing about war and soldiers, though so far I haven't strayed any closer to the present than 1815.

I'm sure that's why Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Elizabeth D. Samet, 2007) is my favorite of the books I've read so far in 2008. Samet is, like me, a bookish civilian who nonetheless feels connected to the Army--but her connection is a lot more tangible than mine. She's been a professor of English at West Point for ten years, and Soldier's Heart is her memoir of working with cadets and showing the relevance of literature to their lives. She's stayed in touch with many of her cadets as they've gone on to service in Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women who read and think deeply even as they're engaged on the front lines of the present war. And that's something a lot of people I know who haven't had the same engagement with the military as I have just don't get--there's this nasty stereotype of soldiers as mindless killing machines, which from my experience (and Samet's far more extensive experience) couldn't be further from the truth.

Which is not to say that Samet's portrayal of the miltary is completely positive--she's critical of pressures to conform to conservative religion and politics, for example, and while not all soldiers are conservative Christians and Republicans, those pressures are there.

When I put Soldier's Heart down, I had a reading list. I need to read the Fagles translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. I need to learn what else Wilfred Owen wrote besides "Dulce et Decorum Est." And most of all, it's past time I read War and Peace.

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