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Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
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Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

A-Soldiers Heart"Oh, they can read?" a surprised bookstore clerk asks Elizabeth Samet, an English professor from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Battling for ten years a "persistent anti-intellectual strain" within the army and civilians’ views of West Point as a "modern-day Sparta," Samet has watched students find new meaning in her classroom since 9/11 turned the prospect of combat into a grim reality. In this collection of essays, Samet argues for ideas, imagination, and literature as forces for morality within the military. She reveals her lasting legacy through letters and e-mails from former students around the world who continue to read to inspire themselves, to prevent boredom and numbness, to bond with fellow soldiers, and to embrace the cultures around them.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $23. ISBN: 0374180636

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In her insightful Soldier’s Heart, [Samet] gives us some provocative glimpses into the military mind-set. We come away from the book with respect for the academy’s goals, if not all of its customs, and with hope in and concern for the humanity of our armed forces under a civilian leadership that has too often sent them on injudicious missions." Alexander C. Kafka

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Even if Soldier’s Heart was not a lovingly crafted work of sympathetic imagination, this book would still be worth reading if only because too many of us know far too little about the people who suffer and die fighting our wars. … Ms. Samet’s big-hearted empathy with her students is all the more remarkable because she is an outsider several times over: a civilian, a woman in a still largely male environment (this year 17 percent of West Point plebes are female, a record high), and one who viewed the war in Iraq with ‘deep sorrow and anger’ even as she watched many of her former students lead the invasion." Chris Tucker

New York Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"To her great credit, Samet does not draw easy conclusions in Soldier’s Heart. By writing a thoughtful, attentive, stereotype-breaking book about her 10 years as a civilian teacher of literature at the Military Academy, she offers a significant perspective on the crucial social and political force of honor: a principle of behavior at the intersection of duty and imagination." Robert Pinsky

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Samet’s account of teaching and learning, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, is absolutely fascinating. … Her book explores serious issues—moral questions about courage and obedience—but with graceful writing and flashes of humor." Bob Minzesheimer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Soldier’s Heart is an exhilarating read. It seats you in the classroom of a feisty professor who commands several fronts with easy expertise: classic film, ancient Greece, Shakespearean tragedy, modern poetry." John Beckman

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"During her decade of teaching, Samet moved from OBE (overcome by events) to insight, leading to this combination of memoir and meditation, scholarship and self-scrutiny, observation and commentary. … She portrays her students as goodhearted, curious, open and serious." William S. Kowinski

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Samet’s language can be stilted at times, perhaps the effect of too many academic conferences, but the clarity of her vision and her respect for her colleagues and students are unmistakable." Richard Wakefield

Critical Summary

"What’s the difference, ma’am? I’ll be in Iraq within a year anyway," contends a cadet in Elizabeth Samet’s English class. Soldier’s Heart responds by making a graceful, compelling case that reading forces her students to slow down and reflect on such timeless themes as courage, honor, and sacrifice, which results in better, more thoughtful soldiers. Part memoir, the book also examines her teaching career and shares her opinions of religion in the military and the war in Iraq. It is her sketches of students and colleagues that stand out, however, as she challenges stereotypes and provides a moving tribute to these proud, admirable men and women. By demonstrating that reading has an important place in the military, she makes a strong case for its value in civilian life as well.

On the Reading List at West Point

The Things They Carried | Tim O’Brien (1990): A finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this classic account of the Vietnam War (a collection of related stories) depicts a man grappling with his conscience, fighting for a cause in which he doesn’t believe.

The Odyssey | Homer, Translated by Robert Fagles (1996): This epic poem of ancient Greece follows Odysseus on his long sea voyage home from the Trojan War. Having made an enemy of the Greek god Poseidon, Odysseus and his crew are tested and menaced by witches, sirens, monsters, whirlpools, and shipwrecks.

Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen | Wilfred Owen (1963): Many regard British soldier Wilfred Owen as the foremost poet of World War I. Killed in action just one week before the war ended, his unsettling poems—including "Dulce et Decorum Est"—faithfully portray the harsh, bleak realities of war.