Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point: Elizabeth Samet. I read a review of this in the NYT and was fascinated by the concept of teaching English and poetry to US Army officer cadets. I have taught courses with military officers, but didn’t really have any insight into this parallel universe until I did.

This is an absolutely marvellous, hopeful book that should destroy many stereotypes: that the military is an unthinking monolith, that military officers are blind to the tragic ambiguities of war and peace, and that literature is some soft option that has little to say about the world.

Interestingly, this is the first book about teaching English literature I have read that did not mire itself in the fashionable nonsense of much literary theory, though a dash of Terry Eagleton would not have gone amiss. Above all, this is a book about moral and intellectual growth: both of our writer/protagonist and of her pupils. The sense we get of her capabilities are all in her lightness of touch and her ability to weave interesting strands together.

I read the book almost at one sitting and will go back for more. I have recommended it to all my friends who teach in any capacity: if you can teach this to this audience….And of course the cadets teach us as much as the teacher.

There is hope beyond the ‘know nothing’ Neo Cons and it is from the grass roots of the officer corps. But she tells of dangers too, as the political and religious fanaticism of some officers endangers the nature of the military. A democracy needs its officer corps to represent the whole society; not some self selected political or religious faction. There are some candidates for ‘Seven Days in May’ type players, but not it seems amongst her students.

Poetry takes on a very powerful role in the West Point education system and we can only wish it played a similar role in the wider university system. Poetry is above all else a good antidote to fanaticism and glorification of war. Reading this book reminded me of my father- in- law’s tales of war in North Africa in WW2 and the intense hunger for literature amongst all ranks, that he never experienced again in such mass form. This seems to be alive and well in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is Elizabeth:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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