Books: Soldier’s Heart

I bought Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet a few years ago, but just got around to reading it this past week. It was not what I expected, though that might simply be because it had been so long since I bought it that I had forgotten what I knew about it when I bought it.

I knew it was about soldiers and literature, but I thought it was written by a soldier. Instead, Elizabeth Samet is a civilian professor of English literature at West Point. I also expected it to be more about literature; instead, a large part of it is about Samet’s own experiences, both before and since coming to West Point.

This includes her experiences teaching literature to cadets, and it is interesting to learn of their responses and perspectives. It is also interesting to follow their future military careers, as they continue to correspond with Samet after they graduate.

I learned something about what cadets experience at West Point and about the ethos of West Point and of the armed forces in general. Or at any rate, I learned Samet’s understanding of it. (One reader review at amazon.com asserts that the book is inaccurate in its descriptions of cadets at West Point. Two other reader reviews, by graduates of West Point, make no such complaint and rate the book highly.)

The book is loosely organized around various themes, but it is difficult to say what message the book as a whole is trying to get across. That there is no inherent contradiction between pursuing a military career and an interest in literature? That literature is helpful to people in the military as much as those in any other career? That literature has a lot to say about themes related to warfare?

I need no convincing on any of those. But if someone were skeptical about any of these points, I doubt this book would do much to change their perspective. The importance of studying literature is mentioned a number of times, but I see little attempt to provide a substantive argument to support it.

I’m not sure just what it would look like, if it were there, but I had thought there might be some examples of actually wrestling with a text (not just talking about doing so). Go into some detail on some passage, illustrating the process of finding meaning in it, and how that relates to soldiers and to the issues important to their lives.

Maybe that’s too much to ask for, I don’t know. At least I would have liked more content on the literature itself and the cadets’ thoughts about it, and far less about Samet and her views.

One last thought – I’m still somewhat puzzled about the title. The book explains (more than once, I think) that “soldier’s heart” is the term once used for what we now call PTSD, back when it was thought to be a physical disorder, some kind of cardiac ailment soldiers were particularly susceptible to. Having learned that, I had thought that there would be something about how the study of literature related to PTSD, but if it was there I missed it.

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