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West Point Professor Seeks Paths to a ‘Soldier’s Heart’

November 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Professor Elizabeth Samet's upper level poetry seminar unearths the creative side of soldiers-in-training. Jeffrey Brown looks at Samet's use of poetry and her new book entitled "Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point."
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a story of soldiers and sonnets at West Point. Jeffrey Brown has the latest in our ongoing poetry series.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, classes begin with a salute.

ELIZABETH SAMET, Author, “Soldier’s Heart”: I know Mr. Cooke [ph] and Ms. Lizari [ph] did the Rich and Dunne connection [ph].

JEFFREY BROWN: But apart from that and the uniforms, Professor Elizabeth Samet’s upper-level poetry seminar would fit in at any university filled with very bright young men and women.

ELIZABETH SAMET: And I think Stevens is really getting at similar themes…

JEFFREY BROWN: The discussion ranged widely, from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”…

ELIZABETH SAMET: To put “nothing that is not there” into the mix, he’s not talking directly about the nature scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to the eighth-century Chinese poet Du Fu.

ELIZABETH SAMET: … 98 in the Chinese poetry.

WEST POINT CADET: Snow scurries in the coiling wind. The wine glass is spilled. The bottle is empty. The fire has gone out on the stove.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cadets were unafraid to question the professor’s thesis.

WEST POINT CADET: I’m just having a hard time understanding any notion of poetry devoid of any emotion. It doesn’t strike me as, I mean, maybe there’s a spectrum, where, I mean, certainly some poetry is more divested than others, but could you elaborate on that?

Challenging stereotypes

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Samet arrived at West Point 10 years ago with an elite academic pedigree, a B.A. from Harvard and PhD in English literature from Yale. In a new book called "Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point," she's written about her experiences at the elite military academy.

One reason Samet wanted to write the book, she says, was to help bridge a gap she sees between the civilian world she came from and the military culture she's become part of. She stressed that the views in her book are her own and not necessarily those of the military.

ELIZABETH SAMET: I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding, that some of the responses I get when I tell people that I teach literature at West Point...

JEFFREY BROWN: What do they say?

ELIZABETH SAMET: Well, I've had everything from, "You mean, they read?" Very cynical responses, to, "I don't understand. What is it that they -- what is it that they do there?"

JEFFREY BROWN: Samet herself had a lot to get used to in the beginning, the jargon, customs, and life on the "post," as the campus is called. But the real change came with 9/11 and the Iraq war.

ELIZABETH SAMET: It was when the war began that it really felt different, because all of the realities of the profession, which, during peacetime, recede into the backdrop, I think inevitably came to the fore. And cadets in class know that if they're seniors, for example, for the last several years, they've known that within a few years they will be in a war zone.

JEFFREY BROWN: At West Point, where about 20 percent of all professors are civilians, the English department co-exists with the Combating Terrorism Center. Cadets spend their days in physical activities -- military drills, as well as training for team sports -- and in rigorous classes, including several required courses in philosophy, history and literature.

In Samet's class, poetry about war is, of course, a mainstay, Wilfred Owen's World War I trenches, Homer's Troy, Yusef Komunyakaa in Vietnam. Samet says she tries to balance the romance of war with its horror.

ELIZABETH SAMET: As "The Iliad" shows warriors reveling in the battlefield, it also shows a warrior, like Hector, realizing the costs of war, realizing in the scene when he takes leave of his wife and son, realizing what he has to leave behind. And I think it's necessary for soldiers to realize both the rewards and the costs of their profession.

Debate over higher education

JEFFREY BROWN: In her book, she discusses the lively and long-running debate over the education of officers. Just recently, the journal the American Interest carried dueling essays on the benefits of a graduate degree, with General David Petraeus, who has a PhD in political science, declaring that "the most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon, but his mind," while retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters argued that "too much formal education clouds a senior officer's judgment."

Samet says she sometimes has cadets in the required classes balk at studying sonnets.

ELIZABETH SAMET: I've had students say flat out, "I want to be a lieutenant. What does this have to do with being a lieutenant?" Or a cadet a few years ago, when I was writing some terminology on the board, sat back and said, "I can't take that to Iraq."

JEFFREY BROWN: "I can't take that to Iraq."

ELIZABETH SAMET: Right. And then we started talking about...

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you say to them, besides, "It's a requirement"? What do you say?

ELIZABETH SAMET: I say, "Well, all right, you can't take it to Iraq. What else can't you take to Iraq? Well, what does a soldier carry with him in his or her mind? And what, then, is he or she able to bring home after war is over?"

JEFFREY BROWN: The cadets we observed were mostly English majors and had no questions about the value of poetry, but when Professor Samet allowed me to talk to them, there was a range of views on what exactly poetry does for them.

WEST POINT CADET: You get out of bed in the morning because you look forward to learning new things about the world around you and about life. And there just has to be more for us than just being soldiers, because we are people, too, and part of being a human is learning to appreciate art.

Understanding the human condition

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see, though, a connection between the poetry, what you're learning here, and becoming an officer?

WEST POINT CADET: The poetry is directly related to our function as a military officer, because, at the bottom level, we're all here training here to take lives. And that's a concept that you really can't approach without art, without some sort of deeper understanding of the human condition, which is exactly what poetry is.

WEST POINT CADET: I think that's a clumsy way to say that. I think we're not here to take lives and destroy things. Perhaps those are the tools of the Army and the military, but really we're here to learn how to be leaders. And I think that a lot of poetry has a direct influence on how I think about leadership and how people view leadership.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lieutenant Colonel Michael Stoneham has led men and women in the first Gulf War and elsewhere. He also has a PhD and heads the English department at West Point.

What is the purpose of a liberal arts education and literature, in particular here?

LT. COL. MICHAEL STONEHAM, U.S. Military Academy at West Point: Well, I think, since all our graduates are going to be Army officers, a liberal education is particularly important, since their ability to understand others, to work with others, to communicate clearly different ideas, and to think perhaps broadly and insightfully is particularly important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Samet hears regularly by e-mail from former students now in Iraq -- their questions, fears, hopes -- and has similar conversations with those soon to go. It is, she's come to realize, a very unusual but satisfying teacher-student relationship.

ELIZABETH SAMET: If I can help to contribute to enlighten professionals serving in that Army in my small way in my small literature classroom, then I think that I have fulfilled my responsibility, and it's a responsibility that fulfills me. These cadets really matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these are cadets for whom poetry, for one reason or another, really matters.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, you can hear more of Jeff's interviews and sign up for our poetry series podcast. It's all at PBS.org.