Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thoughts on "Soldier’s Heart"

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Randall Jarrell’s poem reocurs as do several of the author's West Point cadet students and a few of her faculty colleagues. Of the students, Samet dubbed three “the Musketeers” for their inseparability. Throughout, she uses pseudonyms, and it is telling that she called one of the Musketeers Grant. Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs affected her. Samet says that we know how to honor the dead but we do less well with and for the wounded. We do not think of Grant as wounded. But I do. 
Solider's Heart: Reading Literature
Through Peace and War at West Point

by Elizabeth D. Samet
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

When I worked for Coin World, I was assigned Grant as a feature story. There’s the $50 bill, of course, but quite a bit more is known to the numismatist. Today’s fifty goes back to 1914. In addition to those Federal Reserve Notes are the $50 gold note of 1922 and its companion $50 silver certificates. Before them were the $5 silver certificates of 1886 and 1891. Grant also was honored with a Memorial Half Dollar of 1922 and its companion $1 gold coin. I bridled at the assignment: Grant was a drunken general who ordered other people to kill and die. However, it did not take much research to learn that he was significantly deeper than that. He would have preferred to teach mathematics at a girls’ school. And so, he understood the unremitting arithmetic of the War Between the States: The South simply could not keep paying the price. The price that Grant paid can only be guessed at.

A far less weighty consideration is Prof. Samet’s solution for the problem of the pronoun. For myself, in technical writing, I choose “they” for everyone. Samet’s choice is to go back and forth between he and she, usually with the masculine, as most of the people in her life are men but often using the feminine as neutral for everyone or anyone.

When a firstie (senior class) once asked a colonel what he needed to succeed in the Army, the officer replied, “Show up on time and stay in shape.” (page 196)  I think that promptum et salutem makes a good motto. 

Prof. Elizabeth D. Samet’s In-Text Recommended Reading
(This is just some of it.) 
Wilfred Owen
Edith Wharton
Li Po (Tang Dynasty poet)
Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
Anne Sexton
T. E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Edgar Allen Poe Poems, especially “The City in the Sea”
(That anthology was paid for by his West Point classmates.)
Antoine Saint-Exupéry
Ulysses S. Grant Personal Memoirs 
Artist Savile Lumiey
Alexander Pope Essay on Man
Jane Hirshfield
Jorie Graham
Shakespeare “Sonnet 73”
Shakespeare Henry V
Tennyson “Ulysses”
Ambrose Bierce, especially "One Kind of Officer"
Frost “Road Not Taken”
Attar** Parliament of Birds
Wallace Stevens
Movie: Jacob’s Ladder
Movie: The Four Feathers
Movie: The Roaring Twenties.
**(Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm c. 1145 – c. 1221; 
better known by his pen-names Farīd ud-Dīn and ʿAṭṭār—

Samet wrestles with the ethos of the military, especially when the military is set apart from the general public. “The rhetoric of the War on Terror has been from the first deeply inflected with messianic vocabulary that makes it easy for soldiers to conflate military and spiritual missions and that complements the military’s own sense of itself as a noble profession and a higher calling.” (page 158) 

Between the time he retired from the Marine Corps and became the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis directed a statistical survey of public attitudes about the military. His team found that across all sectors of America, only the “elites” believe that the military should share the same values as society at large. Most people across the political spectrum believe that the military has a different value system than everyone else in America–and this is good. (NecessaryFacts here.) 

I like to think that I have no illusions about human nature, but the fact is that when on base, I never lock my car; and if it is hot—as it often is here in Texas—I leave the windows rolled down. Samet herself reflects at length at how like a small town West Point is. This is good and bad, depending on the context. 

This opens the door to more of my own beliefs. I stood mute and smiled when a sergeant to whom I reported found by surfing that I posted to the Military Atheists website. (Foxhole Atheists here.) My certainty that the universe had no creator comes from the philosophical objectivism (with a capital-O) of Ayn Rand. Predicated on that metaphysics and epistemology, the ethics of egoism are not consonant with the warrior’s way. (How I correlate them is discussed elsewhere.) Based on Soldier’s Heart, I expect that Elizabeth Samet does not explicitly practice the virtues of selfishness. Neither is she a postmodernist. At least, she does not speak their vernacular of “trajectories” and “projects” and “giving voice.” And while she is scrupulous about not forcing her own morals on her students, she clearly has them; and as subtext they seem traditionally American. 

So, I agree with her that mixing the language of missionaries with the goals of military missions is highly problematic. At the same time, I found unsatisfying her apparent belief that civil law is the highest law. She is uncomfortable with the fact that as citizens our soldiers hold the state subservient to religion. I get her point. But I also see a profound and deep philosophical foundation to the fact that in customs and courtesies, the chaplain’s pennant can fly above the American flag while services are being held. Conquering as we must is predicated on our cause being just. The just war doctrine is another of the threads in this book. 

Though rejecting religion as a foundation for morality in Chapter 5 “Bibles, Lots of Bibles,” Samet does not follow that with anything as substantial. Chapter 6 “The Courage of Soldiers” is about the strength of will to stop and consider the hard choices and then select the right one. But all she offers, quoting Hemingway, is that doing the right thing makes you feel good (page 180). Citing Grant, Samet wonders about those “moments when moral courage comes at the expense of an opportunity to demonstrate physical valor.” (page 203)

Steadfast in her role as a civilian, Samet could not avoid assimilating military dialect and the thinking that requires it. Following 9/11 West Point operated under force-protection orders—without quotation marks or explanation (page 5).  Her prep school reunion was “garrisoned by white-gloved waiters” (page 96). She does explain “suspense” as the word for a deadline or expiration (page 229). Most consequentially, throughout, but explicitly in Chapter 6, Samet reflects on the fact that she shares the role of an officer in directing the actions of those under her command and holding herself responsible for the acts and the people who perform them. 

In that, Prof. Samet hints at much struggling, but has no final words for what affected her most to that time: the deaths of her colleagues, one by suicide; and the combat deaths of her former students. Ultimately, the entire book is all about that.


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