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Front & Center with John Callaway: Elizabeth Samet: Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point

In Prof. Elizabeth D. Samet's English class at West Point, cadets discuss the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell, and read books ranging from the Aeneid and War and Peace to White Teeth and Catch-22. Expected to memorize facts and follow orders elsewhere on campus, they reflect on what they've read and voice their opinions openly in Samet's class. There's only one thing they can't say while discussing literature with her: "Hooah!"

Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point covers not only literature but also campus life as a whole at the United States Military Academy, as seen by a civilian observer with no military background of her own. Samet examines how traditional values like duty, honor, and sacrifice are taught in the formative years of these future officers, and looks at the influence of religion and gender roles on their development. She also contends with age-old institutional doubts about the relevance of her class. Why should cadets study literature when it is completely different from the rest of their curriculum? How does it benefit one former student to have the work of Wallace Stevens stuck in his head as he patrols the deserts of Iraq?

As many of her students graduate and head to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Samet makes a passionate case for the value of literature in their lives - the ways in which imagination makes them better soldiers, and better able to endure the as-yet unimaginable experiences ahead.

Elizabeth D. Samet received her B.A. from Harvard and her Ph.D. in English literature from Yale. She is also the author of Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898.

The opinions expressed in this book are Samet's own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.