Teaching Literature to Soldiers

When 1st Lt. Max Adams was deployed to Iraq in 2002, he took with him a 20-pound hardback edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Sometimes he would read from it to his soldiers—speeches from "Henry V" were always crowd-pleasers. "The one about 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,' they always liked that one," Adams says. The rest of the time the book rode around on the floor of his Humvee "as an additional plate" providing one more layer of protection from potential IEDs. Adams, who left the Army last year, still has the book, "beaten to hell, with bootprints all over it."

Writer Elizabeth Samet would be pleased to hear that Adams found both philosophical and practical use for the text, which she assigned him for a literature class at West Point. "Books are weapons," she writes in her new memoir, "Soldier's Heart," an account of her 10 years of teaching the sole required literature course, English 102, to first-year "plebes" at the military academy known as Sparta. West Point was founded on the model of the "citizen soldier," which Samet traces back to the Iliad's portrayal of Hector: "his martial ambitions always seem to me bound up with the survival of the city and the culture he defends," she writes. Integral to this notion is an understanding of the culture the soldier is defending. Although Samet contends the citizen-soldier model may be giving way to that of the "military professional," who sees service as a career, not a civic duty, she believes it's more important today than ever for soldiers to have a grounding in literature.

"When we talk about the values and principles we are defending, so many of them are literary or cultural products," she says. "Writers like Emerson and Thoreau give us our ideas of liberty, democracy and independence. So much of our national identity is part of our literary inheritance." (Samet, who still teaches at West Point, spoke to NEWSWEEK as a civilian, and her views do not represent those of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.)

When Samet joined the faculty of West Point, fresh from her Ph.D. in English literature at Yale, the country was at peace. Over the years, though, readings like Tim O'Brien's Vietnam story "They Things They Carried" or Randall Jarrell's World War II poem "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" took on new meaning as students saw former classmates deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. "At first I didn't know what to do after September 11," she says. "But I realized what we did in that classroom was just as valuable as before. My responsibility was to make sure we could still do it." She says that while she doesn't use the war as a "test case" for her teaching in the way her colleagues do, the war often comes up in class discussions, though she adds, "I can't let what might happen take over what's happening in the classroom."

The image of a soldier with the Army Officer's Guide under one arm and Milton under the other may seem incongruous, even for those within the military. Samet says she often encounters initial resistance among students to her curriculum. "What we do in the classroom may be frustrating to people who expect 'deliverables'—you hear that word a lot here," she says. "In the world of West Point, where facts and solutions are valued, it requires a lot more patience to figure out what one got out of a poem." But former students say the lessons they learned in her class prove invaluable beyond the classroom.

"Engineering, science, math and political science are extremely important," says Adams. "But it's been my experience that they are not nearly as important in a combat zone as a passage from a play." Another former student, Andy Scott, now a captain, says simply, "Literature is good for the soul when you're deployed." (Like Samet, his comments do not reflect the views of the Army.) Samet, who regularly gets e-mails and letters from former students in Iraq and often sends care packages of books (Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," J. M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians") when they run out of reading material, says she thinks about "the ultimate fate" of her students every day. In their e-mails they tell her what they're reading, eager to continue the literary discussion. One former student writes that Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" should be required reading for all cadets.

For Samet, teaching her students to recite a particular passage of text is not as important as teaching them critical thinking skills so they can make sound ethical decisions in pressure situations. She writes that she is opposed to our ongoing presence in Iraq and deeply troubled by the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. She hopes her curriculum, which changes from year to year but may include Plutarch, Horace, Shakespeare and Freud, will help prevent future atrocities.

"My students are not going to be policy makers, except when they are on the ground, where they inevitably end up making decisions," she says. "I think if they have sharpened their analytical skills, if they are 'grade one thinkers,' that is the best insurance against the horrible things that have happened happening again. That is where the most pragmatic connection is between literature and war."