Killing time. 

Literature and Death at West Point

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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On Nov. 4, West Point literature professor Elizabeth Samet's new book will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America" grapples with the ambiguous era between Sept. 11 and the present, in which war has been pervasive for Americans in the military and sometimes forgotten by civilians. Samet and I corresponded by e-mail, and then lightly edited the results.

Question: The "No Man's Land" of your title has multiple planes: isolated space on a forward operating base in Afghanistan; ambiguity between war and peace in American foreign policy; and the space between civilian and military, which you addressed in your 2011 Bloomberg View essay about the phrase "thank you for your service."

Being an English professor at West Point is a vague land of its own -- you're not of the military, but you're immersed in it, and in the lives of your students. How do you experience that particular space?

Answer: One of the most powerful things about a healthy military culture is the way in which it tends to erase unproductive differences. I don't regard my status as a civilian to be an obstacle to meaningful contribution, yet I do think it helps me to retain a different perspective.

That doesn't mean that I haven't had the feelings of dislocation my book's title is meant to evoke. No matter how long I work within military culture, I remain outside it; I have not and will never undergo the experiences that remain the core of military life. Nevertheless, invested as I am in the power of literature to bring us closer to what we cannot know, I can envision the life my students may lead and can follow them in this way through their deployments. The force of that life has been brought home to me through my own imagination but also through the words of the military officers I know. It's no longer, I fear, felt with an equal intensity by a majority of Americans. The tendency toward defensive insularity on the part of soldiers and imaginative disengagement on that of civilians has been, for me, one of the most disturbing features of 13 years of war.

Q: You recount how former students, now officers, have used literature to help them understand their extraordinary circumstances in violent locales in Afghanistan. That requires a kind of philosophical toolkit, and a willingness to use art in daily life, that most of us either don't possess or don't make use of. Is it extreme circumstances that make that possible for them -- or something else?

A: The exigent circumstances of war somehow stimulate a hunger for imaginative literature and sharpen the ability to recognize correspondences between art and life. Those are meaningful correspondences, and often contradictions or collisions, rather than the sometimes facile analogies and identifications readers tend to make in the less generous and curious moods that come upon us when living life at a more normal pace.

Perhaps we can experience, in attenuated fashion, something of what it means to be a reader in war when we travel to new places or find ourselves in uncomfortable circumstances. That's why I can remember where and when I have read certain books: all of the novels of Evelyn Waugh while living on my own in Scotland for a year; or "Madame Bovary," on tape during a surreal car ride with a 103-degree fever, in a kind of delirium, begging Emma, "Please, take the arsenic." The swirling dynamics of chance that dominate war, and the long stretches of unaccountable boredom, have turned many soldiers of my acquaintance into voracious readers.

Q: Chance is almost a character in your book; you cite Clausewitz's dictum that no other human activity is "so continuously or universally bound up with chance" as war. Your sympathy to military culture erodes a bit when you talk of young officers headed to war with "a foolproof set of instructions" instead of the kind of mental flexibility that the chaos of war actually demands. How would you prepare officers differently?

A: The spirit and energy of military culture are intoxicating and seductive. The intensity of human attachments formed within it is like nothing else in my experience. I don't mean in my discussions of military training to suggest that anyone imagines it as some sort of magic formula, but there is a comfort in training people to become expert at certain explicit tasks and processes. Education, at its best, instead creates what I call a productive discomfort in teacher and student alike: No one can be sure exactly how it will turn out in the end.

Training cultures don't easily reconcile themselves to that kind of mystery and guesswork; they crave certainty. The habits and disciplines instilled in such cultures are absolutely vital preparation for the innately confusing endeavor of war. Yet something else is essential as well: For to imagine that the best training in the world can somehow ensure an officer's safety or that of the soldiers under his or her command, is to cling to a dangerous fantasy. Learning how to assimilate the inevitability of loss, preparing to be unprepared, are things for which education is ideally suited.

Q: One of the most fascinating sections of the book is your description of the relationships some veterans have to motorcycles. Perhaps I'm stretching here, but it seems oddly similar to their uses of demanding literature. Like great books, a motorcycle is not so much an escape as a way to understand and process experience. What led you to your insights about vets and their bikes?

A: I've been aware of an especially intense connection between many soldiers and their motorcycles since my introduction to military culture. Several of my friends ride, and I've occasionally enjoyed the experience of leaning into turns on the hilly roads around West Point as a passenger on their bikes. When we talk about what riding means to them, the answers vary, but all strike similar keynotes: the sense of immediacy with the bike and the environment, the idea of being simultaneously a solitary rebel and a member of a tight subculture, the freedom and discovery that comes with a long road trip carrying only the essentials -- "nothing but a sleeping bag and a toothbrush," as one put it. The extended motorcycle trips my friends like to take after redeploying offer them an opportunity to assimilate whatever they've experienced in war and also to interpret their new relationship to the society to which they've come home.

Q: Two young officers to whom you were close, and with whom you exchanged frequent letters, never came home. Does being at West Point help you to somehow rationalize their deaths -- they are soldiers and war is hell -- in any way?

A: In fact, I think teaching at West Point militates against such rationalizing because I am in daily contact with officers and aspiring officers. Their individuality is far more alive to me than their sameness, which seems to register most emphatically on those less intimately familiar with military culture. Dan and Chris were soldiers, war may be hell, but none of that mitigates their loss.

(The opinions Samet expresses are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net