Elizabeth D. Samet,
Soldier's Heart
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007)

Soldier's Heart recounts Elizabeth Samet's adventures teaching literature at West Point. Her students were destined to be army officers and many would serve in Iraq; indeed, many wanted to. The tendency is to think of these young men and women as people trained to kill, to unquestioningly carry out the orders given them, regardless of the morality or immorality of those orders.

Samet's job, though, was to teach them to think and feel, to recognize and respect their common humanity and to see that they share it with everyone on this Earth. She mentions Adam, who upon graduation will become a helicopter pilot. He has read William Golding's essay "Thinking as a Hobby" and has found his own thinking altered as a result. Officers such as Adam, the author says, "Find themselves living in two very different worlds, the private life of the mind and the public life of action -- of rallying cries and derring-do. Adam wants them both." But he also wants to find the time to read Dickens' Bleak House.

Adam is fairly typical of the officers to be that Samet met, taught and came to love -- a warrior and a poet inside the same skin. In these pages, she tells their story. The result is a more rounded picture of the military academy and the young men and women who attend it. We learn from Samet's book that our picture of career army officers, mainly gleaned from Hollywood movies, is oversimplified and stereotyped. The ones Samet taught are far more rounded and complicated than you might think.

The main thing her book accomplishes is to remind us that no stereotype tells the truth, and that even though they wear identical clothing and follow identical rules, customs and folkways, no two army officers are the same.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

5 July 2008

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