By Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 223 pp. $25
The past dozen years have been difficult and dangerous for officers of the United States military. Despite the notional end of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the years ahead are certain to provide new perils and challenges as the nation navigates a period of not-quite war, not-quite peace — an undefined era for which, according to Elizabeth Samet, “we still have no satisfactory name.” Drawing on the imagery of the First World War, “the war that was supposed to end them all,” Samet, a civilian English professor at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, has decided that “the most appropriate description” for the current era is the phrase she chose to title her latest book. During the Great War, no man’s land was the strip of war-churned earth that separated the opposing trench lines. Samet builds it into a broad metaphor. “No Man’s Land” is her exploration of what it means for the United States and its soldiery to be “adrift between war and peace.”
She does it with the aid of literature, wrapping a broad, eclectic variety of literary references into her musings. She ranges through mankind’s “commandos of the imagination” from memoirists like Edmund Blunden, Joan Didion, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Sir Wilfred Thesiger, through the writings of Shakespeare, Virgil, Ovid and Homer, to Pico Iyer, the Great War poets, Robert M. Pirsig, Lawrence of Arabia, and Hunter Thompson, unafraid to discuss alongside the officerly ramifications of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Maigret and Harry Potter. That list is in no way inclusive, and the cumulative effect of her literary “combined arms” onslaught is delightful. It is, if nothing else, a paean to the military value of a literary education.
As a civilian professor at West Point — a state of not quite military, not quite civilian — Samet is uniquely positioned to ponder and probe the intellectual and emotional challenges confronting the modern officer corps. Her smooth flowing essay delivers penetrating observations and criticisms on topics ranging from what it means to be a “war commuter” bouncing back and forth between combat deployments, how complicated it is for soldiers to truly come home, the military “paradoxes of preparation,” the difficulties the military has appreciating and cultivating intellectual courage, the importance of keeping the officers of a highly professionalized force true to American citizen-soldier traditions, and her annoyance with the ubiquitous phrase “Thank you for your service.” Samet finds the quip empty and meaningless. For most civilians, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the presence of a uniform that prevents meaningful connection. As Samet rightly observes, “Expressions of thanks constitute the beginning, not the end, of obligation.”
In her West Point courses, Samet strives to provide literary tools “that will help today’s lieutenant, a wanderer in a new no man’s land, to find the way when cast into the unknown and to find a way home again.” Wisely, the institution charged her with directing the core English course taken by every plebe (freshman). She considers it “the most important trust I have been given in my professional life.” Fortunate indeed are the cadets who find themselves in her classroom — she’s clearly an extraordinary and inspiring teacher who keeps herself intimately involved with the inner lives of her cadets both during and after their tenures at the Military Academy.
“No Man’s Land” climaxes when two of her treasured students are killed in action in Afghanistan, woes to which she struggles to reconcile herself with the aid of T.S Elliot, “The Baburnama,” “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” Virgil, Jean Renoir’s film “The Grand Illusion,” and “Catch-22.” “Snowden dies,” she writes, commenting on Joseph Heller’s tragic satire, “and there’s nothing Yossarian can do about it.”
Samet concludes most of her discourses with pithy references to no man’s land. (“A life of perpetual questing in a postwar no man’s land”; “The uncertainty of no man’s land”; “the romance of living forever in no man’s land”; “charting an endless course through no man’s land,” etc.) As her story unfolds, this repetition becomes forced, and the central metaphor of no man’s land as an unknown, shifting, confusing landscape governed by unknown and unknowable rules feels increasingly inappropriate. Perhaps unfairly literal, but to Great War soldiers, there was nothing unknown and unfamiliar about no man’s land. It was a place of lethal peril, but its rules were clear and understood. Their lives depended on knowing every curve, contour and blemish of the ravaged landscape. They studied it with lover’s devotion. At night, they patrolled it. No man’s land was a place between, without question, but as a physical and metaphoric landscape, it belonged entirely to the war.
That quibble aside, Samet’s musings are fascinating, and for serving officers, they should be required reading. As goes the famous quote widely but incorrectly attributed to Thucydides but actually drawn from the writings of 19th Century Irish Lt Gen. Sir William Francis Butler, “The Nation that [draws a broad line] between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”
Elizabeth Samet is certainly doing her bit to ensure neither calamity afflicts the United States.