In No Man’s Land, Elizabeth Samet attempts to construct, or re-construct, a personal narrative that makes sense of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, particularly as they have colored her relationship with the cadets she teaches at the United States Military Academy. Samet, a full professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, is the author of an earlier work titled Soldiers’ Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. Published in 2007, Soldier’s Heart was well-received by both critics and popular reading audiences and in my mind deservedly so. Samet’s meditation about her own relation to, not to say complicity with, the post-9/11 wars represented an early, important statement about how the wars were going to be processed by the nation’s intelligentsia. Along with Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Colby Buzzell’s My War, Soldier’s Heart staked out forms and manners that were both highly literary and very responsive to new imperatives—two strains that still characterize fiction, poetry, and memoir written by vets and non-vets alike. Though not above criticism, Soldier’s Heart possessed the extreme virtue of being first–pioneering in terms of asking questions and proposing answers that others have since built on.
In No Man’s Land, Samet argues that combatants and the civilian populace alike contemplate the Iraq and Afghanistan wars using modes of thought and frames of reference inadequate to the realities and complexities of contemporary conflict, a charge she doesn’t withhold from herself as the book opens. She claims that much of the problem has been an inability to think imaginatively enough about what modern war entails—a problem for political and military planners charged with successfully conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for her and an even bigger one for soldiers—particularly cadets and young officers—who must live through war and after. Befitting an English professor, Samet draws on a vast array of memoirs, classical texts, film, and fiction and poetry to find similar points of dislocation in canonical and popular imaginative works. For Samet, literary touchstones help explain contemporary anxiety and their close study is one means by which confused young soldiers, a hidebound institutional military, and an oblivious, naïve citizenry might resolve seemingly intractable paradoxes and contradictions that have thwarted successful execution of the war and thinking well about it.
Samet’s title refers obviously to the ravaged battlefields of World War I, but Samet uses the phrase to describe a more pervasive, almost metaphysical sense of “war vertigo” experienced nationally today by a country befuddled and ultimately let down by simplistic narrative understandings. The solution for Samet is rejecting easy answers, dwelling within ambiguity, and cultivating an opportunistic, imaginative flexibility that recognizes unfruitful paradigms and moves beyond them. Chapter by chapter in No Man’s Land, Samet leads by example, exposing shibboleths of thought and expression (which might include the phrase “lead by example,” though Samet doesn’t take that particular one to task) dear to cadets, her military colleagues, the nation at large, and the nation’s political overseers. It is the first two entities that Samet knows best and cares about most. More than sociological survey, more than literary analysis, No Man’s Land is a work of cultural critique, with the culture subjected to the most scrutiny a military that doesn’t understand how badly it is underserving its members or its nation.
Infusing No Man’s Land’s sense of urgency is Samet’s apprehension that she herself might be instantiated within a military apparatus she suspects might be structured on outworn underpinnings. As a full professor at West Point, with enough stature to be asked to speak to the Ranger Regiment, Training and Doctrine Command general officers, and Pentagon senior staff, Samet mounts her critique-from-within subtly. Aware that the military possesses a sublime ability to ignore provocateurs, especially those who never served in uniform, Samet holds up her EN102 Literature course, a mandatory class taken by all freshman, or “plebes” at West Point, as an effort to cultivate the highly individualistic perceptiveness and creativity she feels the Army needs to break the binds of group thought and outmoded traditions. Samet may be a confidant of upper-echelon military maestros, but her heart is with the still malleable and enthusiastic 18-year-old plebes possessed by inchoate desire to be part of a military that is commensurate with their own intelligence and capacity to dream (to borrow from Fitzgerald).
As a recently retired faculty member at West Point who taught EN102 under Samet’s direction several times, I can attest to her commitment to using the course as a laboratory for change on behalf of an Army otherwise capable of only clunky efforts at self-critique and transformation. I can also testify to the reciprocal affection held by many of Samet’s students in her EN102 and English major classes, an affection shown by their desire to stay in touch with Samet after graduation and commissioning. Much of No Man’s Land recounts email conversations with former students serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, or meet-ups with them in New York City, Alaska, or back at West Point upon their return from war. Samet’s intimacy with her former students clearly inflects her point of view; much of her diagnosis of what ails the Army is generational. Never trust an officer over the age of 30 could be the abiding mantra of passages such as the following:
In today’s army there seems to be a substantial divide between senior and junior officers. As a result of the last decade’s wars, young officers have been promoted more quickly than their predecessors at the end of the last century and have had less time to learn and practice some of the administrative procedures that dominate life in garrison. In the fact of this, some senior officers—the same ones who wax lyrical about the hardships that lieutenants and captains have endured in combat—display considerable impatience with them….
Junior officers, for their part, entrusted with significant responsibility in combat, often in remote locations where decisions must be made quickly and independently, return frustrated and impatient to garrison life’s cult of preparation, attendant inflexibility, and atmosphere of fear that innovation might open the door to disaster. Used to operating beyond the reach of routine, these officers return to find their lives scripted down to the last detail, mired in layers of bureaucracy.
But No Man’s Land is rarely so vituperative, most of it is delightful and fresh. Samet ranges far-and-wide to excavate heretofore unacknowledged literary antecedents—Edith Wharton and French detective novelist Georges Simenon, for examples—who offer new perspectives on war. Samet is the first critic I know of to examine the impact of Harry Potter on a generation of erstwhile warriors (though I’ll claim credit as the first to consider J.K. Rowling as a war author here). Passages describing veterans’ fascination with motorcycles and the open road, an analysis grounded in Hunter Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing with the Hell’s Angels no less, describing her stint as an officer representative to West Point’s baseball team, and a surveying the military’s World War II theatrical entertainment unit dazzle with unexpected insights and connections.
No Man’s Land best passages dig into the belief and value systems the Army lives by and attempts to inculcate in its newest members. Samet’s English professor roots show once more as she exposes the rhetorical limitations of Army discourse as they underwrite practice. “Preparation” “service,” “ambition” “boots on the ground,” “professionalism,” the Army’s preoccupation with small-unit leadership and its cult of command, and civilian rituals of thanking soldiers for their service are a few of the concepts and practices Samet targets for takedown. Discussing the stated Army value of “selfless service,” for example, she compares it to “ambition,” a word upon which the military frowns so severely that it rarely permits its mention in doctrinal literature. Samet, invoking English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon, writes: “Yet given sufficient (and sufficiently capacious) avenues for exercise, personal ambition might still be harnessed for good. A commander without ambition, Bacon reminds us, is about as useful as a cavalryman stripped of his spurs. Don’t expect to win a war, he admonishes, with a general like that.” To see elitism in such a statement is possible, but a squarer way of addressing the issue would be to admit that any soldier—from private to general–’s desire to do well and dream boldly might be categorized usefully as “ambition.” What are your big ideas? What do you want to accomplish? A tragedy for Samet, more implied in No Man’s Land than stated, is that her beloved students by training or choice eventually embrace military platitudes and conventions either at the level of ideology or as practical career success strategies. But Samet suggests that it is also a nagging, ill-defined understanding of their inadequacy that drives talented young officers not into conformity, but right out of the military.
Wrangles with No Man’s Land exist at the level of neglected subjects that I wish Samet had discussed more thoroughly, such as reflection on the actual act of killing and being responsible for lives and lives lost in combat. It would take another book to tie Samet’s charges to actual operational failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and policy decisions in Washington, and even on Samet’s own grounds—that the military is inhospitable to talented young people—she might have given voice to military leadership who have also perceived and tried to address the issues. Somewhat surprisingly, Samet seems not too interested in the experience of women in the military or the broader subject of a military coming to terms with changing gender norms. Early passages in the book that make connections between The Odyssey and our modern interest in post-war experience have, frankly, been done already and thankfully Samet quickly moves on to other, more interesting things.
My final criticism is also my biggest fear. Samet’s sympathy for the views of what might be said to be a pretty select group of highly literate young officers suggests that the Army needs to be especially good for officers who, say, love Edith Wharton as much as she does. I don’t think that way, let me be clear, but a counterargument might be that sensitive interpreters of literature are exactly what the Army doesn’t need at this point in time—it needs hard, fast, decisive thinkers who don’t get lost in thought.* Further, Samet’s sentiment belies the fact that young officers in every generation, to include a huge proportion of the best, have always exited the military in droves once their initial term of service is up. That’s not an apology for the way things are, but to suggest that military service never was and will probably never be as good as Samet—and I—want it to be. The Army cake has been baked for a long time now, by which I mean its structure, its relationship with the nation it serves, and its capacity for growth are deeply rooted in 200 years of practice, and plenty of people think it is doing pretty darn well, or at least reasonably OK, all things considered, and don’t see much need for improvement, whatever happened in Iraq and Afghanistan aside.
*Now, if Samet had referenced Willa Cather, another early 20th-century American author, I wouldn’t carp like this. I’ve taught Cather’s O Pioneers many times to cadets and was gladdened the other day to read that Colin Powell’s favorite book in high school had been Cather’s My Antonia. Growing up in the Bronx, Powell reports, Cather’s story of young people transitioning from youth into adulthood in Nebraska had done exactly what we think literature should do: It filled him with wonder at both the similarity and difference of people whose circumstances were far different than his own.
Elizabeth Samet, No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.