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Soldier's Heart



Awards: L.A. Times Book Prize - Winner

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About The Author

Elizabeth D. SametElizabeth D. Samet

Elizabeth D. Samet is the author of Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776–1898. She has been an English professor at West Point for ten years.

photo: © Bachrach

Awards

L.A. Times Book Prize - Winner

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Reading Group Gold

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Soldier’s Heart are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Soldier’s Heart.



Praise for Soldier’s Heart

"Not since John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction has the intersection of literature and morality been so powerfully examined. In Soldier’s Heart the examination occurs in the conscience of a teacher whose students are en route to war. This is a thoughtful, moving, but also troubling book—exactly as it should be." —James Carroll, author of House of War and An American Requiem



Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the book’s title. What are the different meanings of "Soldier’s Heart"? In what ways does literature address the ailments of what Wilfred Owen calls, in his poem "Insensibility" (epigraph), a heart "small drawn"?

2. Although much has been written about West Point and military life in America, an English professor’s point of view on the subject is rare. What specific insights on this world does Samet offer as a civilian and a humanities professor at a military academy? How is her portrait of military life different from others you have read?

3. How does Samet’s description of her students and former students compare to your stereotypes of soldiers? What are those stereotypes? How does Soldier’s Heart confirm or challenge them?

4. Chapter 1, "Not Your Father’s Army," touches on the myths and traditions that define West Point, and military life more generally, by alluding to the literature that shaped the experiences of past cadets. Which aspects of the past remain vibrant on campus? Which aspects are radically different in the twenty-first century?

5. Samet writes that she hears the term relevance more and more in informal conversations about the education and training of cadets. How are humanities courses different from military training at West Point? What do such courses contribute to the preparation of cadets? What is the difference between education and training? How do you view the purpose of higher education in general, and the role of literature and the arts within it?

6. How has teaching at West Point changed Samet’s experience of literature? How might her relationship to literature and teaching have been different if she had taken a position at a liberal-arts college instead of at\ West Point? How does her teaching style compare to that of English teachers from your past?

7. Samet’s deployed colleagues and former students write to her with rich observations about their favorite literary works. In what ways does literature help them understand their experience of war? What do their reading choices reveal about that experience?

8. The author’s previous book explores the tension between liberty and obedience in nineteenth-century America, a dynamic she also explores in Soldier’s Heart. How do soldiers reconcile the military’s demand for conformity with the need for innovative minds—in an all-volunteer military, no less? How do literature and creative writing serve or undermine the need for obedience and innovative thinking? What role does literature play in forging what West Point alumnus Ulysses S. Grant called moral courage?

9. Why is writing about war one of the oldest forms of literature? What was the significance of epic poems such as Homer’s Iliad or Beowulf to the warriors of earlier ages? What will characterize the artistic legacy of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? What is the relationship between writing and film when it comes to describing the contemporary war experience? Is your own understanding of war shaped more by literature or by film?

10. Some of Samet’s students gravitate toward war literature, while others prefer to read about nonmilitary topics. Does their reading seem more specialized than that of their counterparts at civilian colleges? What works would you include on a syllabus of assignments for cadets? What classics would you like to see distributed today in an Armed Services Edition?

11. How is the experience of a West Point cadet different from that of a college student at a typical liberalarts college?

12. What surprised you most about the culture of West Point? How does military hierarchy influence educational practice? Do other American college campuses have comparable hierarchies? Should civilian colleges do more to emphasize the self-discipline of students?

13. Chapter 3, "Becoming Penelope, the Only Woman in the Room," describes the ways in which gender is sometimes a factor in Samet’s teaching experience. What advantages and disadvantages come with being a woman at a male-dominated institution? What specific challenges do women at West Point face? To what degree does West Point’s recent history as a coed institution reflect the changing nature of the American military and American society? What are the effects of the stereotype associated with Penelope, a woman waiting for the warrior’s return? What role does literature play in helping the cadets think about these issues?

14. How was the author’s worldview shaped by her upbringing—by a father who enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, as well as by her years at the Winsor School? How did these experiences influence her teaching?

15. Chapter 5, "Bibles, Lots of Bibles," explores the blend of religion and politics that permeates some segments of military life. How would you describe religion’s role in the personal experiences of soldiers—at West Point and elsewhere—and its influence on national politics decisions about war and peace?

16. How did 9/11 change the role of Samet and other professors at West Point? What were your reactions to the scenes in the closing pages, which captures the difficult debates about the United States’ current and future military responsibilities?

17. How would you describe the impact of the Iraq war on life at West Point and on the ways in which the cadets and faculty understand their missions? Has the impact of war evolved over time?

18. How would you define heroism? How does the Army define heroism? What is the role of literature in the process of turning soldiers into heroes? In your view, does the national emphasis on heroism honor or diminish the humanity of soldiers?

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