What if all of Carlisle read and discussed one book? The Carlisle Reads title for 2016 will be No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America. An exciting program of events is in the works for this winter, including a visit by the author, Elizabeth Samet, a professor of literature at West Point.
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2016 PICK: NO MAN'S LAND
This year's choice for the Carlisle "town read", No Man's Land, is a meditation on how best to educate future military officers. This brief characterization, however, does not do justice to the author's engaging writing style, her wide-ranging literary interests, the understanding she clearly displays of students and their thinking, and the anecdotes she supplies to elucidate her points. The book is short (~200 pages), profoundly thoughtful, and, despite its subject, basically apolitical. It offers questions, not answers, concerning its basic theme: that today's military is in unexplored territory and needs to be prepared to invent new solutions to the problems it will inevitably encounter.
The author, Elizabeth Samet, is a Professor of English at the United States Military Academy. She has taught at West Point for nearly twenty years, during some of which she directed the English literature class taken by all plebes (first-year students). For someone like me who has little familiarity with West Point and its academic offerings, it was fascinating to realize the breadth and depth of the literary curriculum that military cadets study. They read Plutarch, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Walt Whitman, T. E. Lawrence, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georges Simenon, to name only a few of the authors whose work Samet discusses. Left to their own devices, they read even more widely: J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even Tolstoy's War and Peace. Like other college students, cadets choose a major, take part in seminars, and write undergraduate senior theses. They are educated, not simply trained.
Cadets, however, are not ordinary collegians. They are constantly mindful of what lies ahead – or what they believe lies ahead for each of them: combat, and more than that, combat command with its accompanying responsibilities for the lives of others. Samet examines the profound changes that occur in those graduates who do go into battle as well as the unease they encounter, in themselves and in others, when they return home. The disconnect between America's civilians and its military is a major source of concern for Samet, as it must be for thoughtful Americans everywhere.
The experience that Samet anticipates for cadets matriculating now and in the near future is quite different from what they themselves expect. Most cadets, she writes, envision themselves as leading troops in battle soon after they are commissioned as second lieutenants. Samet, on the other hand, believes that today's wars will dwindle, and that a majority of young officers will find themselves assuming administrative jobs upon graduation. She wonders how "the U.S. military, but perhaps especially . . . the army–the service most strained over the last decade¬–[will tell] a story sufficiently convincing that the nation will understand the force's role and that the most promising soldiers and officers will decide to stay in. How, in other words, amid the vertigo of a postwar no man's land, will the army write its next chapter?"
Samet's book, like her earlier, prize-winning, Soldier's Heart, is peppered with literary, historical, and cinematic references. A brief list of the works from which she quotes at the start of each chapter gives a sense of the scope of her citations: "Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928)", "Till the End of Time (RKO, 1946), directed by Edward Dmytryk", "E.M. Forster, Howard's End", "T.H. White, The Once and Future King", and "Thomas Hardy to John Addington Symonds, April 12, 1889". She finds relevance in classic films (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Blue Dahlia and Saving Private Ryan), in famous military campaigns (Hannibal's crossing of the Alps and Grant's ultimate defeat of Robert E. Lee), in plays (Henry V and Othello), in memoirs (Edith Wharton's Fighting France) and in novels (Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall). The eclectic nature of her literary allusions, and, in some cases, in-depth discussions, underlines her belief that the usefulness of an education cannot be assessed in advance. Because the future is unpredictable, preparation for it needs to be as broad and as all encompassing as possible.
Samet concludes her book with poignant reflections on two young officers who died in combat, both of whom she had known as students and had continued to correspond with after their graduations. She remembers them vividly, fondly, with tears but with open eyes. Her book is one that for me stands out as unique among the many I have read. I hope that you, as fellow Carlisle readers, will find in it food for much future thought.
If you have suggestions for future titles or programs, or if you'd be interested in helping to plan Carlisle Reads, please email Martha at email@example.com or ask at the Library any time.