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A West Point Literature Professor's Inspiring Plea for Creativity in Our Military

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Reading Elizabeth Samet’s No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America, reminded me of a conversation I had nearly a decade ago, about whether to stay in the Marines. It was 2005, the Iraq war was raging, and I’d just returned from my first tour there, a bloody one where my infantry battalion sustained heavy casualties in the Battle of Fallujah. My company commander, a well-respected captain, asked whether I planned to make the Marines a career. He’d committed to such a career long ago, and when I asked him why, he didn’t discuss his belief in the U.S. military’s mission, his desire for action, or service to his country. What he said was: “I love Marines, the 19-year old lance corporals, those guys are why I stay.”

If there’s a protagonist in No Man’s Land, it’s a similar group of 19-year-olds—the thousand plebes for whom Samet directs West Point’s freshman literature course each spring. “A plebe ranks in the hierarchy just above the superintendent’s dog and the commandant’s cat,” she writes of their standing at the Military Academy. “But to my mind there’s no one loftier.” No Man’s Land is an expertly rendered meditation on a decade of war through the lens of the literature she teaches. When Samet’s old students appear in its pages, as weary veterans, disillusioned commanders on far-flung battlefields, or the returning war-dead, we are always reminded of their 19-year-old selves.

Samet’s charge is to equip America’s future military leaders with a reservoir of literary knowledge that they might draw upon to navigate the vagaries of their chosen profession. Samet’s prologue is titled, “Earth’s Melancholy Map,” and her book seems to mirror the same literary map she provides her students. Unlike her earlier book, Soldier’s Heart, which also discussed the role literature played in the moral education of cadets at West Point, Samet’s students in No Man’s Land are not challenged by the imminent combat they will face upon graduation, but by a middling sort of peace, serving a nation at war but not at war.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that America’s post-war military usually enters a quiet crisis of peace. After World War II, during a period of low morale and un-readiness, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to a near disastrous encirclement of U.S. troops at the Pusan Perimeter. After Vietnam, it took more than a decade and the creation of the all-volunteer force to pull the military out of its destructive spiral of racial violence, drug abuse, and ineffectiveness. Writing from the Mexican American War, Samet quotes Ulysses S. Grant: “it is not so easy to get out of the wars as to get into them.”

What makes this latest crisis of peace different from others is that it isn’t really peace. Samet details with an insider’s eye many soldiers’ desire to see combat, which is “regarded as the ne plus ultra of military experience.” Despite recent air strikes in Iraq and Syria, the chance of another major deployment of U.S. ground troops seems remote. In a military culture focused on combat, how do its institutions divine meaning out of a mission that is between peace and war? Or, as Samet puts it: “The romance of muddy boots does little to defend us against, for example, a cyber attack on the power grid or banking industry.”

In the next decade, the U.S. military’s greatest challenge won’t likely be the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the draw down in Afghanistan, but how it navigates the no man’s land Samet references. When reflecting on the plebes Samet has taught and seen off to war she writes: “I know from their e-mails and letters that some of my former students cling to the memory of their classroom experience as to a kind of life raft when they find themselves confused or numbed in places of true peril.” Clearly the study of literature, if not directly transferable to a hard military skill, has armed Samet’s students against the vagaries of war. But she also notes that in the coming no man’s land, such pursuits might prove essential in cultivating the type of intellectual flexibility required to meet our muddled peace, and the uncertain challenges of the next war. “It takes patience and courage to carve out space for self-examination. … If you’ve waited until you are a general to develop it, it will be too late.”

Samet offers a litany of military leaders from David Petraeus to Moltke the Elder who, against professional norms, developed that type of flexibility through intellectual pursuits independent of the military arts. Moltke the Elder, who in the nineteenth century birthed many of the concepts that led to Germany’s twentieth century blitzkrieg, wrote novels in his spare time. Shakespeare’s paragon of a warrior-king, Henry V, spent his youth gallivanting with Falstaff, Bardolph, and Nim, the same commoners he’d one day lead in battle. Of this approach, King Henry says, in Shakespeare’s words: “I’ll so offend to make offence a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

Despite encouragement from senior leaders such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, non-standard intellectual pursuits and career paths—advanced degrees, intensive language training, fellowships in the private sector—are still viewed as an offence to an Army which remains stilted in its own conventions. Although some junior officers follow such interests, they often do so to the detriment of their careers, becoming less competitive for promotion against peers who take more traditional postings—staff assignments, training commands, overseas deployments.

In the wake of the Iraq and Afghan War, the military’s leadership has had difficulty retaining junior officers, especially in a system incentivizing highly regimented career tracks. Speaking of senior officers’ regard for junior officers, Samet notes: “They praise their ‘sacrifices’ yet simultaneously think of them as cowboys who have had too much autonomy in Iraq and Afghanistan. … Used to operating beyond the reach of routine, these [junior] officers return to find their lives scripted down to the last detail, mired in layers of bureaucracy.”

So much as No Man’s Land expertly filters our last decade of war through the prism of literature, it is also does something more—it sounds a clarion call for institutional change in a period of great uncertainty. Samet doesn’t lay out any formulaic solutions in her book, merely a plea for creativity and intellectual flexibility in an organization known for neither. That such a message comes from a professor of literature at West Point seems reason enough for optimism, the Army has been smart enough to retain Elizabeth Samet.

As for retaining it’s most talented junior officers, the military has proved less successful. Many of the finest captains and majors I served alongside left the Marines to pursue more entrepreneurial careers—business, politics, the arts—embracing these endeavors with the ingenuity they once drew upon to fight complex insurgencies from isolated firebases. In the last five years, this hemorrhaging of talent prompted the military to offer financial incentives for junior officers to stay, often with mixed results. A greater incentive might have been to nurture in peacetime the same creativity these officers exhibited when searching out solutions to the intractable problems of the September 11 Wars.

It remains unclear where the next decade’s solutions will come from, but Samet offers a suggestion: “I think we need to make time to hear what a plebe has to tell us. In doing that, and responding thoughtfully, we initiate the kinds of conversations about ambition, imagination, conformity, and dissent that might enable them to carry on in the no man’s land that awaits.” I imagine there are many, more conventional institutions than West Point, which would welcome a professor of literature with Samet’s gifts as a writer and as a teacher. But, like the well-respected captain I worked for those many years ago, I think I know why she stays.