Hell and BackPrint
By Phil Klay
December 10, 2014
No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America, by Elizabeth D. Samet, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 223 pp., $25
When Elizabeth D. Samet first began teaching English literature at West Point, she told herself that she was preparing her students to go to war. They were going to war, after all, and they responded enthusiastically to books that helped them imagine the trials of combat—tests of courage, integrity, and endurance. But as she recounts in her latest book, No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America, as time went on Samet began to think that even more important than preparing her cadets for war was preparing them to come home. “Others could go on imagining an Iliad if they liked: imagining that the end of the war—that victory—was the end of the story. I knew better. We were all of us … inhabiting an Odyssey in which the hardest struggle comes after the battle has been won.”
Except victory proved elusive, and none of her former students seemed to be staying home for very long. Instead of Odysseuses returning victorious to a fraught Ithaca, they were “war commuters,” Samet realized, officers on their third or fourth deployment, or at home in their “dwell time” before readying to head out again. “The story of today’s war commuter, if it doesn’t end abruptly and violently, refuses to end at all,” she writes, and their struggle is neither war nor homecoming, but the strange psychological “no man’s land” of her book’s title, an in-between place as both a citizen and a professional warrior in complex, ill-defined conflicts.
What stories, then, might serve the current generation of American soldiers and citizens? From the Iliad to Generation Kill, from the satire of Catch-22 to the hagiography of The Greatest Generation, we have an abundance of war stories throughout literature to help us make sense of the past decade, and Samet proves herself adept at navigating between the truths and falsehoods of the narratives we choose to tell ourselves about war. Part literary criticism, part intellectual memoir, and part reportage of the struggles, successes, and in two cases the deaths of her former students, No Man’s Land is a moving, insightful, and refreshingly iconoclastic guide toward a more nuanced understanding of America and the military that fights for it.
Samet divides her book into three long essays that explore the challenges of homecoming, the paradoxes of preparing for war, and her ultimate vision of the virtues necessary for the modern military leader—each smoothly incorporating literature, sociology, analyses of political culture, and the reflections of her former students. Her breakdown of homecomings, for example, takes us through the appeal that motorcycles hold for veterans, T. E. Lawrence’s love-hate relationship with his own legend, Dante’s and Tennyson’s decision to send Ulysses away again from Ithaca to the thrill of the open sea, comments by political and military leaders from George Washington to Admiral Mike Mullen on the responsibilities soldiers have toward their own citizenship, and a number of other examples and texts.
Samet also takes highly accurate aim at outdated ideas entrenched within both military and civilian culture. In the section on military preparation, she considers “the romance of muddy boots,” the “mythology that there can be no experience more important than leading a battalion, especially in combat.” These notions motivate both her students’ imaginings of their battlefield potential, as well as the politically effective, if problematic, appeals made to the war experience of figures like John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John McCain. “The invocation of veteran status as shorthand for some particular quality or capacity … seems, among other things, to be a symptom of the current civilian-military gap,” Samet writes, rather than a reliable indicator of genuine wisdom with regard to the use of force. The deep appeal of the “romance of muddy boots” is its simplicity. Did the soldier in question behave courageously or not, honorably or not? Yet as was shown by the lighting-quick victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed as they were by insurgencies and escalating chaos, tactical successes and heroic efforts at the small-unit level are all too easily undermined by a lack of strategic thinking and a blindness to the cultural, political, and economic realities of foreign countries. “[My cadets] are wondering whether they have what it takes to be lieutenants,” Samet writes, “while I’m thinking about what kinds of generals they might make.”
In place of the romance of muddy boots, Samet argues for the sort of “full-spectrum thinking” that comes from, among other things, reading literature. Her curriculum at West Point eventually incorporated the stories of Sherlock Holmes, so that the students could consider the necessity of skilled interpretation in a world glutted with information, as well those of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, so that they could consider the humility and flexibility of mind necessary for dealing with the unknown. With time, she reconciled herself to “the virtual impossibility of finding coherence in the middle of no man’s land,” and though she cannot predict the unique challenges of future wars any better than her military colleagues, she makes a strong case that soldiers and civilians shaped by literature, capable of both telling stories and recognizing when those stories must be discarded, are our best hope for solving the questions brought on by the past decade.
Phil Klay is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.