Since ancient times, societies have used rousing lines of poetry to inspire soldiers to acts of heroism, courage, and sacrifice. But what about literature that expresses doubts about war? Or fear? Or that conveys its brutal nature? Should those works be a part of the curriculum as well?
And what about literature that, on its surface, has nothing to do with the battlefield? Where is the value in that for a soldier?
One thing seems clear: how a society educates its soldiers tells us something fundamental about the values of that society. And when it comes to the role of literature in a soldier’s education, we can learn two things. We see how we as a society think of the men and women fighting for us. And we see a reflection of what we think literature can and should do.
In this episode, we’re joined by author Elizabeth Samet, a professor of literature at the United States Military Academy (West Point). Professor Samet’s book, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, A USA Today Best Book, and A Christian Science Monitor Best Book.
Works and authors discussed include the Shahnameh, Elizabeth Bishop, Great Expectations, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, and others.
We took a look at Homer and his famous tale of the siege of Troy way back in Episode 3 – Homer.
For Shakespearean soldiers, try Episode 70 – Julius Caesar or Episode 80 – Power Play! Shakespeare’s Henry V.
For an episode on the dialogue between the reluctant warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who dramatically reveals himself as the incarnation of God, try Episode 33 – The Bhagavad Gita.
For more about poetry in the context of war, try a pair of episodes with Professor Bill Hogan: Episode 56 – The Poetry of Ruins and Episode 93 – Robert Frost Finds a Friend
For the story of an American writer who went off to World War II and came back a changed man, try Episode 141 – Kurt Vonnegut (with Mike Palindrome).
For a look at the politics of war and peace, try Episode 117 – Machiavelli and The Prince.
Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thejackewilson.