West Point Professor Elizabeth Samet had a formidable task on Veterans’ Day in putting a question mark to the outpouring of “Thank Yous” to the troops.
On the Mall in Washington, D.C., Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna and Metallica led a “Concert for Valor” and singalong from an estimated half million fans to the so-called “One Percent” – the 2.5 million who volunteered for the military after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011.
Newspapers were peppered with full-page ads from groups and corporations vying with each other to show their appreciation.
Up the road from the concert, at the “Politics and Prose” bookstore, Samet read from her book “No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to a small audience that included parents of her students and faculty members from the U.S. Military Academy.
The book posits that “No Man’s Land” for the troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else the war on terror may take them is now the homefront. They are “war commuters.”
“No Man’s Land” was the name given to the forbidding, barren and cratered stretch between the trenches of World War I, the “war that was supposed to end them all,” Samet writes.
Samet quotes Maj. C.E.I Lyne of the British Royal Field Artillery who declared in 1917 of No Man’s Land: “Dante would never have condemned lost souls to wander in so terrible a purgatory.”
Humanity in such a lifeless place was an impostor. Soldiers and other living things, even the birds and the vermin, didn’t belong there.
Samet draws the parallel to troops who now feel that they are impostors with their own families, unrecognizable even as Odysseus was unrecognizable at first to his wife Penelope as he returned from Troy.
The bonds that defined and gave the most meaning to their lives were left behind, again and again, and remained within the ranks of the units in which they served.
The nation is “characterized by a state of knowing and not knowing we are at war,” Samet writes. As a result, “we seem largely unable to respond to returning soldiers with anything more substantive than histrionic gestures typified by the now obligatory phrase: ‘Thank you for your service.’”
In response to questions at her reading, Samet said that the greeting can draw puzzled looks. She conceded that the phrase in almost all cases was “motivated by a generosity of spirit,” but “even when it’s well-meaning, it forecloses conversation rather than opening it.”
“My concern with that phrase is when it ends there” and does not inspire even so much as a vague interest to learn more about those being thanked, Samet said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had similar Veterans’ Day thoughts on thanking the troops.
“Make no mistake, today’s veterans and members of the military deeply appreciate these gestures but it is time for something more,” Dempsey said in a column for the Defense One website.
“When the applause in stadiums and ballparks stops, it should be followed by a handshake, and then a conversation about how we can serve our nation together,” Dempsey said.
“Veterans do not seek to be defined as either heroes or victims, but rather as members of the American community, committed to working with their fellow citizens to serve the common good,” Dempsey said.
Samet’s views on war, the annals of war, and thank yous expressed in her book are, of course, open to question. In singling out the indifferent civilian, Samet could be said to have gone after a stereotype as shopworn as the “ticking time bomb” caricature of the veteran.
What is not open to question is her scholarship, her devotion to teaching literature, her respect for the “plebes” of West Point and her eloquence in describing their motivations.
“According to institutional lore, a plebe ranks in the hierarchy just above the superintendent’s dog and the commandant’s cat,” Samet wrote, “but to my mind there’s no one loftier.” The book is dedicated to Capt. Daniel P. Whitten and First Lt. Christopher S. Goeke, two of her students who were killed in Afghanistan while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division.
In her students, Samet said she saw “a vitality that battles against the destruction and death that have marked the century’s beginning – an energy that helps me to navigate the perilous no man’s land for whatever future awaits.”
Samet’s navigation aid is an eclectic roundup of literature, movies and one-liners on war and its aftermath, from Homer, Ovid, and Virgil through Shakespeare to the “lost generation” of World War I poets, and to Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Stanley Kubrick and Jean Renoir.
The whole point, she said, was to come up with a literary grabbag “that will help today’s lieutenant, a wanderer in a new no man’s land, to find the way when cast into the unknown and to find a way home again.”
Then there are the letters she receives from her former students who have gone to war. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said that war “is all hell.” One of her students, now a captain, wrote that he agreed: “War is hell. It’s just not the same hell I thought it would be. The suffering and death I expected – the hell is how stupid it all is.”
Another wrote that “This war has become more ‘normal’ to me that life at home.” Even after arriving home, he said, “I still don’t feel as though I’ve arrived, if that makes any sense.”
Samet’s course would try to prepare her students, and herself, for that arrival. Othello would become the ultimate “war commuter” who was loved by Desdemona “ for the dangers I had passed.” Achilles was lost to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) when he challenged and killed Hector.
Her students were on a journey form West Point to “deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, and lead a platoon in an army in which small-unit combat leadership remains the prevailing romance to which new lieutenants aspire and old generals cling.”
There would be ubiquitous purpose, so often lacking in civilian life, even if that purpose were reduced by circumstance to conspiring in the extension of each other’s survival.
All of which makes coming home all that more difficult, as would happen with T.E. Lawrence, forever adrift without his war and hounded by what Otis Redding would later sing was that “loneliness that won’t leave me alone.”
Sebastian Junger has described that drift in his book “War” with this astounding sentence that can make sense only to those who have been in combat: “Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.”
For Samet, the nation, not just the warrior, is adrift. “Adrift between war and peace, we have been living in an era for which we still have no satisfactory name.”
“And in an archaic term inherited from the war that was supposed to end them all, I have found what seems to me the most appropriate description for the space we have entered.” The space is “No Man’s Land.”