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Posted February 5, 2015

Book: No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America
Author: Elizabeth D. Samet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2014. Pp. 223

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

In her critically acclaimed, award-winning book Soldier's Heart Elizabeth D. Samet grappled with the experience of teaching literature at the United States Military Academy at West Point during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Samet, who began teaching before the September 11 terrorist attacks, followed the shift from peace to war, and asked hard questions about the role of literature in preparing young cadets for lives as officers in combat. We are now, Samet says, entering a new moment: a no man's land between war and peace. Major military deployments are winding down, but soldiers are wrestling with the aftermath of war and the trials of returning home while also facing the prospect of low-intensity conflicts for years to come. Drawing on a range of experiences -- from a visit to a ward of wounded combat veterans to correspondence with former cadets, from a conference on Edith Wharton and wartime experience to teaching literature and film to future officers --- Samet illuminates an ambiguous passage through no man's land that has left deep but difficult-to-read traces on our national psyche, our culture, our politics, and most especially, an entire generation of military professionals.

In No Man's Land, Samet offers a moving, urgent examination of what it means to negotiate the tensions between soldier and civilian, between war and peace, between "over there" and "over here" --- between life on the front and life at home. She takes the reader on a vivid tour of this new landscape, marked as much by the scars of war as by the ordinary upheavals of homecoming to capture the essence of our current historical moment.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Between Scylla and Charybdis
Coming Home

First Serviceman: What gives?

Second Serviceman: Oh, my folks had a barbeque last night. Turned out to be a homecoming.

First Serviceman: I had one of those things. It turned out to be murder.

Second Serviceman: Half of them were afraid if they said something they'd upset me, and the other half were afraid if I said something I'd upset them.

First Serviceman: Look, my friend, let's face it, nobody's going to listen to us. Why don't we take off an hour someday? You tell me about what you did. I'll tell you about what I did.

Second Serviceman: You got it.

--- Till the End of Time (RKO, 1964),
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Deep in the Canyon of Heroes

Has coming home from a war --- even a "good war" --- ever been easy? Certainly not for Homer's mistrustful Odysseus, who returns in disguise to Ithaca to slaughter the suitors who have commandeered his house and whose loyal yet equally wary wife subsequently refuses to believe he is her husband, and not some impostor, until he accurately describes the bed they long ago shared. Nor for the Chinese soldier whose lament is recorded in a Ham dynasty folk song: Having gone to war at fifteen, he comes home at eighty to find everything unrecognizable. A stranger tells him he will find his old house out by the burial mounds, overgrown with trees. Birds roost in the rafters, and forest animals scurry through what used to be the dog's door. The old soldier cooks his dinner from the grain and sunflowers growing wild in the yard, but once the meal is ready, he realizes there's no one left to serve it to him, no one with whom to share it. The soldiers' homecoming is as freighted with ambivalent myths as is war itself: two different parties, each with carefully crafted stories that depend on the other's absence, suddenly collide in a no man's land that, if partly of their own making, is primarily the inevitable residue of making war.

Table of Contents:

Prologue: Earth's Melancholy Map

1. Between Scylla and Charybdis: Coming Home

2. "The One Thing Needful" Paradoxes of Preparation

3. "On the Verge of the True Forest": Trusting the Imaginary Forces

Coda: The Accident of Elegies

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