Elizabeth D. Samet: A Lonely Kind of Courage, The view from within Eisenhower Hall at West Point





[Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.]

When, at 6:15 pm--known in local parlance as 1815--coveted ticket in hand, I boarded a bus with various members of the West Point community for the short ride to Eisenhower Hall to listen to President Obama, I thought about how very early we would be. But “Ike,” the second largest U.S. theater east of the Mississippi (only Radio City is bigger), was already full: cadets, over four thousand strong, had been there for hours. Body heat and a distinctive hum rose from the undulating dress-gray sea. (I confess that my immediate thought was to calculate whether my flu shot had had sufficient time to kick in.)...

... Cadets are gathered together not infrequently in one of various auditoriums to listen to statesmen, generals, pundits, or performers. But presidents are a special case. “Two presidents in two years!” I overheard one cadet say to another with a kind of wonder as he recollected that then-President Bush had visited only last December.Over the years, the rhetoric directed at the Corps of Cadets has ranged from the lofty to the earthy. At the 1962 commencement, President Kennedy addressed Cold War anxieties: “I know that many of you may feel ... that in ... the nuclear age, when war may last in its final form a day or two or three days before much of the world is burned up, that your service to your country will be only standing and waiting. … Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Would the cadets in my poetry class have recognized the allusion to Milton?

President Truman’s remarks at a Mess Hall luncheon ten years earlier had a decidedly different tone: “I try my level best to make people feel that they do not have to be afraid of the President, because he is only interested in the welfare of the whole country. He has nothing else to do but to see that the country runs as it should, and to see that we keep our friends in the world, so we won’t have a third world war, and so you won’t have to go and be cannon fodder. I hope you will remember that.” How could they forget?...

... The seniors I teach have just chosen the branches of the Army in which they will serve—aviation, infantry, military police, etc. All semester I have watched them devote to this choice, as well as to a consideration of the profession of arms and to the ambiguous situations into which it might deliver them, a substantial amount of thought. How could a Commander-in-Chief’s emphasis on deliberation and restraint, on the “nimble and precise ... use of military power,” and on a set of national values encompassing the value of disagreement, not strike a chord with an audience so circumstanced?

When my classes next meet, the cadets will no doubt share their thoughts on the speech, and I will share with them another speech, written, like last night’s, after a decade of national crisis and transformation, a speech that, like President Obama’s, linked domestic prosperity and foreign engagement, civilian and military enterprises. In his 1939 West Point commencement address, FDR refrained from excessive congratulation and challenged his audience to regard their commissioning as a beginning rather than a culmination: “You will find, as I have, that ... service never ends—in the sense that it engages the best of your ability and the best of your imagination in the endless adventure of keeping the United States safe, strong and at peace.” The demand for such imagination on the part of military leaders has only increased since 1939.

Roosevelt regarded another attribute as essential to an officer’s successful negotiation of complex responsibilities, namely a “sympathetic knowledge of how other men’s minds work and of the processes by which non-military life operates. There is no greater quality of discipline than the ability to recognize different techniques and different processes, and by persuasion and reason to bring these divergent forces into fruitful cooperation.”...

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