3.15.2010

Man Of Letters


*Elizabeth Samet was one of my sister's professors at West Point and an incredible writer. The following is one of her writings I couldn't help but share with you all. Please be warned, you should get out your tissues now~ you will undoubtedly need them as her words will touch your heart*




Captain Whitten was my student.

By Elizabeth D. Samet

This is the way it happens.

They sit in your class poring over Dante's Inferno or grousing
good-naturedly about the silent film you've insisted they admire. They
graduate to crawling through the mud at Ranger School or learning how to
fly a Chinook in Alabama. They write to let you know about the
milestones and about the weirdness; they ask what's new on your end and
tell you not to work "too hard." They stop by the office whenever
they're back in town for a classmate's wedding or some other event. They
become, for reasons you think you understand, more active correspondents
the farther away they find themselves. Messages--sometimes old-fashioned
letters--roll in from Mosul or Herat, from places you can't even locate
on a map but the names of which give you a sense of the general
atmosphere: "COP Crazy," "FOB Warhorse."

You do your best to respond to the mood they set, and you somehow grow
closer at an impossible distance in what you imagine must be a
distinctly wartime way. It isn't the complicated intimacy of a family
member or a comrade-in-arms. Nor is it the fleeting, illusory intimacy
contrived by strangers on a plane. It survives its long silences and
permits--on both sides--frankness and a lack of self-consciousness about
exhilaration or despair. It is free of an impulse to censor or a need to
protect the recipient. It is occasionally urgent, often wry, and
(whatever the register) always authentic. Perhaps it is best described
as the intimacy of having known how another's mind works and of having
watched it grow in response to unprecedented stimuli and
responsibilities, to the confusion that attends even the most carefully
orchestrated operation, to the challenges of improvisation.

In such correspondence, one finds, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the epic
growth of the soldier's mind when it is engaged in an unusual
enterprise: teaching an Afghan unit to fire old Soviet artillery with a
manual written in Russian, serving in the military police at a detention
facility in the wake of Abu Ghraib, or leading a company of paratroopers
on missions through Zabul Province.

Then one day, maybe, even though you have known from the start that this
is one of the possible endings to the story, you find yourself unable to
compute the fact that the last message you sent will go unanswered.
Several days later you sit in a pew staring at a flag-draped coffin that
holds the remains of a man not yet 30. A coffin surrounded by a wife and
a mother and a father and a sister, who also wears the uniform, and by a
lot of other young men who aren't yet 30. Men who call him--repeatedly
and forcefully--their best friend. Men permitted to grieve unabashedly
in this place as they struggle through their eulogies but who suffer
invisibly terrible things elsewhere.

And you understand that distance is no insulation, that Zabul Province
is unendurably close. You realize that your ritual of scanning the
casualty notices on the DOD website and The Washington Post's "Faces of
the Fallen" hasn't really conditioned you at all.

Department of Defense News Release No. 093-10, posted on February 3,
2010, announced that two soldiers, Captain Daniel P. Whitten, 28, of
Grimes, Iowa, and Private First Class Zachary G. Lovejoy, 20, of
Albuquerque, New Mexico, "died of wounds suffered when enemy forces
attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive device Feb. 2 in
Zabul province, Afghanistan. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion,
508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd
Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C." Capt. Whitten commanded C Company;
Pfc. Lovejoy was one of his paratroopers.

Dan Whitten graduated from West Point in 2004. He was my student.
Together, we read everything from Montaigne to The Maltese Falcon; we
studied His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, and Night and
Fog. He was a kind of student I always hope to find in class: someone
who keeps the rest of us honest. He was direct, impatient with muddled
thinking, yet he delivered his arguments with such wit and humor and
from a place of such scrupulousness that no one could justly resent a
correction. He wrote a thesis with one of my colleagues on beauty and
elegance in scientific theory, but he could be equally engaging on the
subject of Braveheart (a film about which we disagreed) or Billy Madison
(about which we were in absolute accord). And he made me laugh, which is
something I note fewer and fewer people are able to do. He was buried
Friday, February 12, 2010, in the West Point cemetery.

In the years since his graduation, Dan had become a
correspondent--someone whose messages I welcomed, whose insights I
valued. When I asked what he needed, he would say he needed nothing: "No
specific needs or desires right now, but I'll let you know if I
lose/break anything." When I asked him how he was, he would say, "[L]ife
is good. Except the whole Afghanistan thing."

In one of those strange coincidences that make the Army seem small,
another former student was one of Dan's lieutenants in Afghanistan.
After Dan died, the lieutenant told me he came to understand more about
leadership in a few months with Capt. Whitten than at any passage in his
life. Dan had shared with me his observations on the lieutenant's
progress, and I could see the care he took with him. The specificity and
humanity of his observations suggested the kind of attention he paid all
the paratroopers he commanded. From past experience, I knew, too, the
equanimity with which Dan greeted setbacks, as well as successes. That
quality must have helped prepare his men for even this eventuality.

Dan balanced what all thoughtful officers must learn how to balance: in
his words, "day to day business and improving the lives of [his]
paratroopers" on the one hand, and on the other hand reflecting, in
moments that allowed, "on the purpose, conduct, and endstate of this
conflict." In his last e-mail to me, he wrote of becoming "a little more
restless," as a man with an active, conscientious mind is apt to become
when he finds himself in a foreign, hostile place--in what a Marine
lieutenant I once met at Walter Reed called, while staring at what was
left of his leg, "a sea of variability," and tries to keep everyone else
afloat and swimming.

Many soldiers, from Alexander the Great to Babur, the sixteenth-century
Mughal emperor; from the British general Frederick Sleigh Roberts to
those Soviet artillerymen who left their guns behind, have gone to war
in the punishing terrain of Afghanistan. I returned recently to Babur's
memoir, the Baburnama, which I have read with cadets. Idiosyncratic and
capable of great cruelty, Babur was also a keen observer of the
landscape, customs, and peoples of Afghanistan, including the region in
which Dan served. Babur had a remarkable capacity for endurance as well.
Toward the end of 1506, he began a winter trek from Herat to Kabul.
Following the advice of one of his counselors to take the northern
route, Babur at one point found the snowy roads virtually impassable:
"During those few days we endured much hardship and misery, more than I
had experienced in my whole life," he reports, here in Wheeler M.
Thackston's translation. Babur commemorated the journey in verse: "Is
there any cruelty or misery the spheres can inflict I have not
suffered?/Is there any pain or torment my wounded heart has not
suffered?"

Stopping for a night at a cave too small to accommodate all his men,
Babur found a shovel and dug himself a shelter by the mouth of the cave:
"I dug down chest deep, and still I did not reach the ground, but it was
a bit of shelter from the wind. There I sat down. Several people asked
me to come inside, but I refused. I figured that to leave my people out
in the snow and the storm, with me comfortable in a warm place, or to
abandon all the people to hardship and misery, with me here asleep
without a care, was neither manly nor comradely. Whatever hardship and
difficulty there was, I would suffer it too." And there Babur remained,
"all huddled up" with frostbitten ears, until further inspection
revealed that the cave was larger than it seemed. There, too, Dan would
have remained; he just wouldn't have felt the need to tell you about it
afterward.

In his West Point yearbook entry, where most cadets include a paragraph,
customarily penned by their friends, full of inside jokes, struggles, or
triumphs, Dan offered only one cryptic line: "I will show you fear in a
handful of dust." It comes, of course, from T.S. Eliot's The Waste
Land--from the poem's first section, "The Burial of the Dead." Dan was
there before us.


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.