The Oldest Tradition

No Man's Landby Elizabeth D. Samet

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240p $25

Loving Our Enemiesby Jim Forest

Orbis. 160p $20


Polite conversation tends to avoid the issues of war and peace. Many believe that conflicts leading to war are tragic but inevitable. A less common conviction, one often maligned as naïve, insists that conflicts can be addressed nonviolently. Without intelligent discourse about resolving conflicts, we are left with a widespread acceptance of war and romantic links to patriotism, sacrifice, honor and glory. We fail to see war as a short-term solution to conflict. The long-term effects mark societies and cultures for generations.

Elizabeth D. Samet is professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Her mission of preparing young cadets for “the battlefield as ultimate destination” has evolved over the years. Other voices have helped her to revise her story. An essay by the writer Joan Didion acknowledged, “the imperfect fictions we weave with such desperation.” In 2013 President Obama warned the nation of a post-9/11 tendency toward “perpetual war.”

Combat experience and the “heroic drama of muddy boots” might be the permanent validation for a soldier, but Samet judged the romance to be wrong. Coming home and reintegrating as a citizen should surely be more important goals for the soldier in a civilized society. When the military’s role is isolated from society or carried out in remote areas or for reasons vaguely defined, the soldier returns home to a “physical and emotional landscape” much like no man’s land. A military career in a nation where war and peace are ill defined (an official declaration of war against another state was last issued in 1942), tends to make the career soldier a multi-deployed war commuter.

Samet underlines the consequences of living in no man’s land with references to wanderlust, violence and compulsive restlessness throughout history and classical literature. She mentions Homer’s Odysseus, who returns to Ithaca restless and filled with loss; Dante adds to the story in the Inferno, having Ulysses embarking again “till the sea closed over us and the light was gone.” Plutarch writes of the exploits of Alexander the Great and of the ambition that was his undoing. Even Shakespeare’s Othello finds himself in no man’s land, trusting implicitly his battlefield companion “honest Iago,” and condemning his own wife. Samet applies many similar references to the contemporary veteran, who finds home to be an alien place and oftentimes follows the patterns of classical prototypes.

Pragmatism, self-esteem and short-term results tend to be the standards for a military academy, but Samet broadens those standards, and sets a goal of “full-spectrum thinking” for her students: “patience, deep attention, the capacity to admit error” and even the “proper place of bold dissent and resistance to custom and tradition within military culture.” A tribute to her effectiveness as a teacher is an on-going correspondence with many of her former students. Given such strong bonds and passionate commitment to learning, it is unsettling to see, on the dedication page of the author’s book, the names of two gifted students who lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Literature, in Elizabeth Samet’s curriculum, fosters a type of integral thinking to unmask false stories, learn analytic and narrative skills, trigger improvisation and creativity, prepare for life within or without the military structure. It is understandable that much of her chosen literature has the soldier in mind. How would critical thinking be advanced if her syllabus contained material about an army that sheds no blood?

Each side in a conflict has the goal of disarming the enemy. Conventional wisdom interprets this to mean overpowering the opponent by force. Loving our enemies may also be a way of disarming them. As a creative and long-established Christian principle, it is the theme of Jim Forest´s reflections on making peace.

In the Introduction to his book, Forest proposes loving our enemies as a worthwhile human goal. It involves a personal change in course and willingness to understand love and the enemy in different terms. Love is more than emotion or attraction; essentially it is action and responsibility for the well-being of another. An enemy can be a faceless opponent or one who incites fear by being different. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the enemy as “one that cherishes hatred, and who works to do ill to another.” Seen in that light, the author suggests that “the enemy of my enemy is me.” Differences may surely separate us, but Forest prefers to look at similarities and interdependence. He quotes what Thomas Merton wrote shortly before his untimely death: “What we have to recover is our original unity.”

While loving our enemies might be the hardest commandment, as the author affirms in the book’s subtitle, it is also the path to true humanity and inner freedom; hatred is a blockade, and hell is the inability to love.

The author finds helpful advice about active love in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. On following one’s conscience, he cites Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. Well-known advocates for nonviolence—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi—join the voices of peacemakers over the centuries, from early Christian writers and Orthodox saints to a sage Jewish rabbi and the valiant men and women who posed a serious nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in the Second World War. Forest’s nine practical disciplines of active love could enrich and challenge any military training manual.

It is safe to say that a strategy of preparing for war and peace in military terms will continue to be our conventional wisdom. Those killed in action, like many of Elizabeth Samet’s gifted students, will be remembered and mourned. Fortunately, others will propose making peace by resisting the enemy in a nonviolent manner. If they are Christian, their actions will reflect the oldest tradition, that of Clement of Alexandria’s “army that sheds no blood.” By doing so they will be affirming life, much as Jim Forest does by dedicating his book to his grandchildren, and by showing us in concrete terms how limited our conventional wisdom can be.

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