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13 Ways to Look at War

by Stephen Becker 19 Oct 2012 2:55 PM

The winner of this year’s Heitt Prize in the Humanities – a professor of English at West Point – offers her list of literary works that are sure to provide you with new perspectives on war.


Later tonight, Dr. Elizabeth Samet will receive the Heitt Prize in the Humanities from The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (The event is open to the public; you should go – more on that in a sec.) But Friday afternoon, the West Point English professor discussed the work she’s doing that landed her the prize – namely, teaching poetry to students who soon may be going to war.

You know you’re in for an interesting discussion when Dallas Institute fellow Thomas Mayo had to conclude his introduction of Samet by reading a declaration that read in part, “The views expressed in this lecture do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Department of the Army” etc.

It would be hard to imagine how any of those institutions could have a bone to pick with Samet. She narrowed the focus of her work down to the idea that she is responsible for, “arming [her students] with the imaginative violence within to protect them from the violence without.” In other words, a highly functioning, inquisitive mind is a mind best positioned for the mental grind of war.

As a scholarly exercise, Samet has compiled a list of literary works that she has christened “13 Ways of Looking at War.” The title is a take on the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways Of Looking at a Blackbird. The poem is an exercise in perception, but the perceptions of the poem’s 13 stanzas lack any obvious unity – except for the fact that they each mention a black bird.

And so Samet has collected her 13 works that focus on war, with the idea that each provides a different perspective. She discussed in detail why each made her list; to even attempt to summarize her analysis of the works wouldn’t do her lecture justice.

But if you’re looking for new perspectives to consider when it comes to the topic of war, Samet suggests:

1) The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White
2) The Iliad, Homer (which you can learn all about at the Undermain)
3) Life of Alexander, Plutarch
4) Alexander byThebes, Anna Akhmatova
5) Louse Hunting, Issac Rosenberg
6) War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
7) The Odyessy, Homer
8) Radetzky March, Joseph Roth
9) For the Union Dead, Robert Lowell
10) Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
11) War South of the Great Wall, Li Po
12) Aeneid, Virgil
13) One Art, Elizabeth Bishop

That last one, only 19 lines long, is about loss. Samet says she includes it because, “In history class, they learn The Art of War. But without mastering the art of loss, they cannot master the Art of War.”