The Bayonet

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014

Professor: Preparation must not cause paralysis

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Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, visited Fort Benning Aug. 21 to share her views on preparation in the latest edition of the Combat Leader Speaker Program.

Samet received her bachelor's degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale before beginning her 10-year tenure at West Point.

Samet is the author of the 2008 book Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, which she said chronicles her experience at West Point as the Army transitioned from peacetime to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Another book, No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America, will be released in November, and will feature Samet's experiences with changes at West Point as the wars went on.

Those changes, she said, spurred her interest in how the Army prepares for conflict.

"(Preparation is) what the Army is in the business to do - it's either fighting wars or preparing to fight them," she said. "We've been focused on one thing for so long and now we have to think about focusing on a bunch of different things.

"So, what is the point where preparation becomes paralysis? When you prepare so single-mindedly and diligently and carefully for one thing, do you unfit yourself for something else? I've been focusing on that and wrestling with that a lot in the classroom and thinking about ways in which one can help students to cultivate particular habits of mind, including the agility to prepare for many different outcomes or some kind of future that they can't even imagine quite yet."

While she said preparation is undoubtedly important to future Army leaders, she said there must be a balance between preparing for the immediate mission and more long-term preparedness.

"No matter how dire the circumstances and how urgent the training environment, the institution ought to always have space for the long term and for helping Soldiers to acquire skills that will serve them well into the future," she said. "It's not just about the voyage out, but also about the coming home."

Samet said she attempts to combat the tension between preparation and paralysis in the classroom by incorporating educational techniques intended to encourage creativity and imagination and through a thorough study of literature.

"(Literature) helps us to become careful readers, particularly in literary texts that are difficult and that don't readily yield up their information as opposed to more straightforward informational texts," she said. "Let's face it, the world is more like a thorny novel than it is a handbook. ... It also helps with finding alternative endings and imagining how things could be different. When we know something isn't working, that's the first step, but how do we find a solution to the problem? Literature helps us with that. It helps us ask questions, but also helps us think about alternative answers."

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