An Interview with Elizabeth Samet

Looking for the Good War (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 2021
TR: So I’m mostly known as a Beatles author, but when I was working on my John Lennon biography, I really dove into World War II and got lost a lot. And I really was fascinated by the work I did on Liverpool and the Blitz and how the northerners carry resentment about how London always wears the blitz on its sleeve. But actually, the majority of the bombing was done up north at most of those ports. And it just fit in with this larger sketch of the Liverpool personality that I was trying to draw, so I have a special interest in this. And I don’t know how I’m going to tie it in, but I just loved your book so much, I really wanted to make sure and cover it just to give it more exposure, because when I read a book like this, I just really want to share it with as many people as possible. So, one of my subtextual questions will be anytime you think of a way to connect this up to any kind of music, that’s great. But if not, it’s totally great, too. So I listened to another interview of yours, I think it was from Politics and Prose, and they started with the really interesting way you have a personal story that you tell in connection with this material and how you came to it, and how you were drawn to this to this stuff. So give us a little idea of your personal background and what led you to this to this book.

ES: So first, as I write at the end of the book, this is both a personal and an intellectual question for me, this whole issue of World War II. So I first came to learn about World War II as my father’s war. He was older than the fathers of most of my peers, and his service had been in World War II. He was in the Army Air Corps, he was an air traffic controller, and he spent part of his time at a series of stateside bases and then he ended up in India, where he did air traffic control and he also would go out and lay radio range beacons and things like that. Because his story was so unusual to me, and not that of my peers’ parents, I would always beg him for stories. And he would always answer the same way: “Who the hell remembers it was 100 years ago?” But he would tell me stories, and then, when I came to work at the Military Academy, I think he began to tell me more stories. But I first knew that war as his war.

He was a depression-era kid, so he worked all the time, and he worked at home on Sundays as well. That was his concession to the weekend, he would work at home. But when there was a World War II movie on, we would watch it. And this was before the days of on-demand whenever you want. So whenever we would catch something on TV, he would take time off and we would watch the movie together. And the other connection is a musical connection, because he seemed to know the words to every song of a certain era, and that was the big band era and he grew up listening to this music. After he graduated from high school, he worked at Decca Records in the store room and as a shipping clerk and things like that. And so my mother and I actually have some old, precious 78s that I’d like to frame at some point. So he knew all of these songs from the 30s and then the 40s, and so anytime that we would hear something on the radio, he knew the words. That awakened early on a love of that era of music for me, and then a lot of jazz from a variety of periods earlier and later. But if there was a snatch of a song on the radio, you could always rely on him to supply the words, which was wonderful because I can’t carry a tune, but he could. So I had a kind of very sort of hazy, gauzy memory of this, not that he ever romanticized it. He was very young when he joined, and, he was not in combat, but he certainly saw planes crash, and he saw some horrible things as anyone does. And so, you know, this wasn’t something that he really romanticized at all.

But there was one aspect of the story that stuck with me, which was that, and this was, I think, very true in comparison to later wars, there was a kind of feeling of unanimity, there was a feeling of shared responsibility that everyone was at war. And I do think certainly in comparison to Vietnam, that was absolutely the case. But as I grew up, and I began to read more and more, the war began to acquire something else as I got older, the myths as I call them of the war grew in intensity, and that really started during the 50th-anniversary celebrations. And so that’s really what the book focuses on; the way that certain elemental truths about that war became exaggerated and heightened in the light of later wars, and then became so distorted that I think we now are confronted with a problem in remembrance.

TR: It’s such a human thing to do, right? And I think about this a lot with my subject because the way the Beatles were perceived and experienced in their moment is very different than how we think about them now. And so for historians and critics, there’s always a tension between the reality of the story you’re trying to tell for the people to whom it was happening. And then, there’s this distance, which you can’t erase, and you can’t erase everyone’s experience and the reality of the world in the moment that you’re trying to tell that story. So there’s a relationship, there’s a way in which the way we interpret history becomes history, you know? It doesn’t make sense that it’s not obscured or not distorted in some way, because our lens changes. So how do we cope with that problem as historians and as critics? I’ve been wrestling with this myself for a while. But one of the things that I think your book is really great at is uncovering the layers of the myth. And we need the myth, right? The importance of the story is kind of central, but the way we tell the story to ourselves reflects more of our own values than the values of the people who live the story.

ES: I do think that there’s a certain point at which the way we remember it becomes as important, or in the case of a successful myth more important than what actually happened, at least in sort of guiding and shaping who we are and what our expectations are, and that’s when it becomes a problem. I think that it’s a national problem and also an individual problem. So when we’re in the midst of things, we have certain feelings about them, and then, when we reflect years later, we become—I think it’s just human nature—nostalgic, perhaps. We think that we responded in a particular way in the midst of things when we really probably didn’t have time to do that. And it’s only later that we think that we sort of ennoble our participation in anything, or make it seem larger than it was, or that we had an understanding of it at the time that we really didn’t.

I think that part of the problem with World War II mythology is, as you suggested, we do need it. It is, I think, one of our most flattering myths and one of our most important in the sense that—and this I make very clear in the book—I believe our participation was necessary. I believe the defeat of fascism was essential and that this was an existential threat and it changed our whole role in the world. I don’t diminish the advent of the postwar liberal international order or the rule of law, these things are vital, although I think they’re in danger right now. These things are all crucial, but at the time, we didn’t feel that way necessarily. There were some people who did, but then we forget that there was such a strong post-World War I isolationist sentiment and that that isolationist sentiment was compounded by what was, in certain quarters—chiefly the America First Committee and one of its big spokesmen, Charles Lindberg, national hero—a real fascist sympathy at work. And we diminish that, we don’t talk about that as much because it’s harder to incorporate into the myth. Part of the myth is that after December 7, after Pearl Harbor, everybody changed his or her mind overnight, but only a few months later, the Roosevelt administration was worried that Americans had lost a sense of urgency and that they weren’t really focused on the war effort. So that initial zeal seemed to diminish in certain quarters. It’s also true that I think the motivation for fighting the war in the Pacific, which was certainly packaged for Americans as vengeance for Pearl Harbor, was clear. But now, when we look back on it, we chose not to focus on the Pacific War, we instead focus on the message of American soldiers as liberators and not people seeking vengeance. And that’s a huge difference. So that has shifted our focus, we now focus on the European war, and also, by focusing on the European war, we tend to confuse consequences with causes. So the consequence of our participation was, of course, the liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny, but that was not a sufficient cause to get us to join the effort in the first place. Certainly, there were members of the Roosevelt administration, Lend Lease, all of these things, they knew which side they ought to be on, but that was not universally shared before the war.

TR: So one of the things you write about is that there’s this old adage about how we’re always fighting the Last War, and you sort of reformulate it into “Nobody wages a single war at a time, or you can’t wage one war at a time.” Could you unpack that a little bit for us? It’s kind of a fascinating idea.

ES: So this is drawn actually from the war correspondent W.C. Heinz and he has this amazing account. He has this wonderful essay after the war in 1950, where he relays the story of crossing the Belgian border on September 2, 1944, and as he crosses the border, he tells some of the soldiers he’s with that if they had gotten there nine days sooner, it would have been the 30th anniversary of the British retreat from Mans from the First World War. One of the soldiers says “Who cares?!” and Heinz replies “Nobody cares, but you don’t have to get sore about it.” “Nobody’s sore about it,” the soldier replies, “just let’s fight one war at a time.” And Heinz says “I don’t want to fight any of them. I’ll give you both of them.” And so the soldier, who has a completely normal reaction to that, is wondering “What are you bothering me with this for?” I love Heinz’s point there, because, of course, in this case, the war is being fought on the same ground as well, but it’s the idea that we’re always fighting, not just sort of tactically, operationally, strategically—which is, I think, how this idea of fighting the last war is often used—but that we always can have in our minds the war that preceded.

And so this becomes important, I think, for World War I. But it becomes really important for all the wars since, which, as I suggested in the book, are really fought in the World War I shadow, and with often an unreasonable expectation that they will end the same way. We seem to have retained, despite Vietnam, despite our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, this capacity for surprise when wars don’t turn out the way World War II did. And I think part of that is set up by the vocabulary used by those who articulate the reasons why we’re fighting. So we have comparisons often made with that. In the first Gulf War, George Bush talked about Saddam Hussein as a Hitler. In the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you had Rumsfeld drawing that connection once again to Hitler, and you had the term “Islamo-fascism.” So there’s this ability to repurpose fascism to suit the moment, which is something Orwell warned about a long time ago. And you have the “Axis of Evil,” which is, of course, a reference to the Axis powers. So all of this language, this vocabulary that defined the world at a moment, is now being repurposed and has been repurposed. I think that the way in which wars are packaged makes us think that they will turn out in the same way, and of course, they have not done that. So that, I think, is the real danger, or the real sense in which you can never fight one war at a time and that there’s always something hanging over you as a nation, sort of thinking about who we are, why we fight, and why we might fight in the future.

TR: Yeah, and as you say all that, it reminds me of what you said earlier about how we cast ourselves in the role of liberators, and that’s mostly the reason that we adopt that same language. I’m thinking about Vietnam, as you know, “We’re going to liberate them from the evil of communism.” I like the way Max Hastings put it at the beginning of his Vietnam book, which is that this is clearly a war where neither side deserves to win. Our alternative to their communism is not something that the people of Vietnam want, but we still insist on being liberators. I just think that’s such a fascinating idea.

You do some great writing about movies in the Cold War period and Westerns as a way of trying to make sense of our World War I I experience refracted through this new Cold War reality that emerges from the World War I I dilemma. Talk to us about what films you think express some of the problems that you see in World War I I storytelling.

ES: So in the book, I focus mainly on two genres: film noir, and then the Western. Film noir, which really has its origin during the war, becomes really important I think in the later 40s and the very early 50s. It is a really intriguing vehicle through which to tell the story of returning veterans, as the figure of the returning veteran figures in a lot of these films. It’s always focused on a man, although there are women in uniform in some of these films, and the man usually shows up in some town. Sometimes this man has amnesia and is thus sort of at the mercy of those who remember what he doesn’t. He usually shows up as a kind of drifter, an easy person who can be accused of some crime that’s been committed—although we often find out at the end of the story that the crime was committed by supposedly the most righteous or prominent citizen in town, but the veteran was an easy target. And so there’s a scene in almost all of these films where a police lieutenant or detective calls Washington for the war record. And so you get the service record, and in the record, you often have medals for valor, sometimes there’s a Silver Star, sometimes there’s a Purple Heart, which suggests that the veteran obviously has been wounded. And the service record has a kind of double edge; on the one hand, people will say, “Well, look, this guy’s a hero, he couldn’t commit a crime,” and then on the other hand, “this guy’s used to solving problems through violence, so maybe he is our guy.” And so there’s this weird sense in which those scenes are crucial because I think they suggest a real ambivalence about who all of these returning service members really are. They’ve gone off to fight in our name, and then they come home. Of course, the big difference between then and now is that there are so very many of them who have returned home. I think that a lot of people forget that the war brought back to work a lot of Americans who made more money than they had ever seen during the Depression and had jobs that they had never had before in the Depression. So these service members come back, and they want their jobs back, and this leads to women being pushed out of the workforce again, and there’s a lot of resentment and anxiety there. And then it leads to men who had been at home rather than fighting. This is not to blame them, there are all sorts of reasons for that, but there is all this anxiety about who’s going to come back and take my job now, and on the service members’ part, a lot of anxiety about what has happened while I’ve been gone. Usually, there’s this language of having been cheated of these years. There’s the very celebrated film The Best Years of Our Lives, which chronicles the return of three service members, and it’s this idea of the “best years of our lives that have been sort of taken away. So I think that those films reveal a lot of anxiety about American culture. They’re not only about veterans, of course, and it’s not only about the war, but the war is so often that undercurrent that informs them.

TR: I was just going to follow up and say you do have some passages in there, where you look at some of the authors of World War I I, I think you mentioned, Ross MacDonald, I can’t remember if you bring up Raymond Chandler? I think I remember you specifically pointing out that Ross MacDonald had had some direct experience and that it was likely he was channeling some of this stuff through his characters?

ES: It’s certainly Lou Archer’s, the idea that not only the criminal but the detective has military service, I think is important. It shaped a whole generation.

So for the Westerns, just as for the origins of film noir, are in part kind of technological or historical, in the sense that there were wartime restrictions and blackout restrictions during the war and some economic factors as well, that led to the way in which these films were were made the lights and shadows. The advent of widescreen technologies was a boon for this resurgence of the Western. But, the westerns are often read as Cold War allegories, and the Western also is very elastic in that sense, and later on, we have these Vietnam-era Westerns as well. But I read these Westerns as sort of looking back in the sense. They do seem to be animated—I mean, High Noon is the one that people always talk about as a Cold War allegory—but I think that they often reflect through the Civil War. They’re set in the post-Civil War era, but they talk a lot about the World War and they talk about the ways in which veterans have been cheated in some way; they emphasize the sense that life has been stolen. And in this way, they will echo the film noir of the period, even though they’re so wildly different in their time settings and their periods. The story is often the same. So in the Westerns, it’s all about cattle rustling, right? So either the Civil War soldier comes home to find that everything has been stolen away, or, the Southern soldier comes home to a landscape that’s totally changed and decides to start stealing things back and becomes a cattle rustler. So they’re often phrased as a kind of vengeance and getting back what was stolen, and both honor and actual physical things can be stolen. There are commentaries in some of these films about the ways in which, after the war, there seems to be no law, and there seems to be a kind of unsettled feeling. So I do read these also as indicative of this swirling anxiety about what happens when veterans come home.

TR: Excellent. So now I want to do a giant shift. Because I heard you talk in a previous interview about talking to a Russian and the Russian says to you, so which war are we talking about? Right. And in this previous interview, you talk about, well, there’s the Western Front in Europe, there’s the Pacific Theater, and so on. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Eastern Front lately. And especially because we have Ukraine now and because they’re arguing about history right now, in Russia, in Ukraine, and that historical memory, conflict is very fraught, right? And it’s the way they’re talking about World War I I that is actually sort of driving a lot of this conflict. And so I want to just start with some numbers. This is one of the things I try and think about with my journalism students because I find that they have a real lack of context in terms of historical numbers. So I’ll just outline briefly what I mean: when I asked them how many American servicemen were killed in Vietnam, nobody has any idea. When I asked them how many people were killed by COVID, there is kind of a rough idea. But when I asked them how many Americans, Russians, or Germans died in World War I I, they have no idea. These are signposts that I think most people over 30 or 40 sort of grew up with. These are hard numbers we all know, right? And the shaping of this memory of World War I I turns very differently when you consider the amount of loss that the different powers suffered. So, the Russians, as far as I can tell, carry resentment about their partnership with Americans because our losses were so much less significant than theirs. This then led to them saying, “We’re going to get more of Europe because our losses were so much greater; we fought and killed many more Germans than you guys did,” right? And this is still a part of a defining idea of how they fought, they didn’t fight a war of liberation, they fought a defensive war. They were invaded, even though they did lots of invading too. So that’s one thing, I want to make sure I have my numbers right. And what other numbers do you think are important to have in this discussion?

ES: That’s the thing, numbers are always revised, I think of the Civil War dead, and how that number has been rising and rising, and I also think that we’ll never truly know, because it’s so vast.

TR: Right, you have sort of a starting point, right? You have to say these are all approximate, but even when I say to people “So do you know how many Americans were killed on 9/11?” Most people don’t know. I mean, on this topic in particular, the number I carry in my head—I might be wrong—is half a million Americans dying in World War I I, give or take. But we’ve already lost a million Americans to COVID. So COVID is actually a bigger national tragedy, but we don’t think of it that way at all, and we’re right in the middle of it. And part of that is your reality is too big. You can’t take it all in at once. We only get perspective upon reflection, it takes time. But I don’t think most Americans understand that this calamity has already cost us twice what World War I I cost us.

ES: Your discussion of numbers makes me think of a couple of things. It makes me think of, first, the Vietnam War. The memorial. Now even when you see that wall, those numbers are sort of beyond comprehension, but they can all fit on a wall and so you start thinking about these things as a scale. In the most recent conflicts, the Washington Post had the Faces of the Fallen feature for so many years. And the nightly news would do the same thing which we can count. And in World War I I, of course, our own numbers were too big for us to do that. Civil war, too big for us to do that. But as you’ve suggested, those numbers are dwarfed by the unbelievable numbers of European dead.

I think that the great good fortune we had in that war was it not taking place on our own land. We didn’t see it. And I think the not seeing it makes us think about it in a different way. And I mean, when I say we didn’t see it, of course, many people did and there’s footage and things like that, but it didn’t happen in our houses. And I think that the American journalists who were in Europe covering the war before we entered were very good at this. So AJ Liebling comes home and says “Why are all the lights on?” Right? I mean, why is there no blackout? What’s going on here? Don’t these people know essentially that the world is on fire? Ernie Pyle when he comes back from London, comes home. And it’s confusing. It’s disorienting. It’s like a different world altogether. Eric Sevareid, when he comes home, and he cites the song that he calls sort of saccharin, he says, “Remember Pearl Harbor?” and he imitates it in his memoir. People were singing in nightclubs and dancing and he said, “What is going on here?” And the world of war felt more real to these journalists than the world of peace. And so what does it mean to be at war and to have that war in your own country or to have it elsewhere? And I think that distance is a huge factor there. I think it was a huge factor certainly for the Roosevelt administration in making it real for Americans like “We’re really at war.” I think that has been a challenge, you know, in Iraq and Afghanistan. What does it mean to fight in these distant countries that we really don’t know much about? And unfortunately, it has led us not to pay the attention we ought to pay to these conflicts. So you know, you mentioned the Russians and the idea of the Great Patriotic War. The novels of Vasily Grossman I find really amazing. He talks about this sort of shock in his novel The People Immortal, which he took time out from covering the war to write. So it has a propagandist function, but it has this amazing capacity to describe what happens to a country at war when all peacetime activities are interrupted by this great turmoil and destruction everywhere. And so I think that that’s very real. I also think that, as you suggest, our alliance with the Soviet Union is another just like the Pacific, this is an uneasy sort of element to the war and not as easy to fit into the math, especially as the Cold War results after, which I think is really difficult to make sense of.

One of the stories that I tell in the book is that of the premature anti-fascists, as they were called. And they were Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists and recognized early on in the 30s that this was a huge threat that needed to be combated. And some of them were communists, and it was certainly true that Russia was funding this and contributing to the fight, but they considered themselves anti-fascist. And they were labeled premature anti-fascists by the American government, by the FBI. When it came time to fight in World War I I, they often found out they were on a list, and they didn’t know about it, so they weren’t always allowed to fight. And it was mysterious to them. Classicist Bernard Knox, who fought in the Spanish Civil War as a British citizen, and then fought for the United States in World War I I, said he learned it when he came home and he said, “Well, what would it mean to be on time to that fight?” Like you couldn’t be early enough. So what does it mean to be a premature anti-fascist? And so this strange political circumstance in which we found ourselves, fighting fascists and yet opening dossiers on what we call premature anti-fascists.

TR: I apologize, I’m laughing with you at some of the absurdity but also there is this wonderful Eddie Izard joke. You may know if you don’t, I’ll send it to you. But he has a routine about how the British are fighting and fighting and fighting, and then the Americans suddenly join in and the British ask them “Where the hell have you been?!

And, you know, there’s now this giant hypocrisy punch line, where we now have Putin-sponsored Trump presidential campaigns, and the Republican Party all said “No, we’re okay with these commies after the Soviet Union fall.” I mean, it’s just kind of mind-boggling.

I want to switch a little bit more to the Eastern Front. What I’ve been learning from Timothy Snyder’s lectures at Yale, about Ukraine, and Hitler’s experience is really interesting, right? He’s part of the German front in the East in World War I, where the results are inconclusive, right? They don’t lose, and they don’t win, but because they lose in the West, there’s an armistice and everybody has to come home and he carries this resentment. And it is part of what helped create the conditions for World War I. And then in World War II, he has this term, “Lebensraum.” And the idea of conquering Ukraine as a breadbasket. And it’s so interesting to learn that it was a breadbasket at one time for the Greeks; I had no idea that the Greeks were that far East. Anyway, the analogy that was occurring to me as I was learning this was that Americans had their own Lebensraum and it was called “Manifest Destiny,” right? We’re busy conquering, we’re moving in the opposite direction, but we have the same idea really, that we sort of deserved this land. And so that Eastern Front, it’s something that’s part of our national memory, and the way that we frame the war, we’re not thinking so much about that Eastern Front at all. And Snyder’s contribution has been, “Hey, this is where so much of the killing happened. This is where so many lives were lost. You can’t understand Ukraine unless you understand that conflict in the East.” And from my point of view, it’s sort of reoriented my thinking about the war. And I’ve even been thinking, you know, you talk about well, there are at least two different wars, there’s the Western Front and the Pacific Theater, and there’s actually a third kind of distinct war because we have elected to downplay that Eastern Front, so much that it really doesn’t enter our narratives nearly as much. Am I just a newcomer to this subject? I mean, I imagine if you’re a World War II scholar, this is all part of what you study. But for me, it’s been really eye-opening to start looking at the Eastern Front.

ES: Well, I think the term is just so normalized that we don’t think about it. But what does a “World War” actually entail? And I think every national participant has just a kind of an imperfect and incomplete perspective on that. And I do think that every country—you mentioned Russia, France, England—has a kind of mythology of World War II, and they look very different, and they’ve undergone revisions and changes along the way. But I think that, as Americans growing up, we didn’t learn that, right? Despite the fact that it was global. There were only certain parts of the globe that we focused on. So we think about North Africa at the beginning of the war, then we think about Europe, and the story ends in Berlin, I guess, right? And then in the Pacific Theater, the story ends with the bomb. And after that, I think every country is busy cultivating its various stories. And you know, you talk about numbers, those numbers are inconceivable, I think it’s just not as much a part of our calculation. And so even though we contributed material to that part of the war, we were not engaged the way we were in other parts. I don’t think it really plays a role. And any role it might have played was, I think, further diminished by the Cold War. So if we talk about that theater, we have to talk about our allies who are not our allies anymore. How do we do that? And it’s so complicated, that it kind of drops out of our version of events.

TR: Yeah, I think that’s true. And what occurs to me as you’re talking is that we’re telling ourselves a national story, right? This is the story where our self-interest is manifest in the theaters where Americans fought. And so that would be Africa, Western Europe, and the Pacific. And the Eastern Front is just complicated for all of those reasons. I’m fascinated and just so jazzed that you teach literature at West Point. I don’t know, but I assume there’s a certain tension between the study of literature and the goals of a place like West Point where we’re training soldiers? And what I’m trying to say is, there’s a certain mindset of a soldier, and then there’s the mindset of a literary scholar. And I’m wondering if you could talk about if there is tension there between those two ways of thinking of looking at the world? As an English undergrad, I was always fascinated with different points of view and learning about the human experience through different characters and marveling at how ingeniously an author might actually change my mind about a certain attitude toward politics or that kind of thing. Like it was a very creative endeavor. I’m just curious about what kinds of challenges you face as a literature professor in your particular space?

ES: Well, I think from the outside looking in, it may seem wildly incompatible, the study of literature in the preparation of future military officers. I view it as essential, and there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, I think it’s indicative of the nature of West Point and of the preparation of future officers, that a college degree is part and parcel of this experience. So these are undergraduates, they’re also aspiring officers. And so they went on the same day that they get their Bachelor of Science degree, they are also commissioned as second lieutenants in the army. So it’s a huge day, an overwhelming day. Those two ceremonies mark the completion of what is called a 47-month experience, and that experience involves the exercise of the mind as well as the body. And the mission of the Military Academy is to train, educate, and inspire. So there is certainly a training component that many of my colleagues are engaged in, and training requires a different sort of response from the person being trained. Then there’s an educational component in which I am involved, and it’s really interesting. I love teaching our first-year, cadets, the plebes as we call them because they’ve been through a summer of training, then they come into the classroom and one of the hardest things is to sort of turn on that other part of you, which is not just “receive mode,” but also pushing back and participating. And so you watch them learn how to do that. And I think that so sometimes people say, Well, if I teach some work of literature, I don’t know, let’s say the World War I poets, let’s say, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who emerged from their experience—well Owen sadly did not emerge from the experience but was killed right at the end of the war. But their war poetry is often cited as the side of a sort of quintessential anti-war poetry. And I’ve had some people say “How can you teach that?” And this is borrowing language from a dear friend, a retired officer, who said it’s our responsibility to teach them the broadest range of literature possible, to show them every possible facet of the war and the cost that it entails. And so, I’ve really taken that to heart and I have rephrased this and thought about it in my own way, which is that they get plenty of training, to teach them how to fight, technical training as well, plenty of training on how to go to war. I think of myself as preparing them to come home. So that if you go to war, and you’re fortunate enough to survive, then what do you do? And the life of the mind, all of the resources that a resilient, creative, nimble imagination gives us, I don’t think anyone needs that more than my students. And now, I’ve taught there long enough that I’ve seen many colleagues and students go to war, and the lucky ones have come home. And there’s a lot to deal with. And I think that they find in the works, they have studied the fact that we study the literature of war, from thousands of years ago, and from 20 minutes ago, as some sort of showing them what’s continued what, what continuities are, in that experience, what differences, what is particular about a certain war, because you’re never fighting just one war. But each war has a new wrinkle, a new change, be it terminology, a particular kind of engagement, or a particular kind of memory. And so, teaching them how to deal with all of this, I think literature offers an incredible resource for that. And so that’s how I can see both of what we’re doing there, and how they begin to understand themselves and their roles in the world.

The other really interesting thing to me is that literature, poetry in particular, is not, shall we say, central to American culture. But to many other cultures of the world, those of many of our allies and many of our adversaries, it’s right at the heart of things. And so when we study the poetry of other cultures as well, which is hugely important, they study it in the original language, we study it in translation. But what does it mean to have a poem at the center of your culture? We don’t know that until we read it together and until we think about what that might mean, and how people in other countries can recite scraps of poetry the way that we might our favorite lyrics or our favorite movie lines. This, I think, is all of what literature has to enrich them as people as well as soldiers, because you know, one day they’re going to take that uniform off. And if they don’t remember who they were when they started, that’s a really devastating moment.

TR: Great answer to that question. Because we have such a horrible story going on right now. Biden brought it up in his State of the Union address; the suicide rate. For veterans, it’s just so horrible to contemplate. Okay, so winding down. Now, you have a great bibliography in your book. And it’s made me a great reading list. I’m curious since the book came out if there are other books that you’d like to mention that have come out since publication that you would put in there if you could?

ES: There are but I’m not I don’t think I have a good answer for you right now.

TR: Okay. Do you know a book called Achilles in Vietnam? What a wonderful book that is. I’m surprised that that book is not more prominent, I found it so interesting and it helped me understand so much about the soldier’s consciousness that I didn’t understand before.

ES: Yes, I think it’s pretty well-known in veteran circles. He also followed it up with Odysseus in America, which talked about the homecoming question.

TR: Oh, interesting. Fascinating. And then to just circle back really quickly, do you know, Bob Dylan’s Tin Pan Alley recordings?

ES: Yes. In fact, I saw him. So he was playing in Boston and I’m from Boston, and I can’t remember the year but when he came out with those albums, I said to my parents knowing that my dad loved the songs, “This is going to sound crazy, but Dylan has these new recordings.” Yes. And so my parents and I went to hear Dylan. And again, I knew he could sing along with all of it. And so we really had a good time, because I knew that he would love those songs. I’ll send you a list of some of his favorites.