You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Man of Letters

Captain Whitten was my student.

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. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.