Illustration by Tamara Shopsin
Illustration by Tamara Shopsin

How does a soldier measure time? One idiosyncratic retired officer I know used to assess his active-duty days by something he called “time out of the greens,” the hours he spent wearing civilian clothes. In the past several years, the Army has marked time according to something called a BOG:Dwell ratio.

BOG, an abbreviation for boots on the ground, refers to deployments, while Dwell signifies dwell time, or the period spent at home station. That’s not just how the Army measures time; it’s how I’ve begun to measure it, too. The military chart used to project deployment cycles is called a horse blanket, a nickname that likely originates in the chart’s large size. I have woven my own horse blanket of the mind, onto which I map the comings and goings of the young officers I know. Whenever pre- or post-deployment leave brings them to New York City, I find myself in a midtown bar or downtown cafe listening to stories of combat tours just ended or to thoughts about the unit “train ups” to which they will shortly return.

It has become difficult for me to remember the old system of timekeeping, but I didn’t become fully conscious of this until I read “Othello” again this spring in a Shakespeare elective I taught to West Point juniors and seniors.

A Necessary Play

“Othello” has never been one of my touchstones. I’ve always found unpersuasive the ease with which Iago turns Othello, who is no insubstantial man, to his purposes. And I’ve thought Iago’s villainy less provocative than that discovered in “Macbeth” or “King Lear.” But when, at the beginning of the semester, I showed the cadets a preliminary reading list and solicited additions, “Othello” was one of the first suggestions. Given their chosen profession, one student insisted, this was a play they “ought to read.” So we did. “Othello” has now become yet another of those texts altered for me by the experience of reading it with cadets.

In a very particular sense, Othello leads the life cadets expect to lead as officers. His own BOG:Dwell ratio isn’t especially kind: Othello has been in Venice only nine months before the Turkish naval threat to Venetian interests forces him to sail for Cyprus with his new wife. Since the age of 7, Othello’s life has been a series of “battles, sieges,” “disastrous chances,” and “hair-breadth scapes.”

A Soldier’s Volatility

In a speech to which no soldier who imagines one day falling in love can fail to respond, Othello disputes the charge that he has somehow bewitched Desdemona by explaining: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them. / This only is the witchcraft I have us’d.”

Othello’s emotional volatility and capacity for violence, tragically realized in his killing of Desdemona, also prompted the class to consider the ways in which deployment might shape an individual. One thoughtful cadet speculated about his own attraction to military life: Would being a soldier irrevocably alter his nature? Or was his choice of vocation an unconscious response to impulses buried deep within?

On this reading, I was struck by Othello’s recognition of Desdemona’s importance to him as a bulwark against the disorder that has dominated his life: “Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again.” While the play is not primarily an investigation of the traumas of war, I now hear in Othello’s “again” a reference to the force and fragility of domestic bonds under the stresses of repeated combat tours and redeployments.

Homecomings

To my complaint about Othello’s gullibility with respect to “honest Iago,” several of the cadets had a ready response. For them, the answer was obvious: Iago and Othello had fought together. The trust forged by their battlefield experience trumped all else.

This time around, “Othello” seemed to me to dramatize the most extreme version of what it might mean to live a life geared to serial deployments and homecomings. That is the life for which my students are preparing; the life I have grown accustomed to imagining for them; the life to which the oft-invoked idea of an era of persistent conflict commits them.

That era has defined us for a decade, but recently we have begun to allow ourselves to imagine something else. In years past when a colleague steered a conversation about some program or activity to the issue of relevance, I would venture something like, “We won’t always be in Iraq and Afghanistan,” or “One day, we’ll be having this conversation about some other enemy, some other part of the world.” Even though we both knew this to be true, the look I often received implied that this way of thinking was somehow unwise, unserious, heretical.

Fighting Different Wars

Now, however, with the troop drawdown well under way in Iraq and projected for Afghanistan, with force-wide budget and personnel cuts in the offing, reckoning with a new world has become a necessity. Cadets so long focused on the specific challenges of combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan must imagine a world in which they end up fighting different wars in unexpected places, in cyberspace, or in no place at all.

Conditioned since their first day in uniform to become veterans of particular wars, they will have to figure out how to redefine themselves and their service, to adapt to the possibility that they will lack an experience that has shaped a generation of officers. One day, that very experience, which has for so long framed our view of the world, will not be the clearest lens through which to make decisions about the future.

Invisible Contours

The challenge of navigating a future of invisible contours has long been the province of literature. Several seniors, commissioned as second lieutenants only a few weeks ago, with whom I read Homer last fall might recognize it as the phenomenon of moving from the world of the “Iliad” to that of the “Odyssey.” After a decade of war, the clearly defined lines of battle established at Troy disintegrate into a postwar world of unknown enemies and uncertain limits -- a world in which the most pedestrian and the most fantastic monsters offer dire threats to the assumptions by which the soldier has defined himself at home and abroad.

In following Odysseus home to Ithaca, Aeneas out of the burning city of Troy, or Othello to Cyprus, future officers refine an essential skill: They discover new ways to map space and measure time.

(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 expressed are her own.)

To contact the author of this column: Elizabeth D. Samet at eliz.samet@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.