Ancient Narratives and Modern War Stories: Reading Homer with Combat Veterans

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by Roberta Stewart

For the past seven years, small groups of combat veterans in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont have been making Homer their own. This article details the particular value of these small book groups for the veteran, for the community, and for me as the academic facilitator.

The proposal for the book groups originated from the premise that literature is able to provide useful insight into life experience and, more specifically, that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey provide valuable insight—2800 years old—into the problems of soldiers who individually and collectively experienced deep internal conflicts while deployed (Iliad) and who needed somehow to get home (Odyssey). Homer provides a salutary distancing and deflection that, I believe, allows the problems of homecoming to emerge more clearly as a historical problem of the human condition across cultures and political or social organizations: the problem of homecoming is a product of war.

The Homer book groups that I run are small (8-12 vets) but the ideas are large: life, or our daily lived experience, happens between the big events; and narratives, or figured worlds, conjure, create, and sustain lived experience (Holland and Skinner 1998); dialogic engagement with the text of Homer creates narratives, or figured worlds of return, and may help the daily experience of return and reintegration for combat veterans. Practically I bring the world of the liberal arts curriculum, namely philology as the art of reading slowly (Nietzsche), to a group outside of the liberal arts college. I teach veterans how to have a relationship with a piece of ancient literature and in the process I teach how to create a community that is founded upon a shared intellectual experience.

The self-selected groups commit to fourteen weekly sessions, of ninety minutes’ duration, in order to read and engage with Homer. I have run groups for veterans, for combat veterans (the most successful), and for clinicians at the VA who wanted to know what I was doing. I have run the groups at the VA (the least successful venue), at a local Vet Center, and, most successfully, at the Hanover Public Library, in a closed room with windows that allow natural light but not so much as to create a fishbowl and any sense of vulnerability. My most recent, and most successful, groups have combined WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghan combat vets. I have read Odyssey (most successfully), Iliad (first offering unsuccessful; second offering hugely successful for a reason I will indicate below), Thucydides (unsuccessfully—the vets said it felt too much like school). Although I have a scholar’s fondness for Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the epics, I have found Fagles’ translation of Odyssey (1996) most successful. For Iliad, Lombardo’s translation (1997) is readable, though at times too colloquial, and Sheila Murnaghan’s introductory commentary is useful. The groups typically have been small—under 12—and I think have to be small, for though a large group offers protective anonymity, it also means that engagement remains superficial.

In these groups I witness a broad demographic range of veterans finding and creating common ground from their diverse military experience, even in the context of personal disagreement: WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, first Gulf war, Iraq, and Afghan combat veterans; officers and enlisted and reservists; male and female; high school graduates to PhDs.

Odyssey looks at and through the multiple narratives of the hero Odysseus, whose very name (“Tales-of-Pain-to-Self-and-Others”), according to my colleague James Tatum, cues the painful ambivalence of the veterans who return as “living embodiments of war” (Tatum 2012: 66). All of the characters in the poem express a judgment of the hero: the gods, his son, the hometown boys, his soldier peers at Troy, the poet Homer, the poet whom Homer creates to sing songs about Troy and Odysseus, the families and heads of families who experience his destructive return. Finally Odysseus himself creates his own narratives of his war experience, of his homeward journey, and even of who he is.

Which stories are true? Penelope, who has endured for twenty years with the utter self-control that defines her and her life partner, cannot endure the narratives of false hope presented to her by her husband who sits before her, lies to her, and observes her tears. All around him Odysseus returns to a community awaiting him in order to define themselves, but the inner dilemma is the crux: the strategies of the battlefield (the self-control and calculated violence), which are honorable on the battlefield and necessary for homecoming, are insufficient to reintegrate into family and community.

Is Odysseus, whose return is announced as the epic subject of the poem and so the equivalent of the Iliad, who alone (unlike Achilles or Ajax or Agamemnon) survives the homecoming in order to return, is he the ultimate, failed warrior? Odysseus adapts, survives, and returns with none of the men who left with him. The words of one Marine commander and Classics major and Dartmouth trustee, Nathaniel Fick (One Bullet Away), underscore the problem of evaluating Odysseus. Fick ends his book with his own unease about the significance of his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rejecting the argument of good done (protecting women from the Taliban), Fick settles on his success in protecting his men: “I took sixty-five men to war and brought sixty-five home. I gave them everything I had. Together we passed the test. Fear didn’t beat us. I hope that life improves for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, but that’s not why we did it. We fought for each other” (369). My point: Homer too knew Fick’s calculus (Od. 24.427ff.; Shay 2012: 58-59) and conjured up the problem of the veteran’s return at its most complex. Odysseus came home alone, to a world he had yearned to see for twenty years yet could not recognize once he arrived, angry and planning revenge from the moment he reached home though he had been cautioned to restrain his anger.

It is important to note that I who in my Dartmouth classroom am monologic and speak from authority on, e.g., the Twelve Tables or the correct translation of an ablative absolute, while my students dutifully take notes and accept the reality of the first written Roman law or of Latin grammar and adverbial modification, I have a fundamentally different role in the veterans’ groups. I do not lecture but instead facilitate. We read two books of Homer per week and meetings focus on discussion. The interaction with Homer is framed by Homer and by me—I begin our sessions by reading aloud portions of the text or asking the veterans to read portions. I provide basic commentary on the narrative or particular features of it: Homeric similes and their use to spotlight and illustrate dramatic moments; Homeric language (and registers of language) that indicate the tone of particular scenes. Reading aloud thus allows us to linger and experiment with intonation, volume, and gesture, in order to consider the layers of textual and personal meaning. But the real work of the Homer groups comes not from me but from the veterans themselves; and this work—and so the groups—can be summarized but not codified or predicted.

For example, in the 2012 group, when we read about Odysseus among the Phaeacians, we talked about Odysseus’ tears at the banquet, versus Phaeacian eagerness for more war stories as entertainment. One vet said that’s just how it is in movie theaters now. I had set that up because in Burlington in 2010 I had established the contrast and we had had a great discussion about civilian versus military memories of war. But this time the vets picked up on something else. I talked about how Homer describes Odysseus’ careful observation of where he is (arrival in Phaeacia or in Cyclops land) because he is in fact entering unknown territory and he really doesn’t know how he will be received. We ended up with a discussion about being “in theater” and knowing when an ambush was coming, about driving vehicles and getting stuck in traffic, about driving fast enough so as not to get hit but not too fast so as to miss the signs of an IED, about the disappearance of children as indicating an imminent ambush. All of this from Homer’s description of Odysseus walking to the palace. That is, the text speaks to each veteran differently and so each group and each and every reading of Homer is different (Bakhtin taught us this, as a principle of literary engagement) as the veterans engage at different rates and define the “takeaway” individually and collectively. Each vet creates his or her own Homeric narrative.

I have heard acute insight into Odysseus as a commander of men. After we read his recounting to the Phaeacians of his war experiences, a veteran commented “his sense of his own personal pain and suffering is more profound than what he feels for his lost comrades”; another commented “I served under him in Vietnam.” Of his supplication of Arete and manipulation of Nausikaa: “Odysseus has no trust that the process works for him.” Although the response to Odysseus the traveler is largely negative, the vets respond positively to him and identify with him once he lands in Ithaka. Many vets—over several groups—have understood Odysseus’ lies (to Penelope, to Eumaeus) not as lying but as an instrumental silence to achieve homecoming, a cloaking that enables a veteran to tell a war story without revealing the reality of his experience. One Marine veteran repeatedly termed Odysseus’ behavior as “adapting,” and explained that Odysseus was picking up on and satisfying the expectations of the civilian world. Similarly a female veteran in my first Homer group related that when civilians with funereal expression (her words) asked about what the war in Iraq was like, she got them to lighten up by talking about swimming in Saddam’s swimming pool. She told a war story that redirected and deflected the question, and she delighted in her ability to do so. Another veteran likened his own external façade for the cloaked self to Odysseus’ mist, or his bubble, and he compared his own homecoming to Odysseus walking invisibly to the house of the Phaeacian king. The vets respond to the text from the perspective of their own experience.

To facilitate honest interaction with the text, I do not predetermine appropriate takeaways. For example, in my first group when we read of Telemachus visiting Nestor’s palace in Odyssey 3 and talked about war memories as sources of sorrow and tears, one vet, an officer, focused on line 108 (“and all who were our best were killed in that place”). He told his story of commanding a unit in Vietnam, being ambushed and wounded, losing most of his men in the first moments of engagement, waking up in an army hospital. Another vet described losing to the war a fraternity brother, as he said, “the most moral human being” he had ever known. Perhaps less aptly but nevertheless importantly for him, one vet recounted his story of killing someone, taking his papers, and feeling still the remorse that he had removed the material that would enable the body to be identified. So I cannot and do not regulate how individuals react to the text. Although we have a syllabus or schedule of readings, the group is not a class with a syllabus of material to be mastered. It is a book group where we put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate.

Because I don’t presume necessary takeaways, I also learn about military culture and about the text of Homer. The veterans regularly translate the actions of the suitors and of Aegisthus as the behavior of “Jodys,” the guys who stay home and seduce the girlfriends (I cannot tell which action receives greater negative judgment, staying at home or dating the girlfriends). I get a sense of how some veterans feel about civilians: we regularly role-play the dialogue between Odysseus and elite youth in Phaeacia (Od. 8.161-265), especially when he is insulted and responds, and the dialogue regularly opens a discussion of military/civilian interaction and misunderstanding. We also role-play Odysseus’ unmasking of himself and taking vengeance on the suitors (Od. 22.31ff). I get a sense of how the veterans deployed (volunteered or drafted) and how they return home. A WW2 vet—a pilot—remembered the slogan “take a chance with Vance.” A Vietnam veterans detailed his deliberations about enlisting and thus avoiding the randomness of the draft. He recalled the slogan “choice not chance” and described his meeting with a recruiting officer after which he determined that chance was better than choice (though he ended up with a low draft number). And I learn new insight into Homer: When we read of Odysseus falling asleep on the ships of the Phaeacians, as they brought him home (Od. 13.80-81) and I compared his ill-timed sleepiness and the disasters it brought to his men (letting loose the bag of the winds and slaughtering the cattle of the Sun), one veteran interjected: of course he fell asleep, he was finally going home! He understood Odysseus’ sleep as rest at the end of the life and death struggle, and he spoke of his own return journey out of theater, of falling asleep and of every man with him falling asleep because as he said, no one was trying to kill him anymore. The veterans’ groups remind me to interpret the text as lived experience, and I am receiving a fortunate civics lesson.

Last spring (2014) I experimented again with a writing project. I was asked to write program notes, a brief description of the veterans’ groups, for a performance of An Iliad (performed by Denis O’Hare under the direction of his co-writer Lisa Peterson) at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts at Dartmouth College. I suggested that I read Iliad with a group of vets and we write the program notes together. Weekly sessions culminated in a collective writing exercise as I asked each vet to identify the passage that most resonated with his experience. Although the Veterans Reading Group voiced a repeated doubt about details of warfare in the Iliad (“We didn’t fight like that”), the vets showed acute insight into the motivations of Homer’s heroes. Of Achilles’ drive to militarism and honor, a vet cited Clausewitz: “To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive rather than daunting.” He added, “As a nineteen-year-old invincible youth, going to Viet Nam was an adventure; to the same youth once in Viet Nam, it was not.” The vets had little patience with Achilles and his self-interested disregard of his fellow soldiers: “He should have been relieved of command, and sent to headquarters to sharpen some pencils while awaiting court martial.” When Achilles lends Patroclus his armor even as he admonishes him not to diminish his own honor, a vet remarked, “Achilles, at this point of the poem, really feels no allegiance to his fellow Greeks and their life-and- death struggle and is only concerned about his own honor and well-being.” A veteran contrasted Achilles’ self-absorption with the singular service of another hero, Ajax, who fought to protect the ships and Patroclus’ dead body: “The go-to individual, the ultimate team player, the person who gets things done and doesn’t expect a lot of accolades for it.” Significantly the poet Homer uses Ajax as the foil when Achilles rejects Agamemnon’s offer of amends and refuses to rejoin the battle. Defying the presumption of unified veterans’ perspectives, Achilles’ reasoning (“Nothing is worth my life” and “But a man’s life cannot be won back”) elicited both approval and disbelief.

The Iliad reading group understood that Homer knows that a soldier can be confronted daily with Achilles’ choice to join in a life-and-death struggle. Remarking on Sarpedon’s exhortation to his comrade-in-arms Glaucus—a passage typically interpreted to illustrate warrior ideology—one veteran focused on Sarpedon’s expressed hope to survive the battle and not to have to go to war again: “In so many words, let’s get out of here alive and never come back.” Another veteran focused on how Homer grasped the costs of war (e.g., “Nothing is worth my life”) and the human impulse to war (“Nothing is more miserable than man”) in order to think about terms of military service before and after 9/11:

To me, this line addresses the realization that men agonize because they understand what they are doing, what is going on around them, and the likely end results and yet they are unable to use their understanding and intellect to effect the necessary changes. Thinking of the Iliad and of today’s society, this could be analogous to men recognizing the horrors of war and desiring to avoid wars, yet being unsuccessful at doing so.

Another veteran observed the vivid images of human tenderness in the old man Priam’s treatment of Helen, and Hector’s tender parting from his wife and child. Once again a group of veterans made Homer their own, and the evening of the performance they stood tall, publicly, as intellects capable of bringing new meaning to the Homer text.

Herein lies the potential for the Homer groups. Jonathan Shay has done so much for vets and in his book Achilles in Vietnam he used Homer to show that PTSD is a historical phenomenon, but he didn’t read or consider the value of actually reading Homer with veterans. Lamenting the lack of communal rituals for returning veterans, he missed the potential of the book group that has a long American tradition (e.g., the work of my colleague Mary Kelly on women’s book groups in colonial America, 1996-98).

In fact, veterans who “don’t do veterans’ groups” read Homer with the rest of us and return to read again. The groups become groups very quickly. The veterans go out to dinner before reading group; they are always on time; they take care of each other and joke with each other and smoke and drink coffee together. They also regulate each other, if someone becomes angry or a conversation becomes testy. Our sessions regularly run over the ninety-minute time frame and we now deposit the room key in the after-hours book drop when we exit the closed library. Something happens and it is not mine, though I am privileged to participate in it. I have been given war books (novels and memoirs), military magazines, combat patches, CDs, DVDs, recruiting posters; I have been offered the opportunity to try on body armor (it is very heavy), all of which I understand as attempts to communicate with me about military life and experience.

To recast academically: I think that Homer enables the veterans to create a self-narrative about war experience and so construct a narrative about their own return. Evidence for the power of authoring narratives to recover from trauma and create a sense of self is ubiquitous and hence per-haps unremarkable, but it should be remarked. Here I speak from my work on slavery, the ultimate representational fiat: slavery teaches us most vividly the power of words (as narratives, repetitive discourses, fiction, law) to create reality, to turn a human being into chattel, a thing to rape, to sell, to crucify. Words and narrative matter, and words conversely offer a disruptive power that can undo realities. Frederick Douglass’ repeated revision of his autobiography attests to the power of words to make sense of devastating personal experience, to contradict a negating cosmos (Hyde 1998: 232) and to recreate self (Hyde 1998: 244-47). Stories of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous (Holland and Skinner 1998) transform difficult realities into stories of resolution and hope. In creating narratives, veterans—individually and compositely—may come to a shared truth about their experience and an ever-deeper understanding of their individual experience (I think this is why I have repeat readers). I am an historian not a psychologist, though a friend who is a clinical psychologist informs me that clinical psychology has embraced the therapeutic value of Bakhtin’s dialogism (Seikkula and Trimble 2005; Seikkula 2011).

Here speaking as a teacher of the Humanities: the book and the figured world of a book have enduring influence, because the images we create for ourselves in our minds resonate most: “the deepest images are the ones you form in your own mind” (C. Clay, “Modern Greek: Peter Sellars Adopts Herakles’ Children,” Boston Phoenix, January 2-9, 2003). Or as a friend—a two-tour combat veteran and clinical psychologist—said to me: Homer offers veterans a map for coming home. The reading groups provide the opportunity to read the map.

Roberta Stewart is Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College. The author of books and articles on Latin literature, comparative slavery, and Roman public office, she has been conducting veterans’ reading groups since 2007. She would be happy to consult about developing other local Homer reading groups, and she can be reached at Roberta.L.Stewart@dartmouth.edu.

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