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Reading Homer with Combat Veterans

Roberta L. Stewart

In this paper I present my experience as an academic directing a weekly reading group in which combat veterans read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, summarizing and assessing the course and suggesting next steps.

The course originated from the premise that literature is able to provide insight and solutions to life experience, and that Homer’s Odyssey provides valuable insight into the warrior’s experience of return from war. So I framed the value of an ancient text in terms of shared human experience. For the veterans, the experience was personal. For me, the literature allowed me to step into and follow the footsteps of a returning vet. 

I framed our reading in terms of the military aristocracies of the ancient Greek world. I introduced Homer as the mouthpiece of a vanished warrior aristocracy, both the heroic Bronze Age aristocracies whose exploits he presumes to recount and the archaic and classical Greek aristocracies who listened avidly. Maps of Bronze Age centers and images of tombs, weaponry, and warfare illustrated this military elite. I focused on conceptions of militarism and honor, and on Homer’s reception by hoplite warriors who embraced the military traditions of Homer. The vets enjoyed the history, and I think knowledge of the military aristocracies established in part my own credibility.

Course design emphasized participation and personal experience. I identified myself as facilitator—indeed co-facilitator, with a mental health professional from the local VA hospital and a veteran—and I organized the sessions. Sessions began with my reading portions of the text and my comments 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 indicated the tone of particular scenes. I provided an annotated schedule indicating the weekly readings and summarizing the material as it related to the larger question of homecoming, and asked the veterans to read aloud portions of the text.

My comments preceded the real discussion, about the experience illustrated in the text. The framing of the text in terms of experience sparked full engagement. Classroom sessions of 1.5 hours often ran over, as the vets had a lot to say. For example, Odysseus’ humiliation by the suitors sparked discussion of being spat upon by anti-war demonstrators. Odysseus’ mist as he walks to the Phaecean palace evoked a vet’s personal “bubble” as he returned to civilian life and failed to connect meaningfully. Odysseus’ first moments with Penelope quieted the group as one vet remarked that Odysseus and Penelope had simply a lot of catching up to do. Teaching the text in terms of personal experience allowed profound insight: of Odysseus’ final, solitary success in homecoming, a vet remarked that many heroes survived the war at Troy but only one hero managed to survive the homecoming. In sum, the course worked when I brought my expertise to bear on thinking about the text and I did not try to teach my expertise.

        The experience of the reading group offers an interesting comparison to the work of Jonathan Shay who allegorizes the Odyssey as the personal obstacles to homecoming. When I suggested, for example, that homecoming entailed personal restraint from deploying the destructive force of the battlefield, the vets supported Odysseus’ annihilation of the suitors.

The vets’ response to my proposals for next steps suggests the significance of reading, and particularly reading Homer, to affirm the positive sense of self for combat veterans. When I suggested a more synthetic course about Greek ideas about militarism and warfare (reading Thucydides, Sophocles, Aristophanes for critiques and defenses of militarism) or reading Iliad, they opted for Odyssey. Conspicuously they seek reinforcement of the positive image of the warrior, and many veterans repeat the course.

Session/Panel Title

What We Do When We Do Outreach

Session/Paper Number

63.2

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