Classical literature can offer a vehicle for examining and promoting the understanding of modern war experiences.[i] Yet while ideas for social justice projects might emerge organically from our research and seem perfectly suited to address problems we see in our communities, the actual execution of such projects requires careful planning. This paper describes one such project, the Warrior Book Club, which the author developed as a graduate student in collaboration with the state veterans museum. The author gives particular attention to the process of launching the project and adapting to challenges—both those specific to using Classical literature to promote social justice and those that concern partnerships between university scholars and community organizations more broadly. This ongoing project has already experienced success, fostering a robust dialogue surrounding the challenges veterans face when they return from war.
The paper first outlines the major features of the Warrior Book Club—a project supported by a graduate student fellowship from the Humanities Center at a large public research university and one designed to enrich participants’ perspectives toward veterans’ experiences across time. The book club consists of veterans, service providers, and other members of the public who meet monthly to discuss both Classical and contemporary literature centered on distinct themes related to war. The presentation will then examine in detail the initial stages of developing and executing the project: conversations with the community partner, selecting books and translations, recruiting participants, and designing effective and engaging book club discussions.
For example, the author will share how discussions with museum staff, potential participants, and other local veterans organizations helped the Warrior Book Club successfully integrate Classical literature into the reading list. One major factor in this process was balancing the expectations as a university fellow to develop a creative, risk-taking project with the more conservative and practical goal of the public partner to bring additional programming to veterans. Furthermore, the project needed to manage two competing impressions of Classics. On the one hand, ancient literature can appear daunting and prohibitively foreign to those who do not study it; on the other hand, the very antiquity and elevated status of Classical literature can lead to idealizing these texts and presenting them as the ready solution to current social justice issues. Organizing the book group around themes allowed the inclusion of literature from various time periods and perspectives while enabling certain threads of conversation to continue across meetings. For instance, participants connected questions of truth and deception within Philoctetes to the problems of telling war stories within The Things They Carried and Redeployment. Moreover, it was essential to give careful attention to selecting translations and providing participants sufficient context for the Classical texts.
Finally, the author will bring the Warrior Book Club to life, sharing the rich discussions and meaningful questions that this common reading experience brought forth. Both veterans and non-veterans readily related characters in the ancient texts to their personal experiences and expressed empathy and furthered understanding toward their fellow participants. The Warrior Book Club has advanced social justice by reaching beyond the boundaries of academia and connecting people who might otherwise not be in conversation, thereby enriching the worldview of the Classicist, the war veteran, and the wider public.
[i] E.g., Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York: Scribner, 1994 and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, New York: Scribner, 2002) has given valuable insight into the connections between the ancient and modern worlds, and programs such as Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives (http://ancientgreeksmodernlives.org) and Theater of War (http://theaterofwar.com/projects/theater-of-war/overview) have furthered that work through experiential projects with veteran and civilian participants.
Classics and Social Justice