If Odysseus Started a Book Club

A conversation about veterans and the humanities 

HUMANITIES, Fall 2016, Volume 37, Number 4

Last December, National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William D. Adams traveled to Texas to take part in a celebration of NEH’s fiftieth anniversary at the LBJ Presidential Library. His presence provided an opportunity for Humanities Texas to convene a group of distinguished veterans, all of whom are professionally involved in the humanities, for an engaging roundtable conversation at the Byrne–Reed House in Austin.

The panelists included Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), Army Vietnam War veteran, and cofounder of Texas Veterans’ Voices; John Meyer, UT doctoral student, former Army Ranger, and cofounder of Texas Veterans’ Voices; Montgomery Meigs, retired Army four-star general and former commander of the U.S. Army Europe; Edwin Dorn, professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT and former under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness during the Clinton administration; and Terry Anderson, professor of U.S. history at Texas A&M University and Navy Vietnam War veteran. Humanities Texas’s director of exhibitions and public programs, Melissa J. Huber, moderated the conversation.

During the conversation, participants shared their personal experiences and reflected on the importance of humanities-based discussion programs for veterans inspired by NEH’s Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War initiative.

MELISSA J. HUBER: Each of you, as a veteran, has had a strong personal experience with a classical text or some other written work. How have those texts influenced you?

JOHN MEYER: When it comes to classical texts, I probably had the most recent first encounter of this group. I was in Iraq, I was 27 years old and I had never read a play, which seems kind of odd. I guess I had skimmed a couple in high school, but nothing too serious.

In Iraq, I read Macbeth for the first time. I don’t think I really understood it, but I knew that it was speaking to me. I watched a film version of it—the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench version. That really broke it open for me. For a young airborne infantry noncommissioned officer, the tragedy of action in Macbeth was easy to understand. It’s a contrast with Hamlet, which is often called the tragedy of inaction.

In Iraq, we often had to act before we could understand the consequences of what we were doing. It’s not that you lack for choices. You have a lot of choices, a lot of opportunities to do things. And you want to do things. The kind of people who join the military, like myself, do so out of a desire for action. But sometimes the desire for action takes over, and you can see you’re not necessarily doing the right thing, but you do it anyway. Iraq didn’t feel like an act of fate. It felt like we were making a lot of individual choices every day and a lot of those choices were wrong.

Macbeth made me feel less alone. The play encouraged me to have sympathy for my fellow soldiers, and for the Iraqis we worked with. I came back from Iraq, and I was looking at going into journalism. But while I was here at the University of Texas, I learned that they have a program called Shakespeare at Winedale, and I participated in that program over the summer of 2009. That really changed a lot of what I was working on.

I was interested in studying verse forms, but Shakespeare at Winedale opened up theater for me and taught me what theater meant. In particular, we did Richard III. I played a henchman, a part with not a lot of words. One of the actions I had to do was bring a prisoner onto the stage, right before Richard has the prisoner beheaded. I wasn’t taking it too seriously, but we had to get the guy on stage. When I grabbed the “prisoner,” I sort of put his two hands together behind him. I gripped him hard at the wrists—as if I had put flex cuffs on him—and then I held one hand on his head. Then I kept a low body posture, kept my weight down, got him up on stage, put him down on his knees; we let him say his few words, and then dragged him off. It was only when I got on the stage that I realized that I was using the same method that I had used when we sent guys to Bagram—and then sent them on to Guantanamo; but now people were watching what I was doing.

I started reworking a lot of my own writing into stage plays. The same group that I had done Shakespeare in Winedale with started performing other plays that I had written, and that’s how I got deeply involved in modern theater. Then Aquila Theatre Company in New York—with Peter Meineck—was my first visceral experience with the Greeks, and helped me understand how the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks could speak to my experiences overseas. And that sums up my pathway to the humanities.

HUBER: Chairman Adams?

WILLIAM D. ADAMS: I came back from Vietnam in the late spring of 1969. It was a very difficult time for the country, as those of us who were around remember. I think it was a particularly difficult time for Vietnam veterans. I went back to the college I had left as an undergraduate in 1966, and one of the first people I discovered there was a contemporary philosopher named Glenn Gray. He had written this beautiful book called The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. He had been an intelligence officer in World War II. He trained as a philosopher at Columbia. He got his PhD the same day he got his draft notice. He went to Europe, and he was in combat intelligence for three years at least, then came home and wrote this beautiful book. I met him right after I enrolled in college, or reenrolled, and I came upon that book.

I have to say it completely transformed the way I was thinking about my own experiences, and it gave me a way into philosophy that was very personal. It was enormously helpful as a reflection on the kinds of experiences that I had had, and that we’ve all had, but it also introduced me to the humanities in a very personal and powerful way. That stuck with me. In fact, the way I thought about philosophy, which I went on to study seriously, was pretty deeply influenced by that first encounter, and it still is. Subsequently, I’ve run into lots of people in lots of different kinds of work who do the same kind of thing, but that was my first personal encounter with it, and it was a great one.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, Chairman Adams and I were in the same province. I was in the Tri Ton District of An Giang Province and then in Chau Doc. We missed each other by a month, I think. I went to Vietnam after college, after studying for a few years in Oxford. I had a commission through ROTC. I had a girlfriend, and we were that close to getting married before I went, but—knowing the experience of her parents who separated during World War II and had a rough time reconnecting—we decided to put it off, which was a good thing.

When I came back, I was haunted by a number of things: the loss of friends and feeling tainted by being involved in things that I didn’t want to talk about or that I didn’t feel like I could talk about. I realized that my girlfriend didn’t recognize me as the person I was when I left. I wasn’t sure that I recognized her, or that I recognized the place I came back to as home. During that difficult year or so, I read the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey about three times. I was fascinated by the ending. Odysseus doesn’t recognize Ithaca when he gets there, and nobody recognizes him, except for the dog, who dies immediately.

Thinking about that actually helped me quite a bit, and I began to realize that Ulysses and Penelope, his wife, really have to start fresh. In fact, we did start fresh, my girlfriend and I. We married a few years later and have shared a good life. I’m glad we did, but there was a very difficult transition back to civilian life. I’m sure it was harder for people who had yet more horrible experiences than I did. Mine weren’t the worst, but they were bad.

EDWIN DORN: War is an extreme experience, and, unlike most of the rest of you, I have never been in combat. But what I know is that it affects different people in markedly different ways. Some adjust relatively quickly to a peacetime environment. Some are haunted forever by the experience and never fully recover from it. I teach a defense policy class at the LBJ School, and I always begin that class with videos of a couple of readings that capture those extremes. Both readings are performed by the British actor Kenneth Branagh. One is the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, in which he celebrates the glories of war: “We band of brothers . . .”

MONTGOMERY MEIGS: “We few, we happy few . . .”

DORN: Right. And the other is Branagh’s reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which captures the intense pain and misery and death that is associated with conflict. I hope these give my students a perspective on the subject they are about to study, defense policy, and on combat itself, which has huge consequences for the nation and lifelong consequences for the people who do the fighting.

MEIGS: I was thinking about this just last night. If one joins an organization and experiences the extreme pressures of combat as part of the experience, there’s a loss of attachment when you leave. That can be very, very hard to deal with. It can be hard to even recognize. I remember, coming back from Vietnam, I woke up one day and thought, Why am I getting angry for no reason? I didn’t have severe PTSD, but I had these depressions. I thought, What the heck is going on here? Well, I think the answer is that I had been in a very good, cohesive outfit, and I missed that.

One of the hardest things that happens in combat is you have somebody you’re really fond of, either a friend or a great leader. Then, when they’re taken off by the helicopter in a plastic bag, that’s a real shocker. So, in combat the unit gets tighter and more cohesive, or less cohesive, which brings a different set of problems. And when you leave, that feeling of belonging can erode like a friendship breaking up. Then where do you find new attachments, somewhere where it seems that you belong and can express yourself and not feel threatened?

If serving in combat was, for the veteran, a tremendous growth experience, then it’s especially hard being alone when it’s over. It’s hard to reattach socially. It’s hard to find your place in a new environment and among a new set of peers. Membership in the new environment requires, to some extent, that you shed the rhythms and patterns and disasters of abnormal life in combat.

As a society, we ought to be much better at dealing with this problem than we are. Welcoming veterans back can be as simple as seeing a young person sitting in his sharply pressed uniform in an airport. You see his combat patches, and you go up and say, “Hey, Trooper, I see you spent some time down range.”

Inclusion can start with a moment of thoughtfulness. One goes on, “Trooper, thank you for your service; I see you served in 1st Armored Division and 1-1 Cavalry. ‘Yes sir, I am starting my second tour in Afghanistan and will redeploy in six months.’ Hard work, Trooper, I commanded 1-1 Cav back in the day; wish I could go with you; be safe.” The emotional jolt between old soldier and new can be electric.

The art here involves helping veterans feel wanted so they can reattach more successfully. They need to feel that someone has their back. So they can start to make the effort to reengage. So they can move toward saying, I want to be in the work, I want to be part of this new thing.

ADAMS: Was there literature you read that spoke to you about any of these issues?

MEIGS: Well, Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer was the kind of literature I went after, and usually history. Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves was one, as was the poetry by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Shakespeare was helpful, especially in Henry’s Agincourt speech, “We few, we happy few.” The important thing about that speech is that Henry recognizes and asserts that all of the men who are fighting with him—the overwhelming majority of whom are not aristocrats, in fact not even freed men—are ennobled by the stresses of combat. It’s a phenomenal speech. But you have to really have someone take it apart for you and to allow the idea of ennobling one’s troopers to mature. We do ennoble troopers in today’s Army; it is just a different process.

TERRY ANDERSON: I didn’t have that kind of experience in the Navy. We didn’t have anyone die on our ship. We were shot at on the Saigon River. We were mortared, and I did see the enemy being gunned down on the beach. But I was not in the same type of combat as the others on this panel. Being on a destroyer behind the ship’s walls is much more secure and less traumatizing than being in a jungle foxhole just a few feet away from your enemy.

I was a boy. I cannot believe it—I joined when I was 17. I didn’t know anything, and I was a Vietnam vet at 19. We were a very cohesive unit, and I did gunfire control. I fired the five-inch guns, which killed the enemy and kept alive our ground troops, who many times thanked us. We really felt that we were defending the nation.

When I came home and went to the University of Minnesota and saw people marching against what I had done, I was just amazed. At first, I thought they were unpatriotic, but I began to question; by the invasion of Cambodia, I was out there joining them, marching against what was going on in that endless and senseless war.

My wartime experience got me so interested in the issue of why we entered that war to begin with, that I have studied and written about that pretty much ever since, publishing two histories on the 1960s era, which, of course, concerns the Vietnam War. I also have returned to Vietnam three times, and even lectured to the Vietnamese American Studies group in Hanoi. Why do nations get involved in unnecessary wars? This had a tremendous impact on me, forcing me to think about why this nation does the things that it does that turn out to be mistakes—big mistakes like Vietnam and especially Iraq. And why we do it again and again.

MEIGS: One of the answers to that is in a speech Pericles gives in Thucydides. It’s all about pride. National pride, interpreted by the leader. He’s the one who pulls the trigger. Do we Athenians go to war against the Spartans? Do we really want to do that? The answer boils down to an extreme version of national pride and no other good answers that they’re willing to work with.

WOODRUFF: I’m a Thucydides scholar, actually.

MEIGS: Boy, am I in trouble now.

WOODRUFF: No, Thucydides is a wonderful author, and I wish more people would read him. I offered a seminar on Thucydides in the Classics Department, and only one student signed up. The Greek is the most difficult Greek prose ever written. And what he’s saying about human motivation is very, very complicated. The war actually begins because of the expansion—according to Thucydides—of the Athenian empire, which he attributes to ambition, love of honor, philotimia, pride. This frightened the Spartans so much that the Spartans felt they had to start the war.

Now people are talking about Thucydides in East Asia, as you may know. The “Thucydides problem” is being discussed by Chinese and other leaders because in the Far East we have an expanding power, namely China, brushing up against an existing power, namely the United States, with the existing power analogous to Sparta. The danger, of course, is that the existing power may be frightened into starting a war with the expanding power.

MEIGS: The same problem with the Russians.

WOODRUFF: Right. You could just translate Corcyra as Ukraine and understand a tremendous amount about what’s going on now.

MEIGS: What is it that is going on cognitively when leaders end up in this “honor or death” mode and stop looking at other options?

WOODRUFF: Thucydides says there are three great motives—fear, greed, and ambition, or love of honor. He thinks the greatest is fear, and I think one of the things that motivates politicians to start a war is fear of what the opposition will say about them if they don’t act more warlike. We certainly see that today.

ADAMS: I taught Thucydides—not the way you’ve taught it—but in the course of teaching classical political philosophy, and I also found it extraordinarily revealing and helpful. The other Greek mode that you mentioned is the tragic mode, the drama. A couple of weeks ago, I got to see the Theater of War run a program in Maine, built around a brief segment of Philoctetes with a community discussion afterward.

This was with an audience of maybe 125 people. There were probably 30 to 40 veterans in the room. There were students, faculty members, and people from the community. The actors did about 20 or 30 minutes of the play, and then, in a very adroit way, organized this discussion among all of the people in the audience.

It struck me that the reason that the play was so powerful and useful is that it gives a little bit of distance to the emotions, to all of these things that you described so well. It gives a little bit of a distance—a mediation—within and among those feelings, which are so powerful and very hard to talk about.

I think it’s not only the value of history, but also the value of literature that provides a kind of a mirror where we can see our experiences, but we see them through the lens of the playwright. That distance is important. I think it works when you’re reading Thucydides. I think it also works when you’re reading the Greeks, Greek drama, and the Odyssey—the greatest coming-home story of all time. It really struck me that that’s one of the ways in which it works. That’s why some of these humanities programs, which we see now all over the country, are so helpful—yet they’re not helpful to everybody. They don’t solve the problems. The problems can’t be solved in a simple way.

MEIGS: It’s a start.

ADAMS: That’s right.

WOODRUFF: These texts often say things that we want to say but can’t say for various reasons. I think that helps. When Johnny and I were putting together our Veterans’ Voices program, we were thinking about bringing in veterans and their family members and using these texts to say things that the veterans themselves probably thought but wouldn’t say out of the fear that none of their family members would understand.

DORN: Let’s talk about two disconnects. General Meigs referred to one, and that has to do with the experience of working closely with a unit, where everyone understands what’s going on, what the purpose is, and then suddenly you’re disconnected from all of that. You find yourself, in a sense, alone, without the support of the group. But there’s another important disconnect, and that is the disconnect of the spirit.

Men—historically, they have all been men—who go off to war, go off with a purpose: to find glory, to fight for their country. When they return—particularly when they return from a war that has not turned out as they thought it would—they sometimes return with a very different spirit, a feeling of disillusionment. Perhaps it’s because people are protesting their involvement, or because they themselves simply discover that what they fought for was not worth the lives and limbs of their brothers in arms. My question is, How do people deal with the spiritual ripping that they experience when they discover that it was not worth all of that, that this was not the right cause, or that I was not the right person for it? That has to be spiritually devastating.

MEIGS: There’s the good unit/bad unit problem. “I was in the XYZ Airborne Infantry, and we did this and this, and we were great.” That’s the first level. The second level is: “This unit was so screwed up, and people got killed. It was a horrible . . . I wish I hadn’t . . .” It’s the duty of the leadership never to let a unit be full of lousy men, to never let a unit become a lousy one. What I’m trying to do is sort of tie this together.

ADAMS: But even a “good” unit experience can end in this sort of dead end—that’s the way I think of it. Kind of an existential dead end with respect to the question, What did it all mean? Did it mean enough? That’s an extremely difficult thing to deal with. It was so prominent with the Vietnam experience and now, again, I think in the second Iraq experience. It’s a devastating experience.

HUBER: Johnny and Paul, you have brought veterans and their families together around great literary texts relating to the experience of war. And you have your participants read aloud, so everyone is involved in reproducing the text in class. Can you talk about how you’ve witnessed veterans in the group readings coping with some of the things we’ve talked about here?

MEYER: We are both at the University of Texas. We wound up participating in the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program a few years ago, which was one of Aquila Theatre’s first programs with NEH, I think. Paul and I liked the discussion that was being encouraged by that program, and we wanted to see more of it. But here in Texas what we did was a little bit different. We were interested in training veterans to be discussion leaders, and putting people into reading circles, but without a lot of teaching about the text beforehand. We opened up discussion and let the veterans say what they saw in the readings, without us trying to prompt them. Now we could, of course, add to the discussion if they had questions about a character, the writing, or anything like that. But, for the most part, we found that the discussion takes off and runs until you get kicked out of the building. It works really well, and we did this in a couple of different settings. I believe Paul did the first one out in San Francisco. Isn’t that right?

WOODRUFF: I did the first one at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

MEYER: Then we did another at a community church in Austin. We did several with Humanities Texas at the Byrne–Reed House, which gave people a special place to go. We had different rooms, each with a different discussion leader.

WOODRUFF: There was a discussion leader in each circle whom Johnny and I trained, but the actual reading was done by the veterans and their partners and guests, so that they actually got to speak the words. There is a slight downside to that setup, in that, if you’re taking turns, like when you’re reading a play, and you’re focusing on what your next line might be, you may not hear the ones in between.

On the other hand, speaking the lines does make them your own, and it does bring the circle together. Everybody going around the circle is saying something. Before the discussion begins, everybody has given voice to something. I think that’s one of the reasons why the discussions worked. Instead of having professional actors, we wanted the people themselves to make the words their own.

ADAMS: These were mostly tragedies, the plays?

WOODRUFF: All kinds of things.

MEYER: We worked in one of two ways. In the first way, we begin with prose and poetry excerpts from the modern era and then moved back into the past. So, ostensibly, the texts get more and more unfamiliar, but the veterans and their families still pick it up pretty quickly. Or we can move the other way, in forward chronological order, or perhaps just a sequence of themes like “going to war,” “rituals,” and “homecoming.” There are usually at least one or two excerpts that are kind of funny. I think, for example, that we had Falstaff’s discussion of honor from Henry IV juxtaposed with Sophocles’s Ajax.

WOODRUFF: They were very short passages. For example, from Philoctetes, we had just the passage in which the young soldier explains to the older one who has died: All the good ones have died, and the bad ones live on. Then we had the little passage from Ajax in which they complain about the incompetent, arrogant general. Everybody related to that.

MEIGS: Been there, done that!

WOODRUFF: They tended to be very short, focused passages, and that worked fairly well. We did small excerpts from the end of the Odyssey, which provoked really some heartrending discussions about coming home and not being able to maintain a relationship or even start a new one because you couldn’t talk.

MEYER: I know, Terry, at A&M, you bring in authors who talk about veterans’ experiences. It’s a little bit broader—not broader, but rather, they talk from their particular perspectives, and that is very good at bringing in an audience.

ANDERSON: Yes, I use literature. I’ll give the historical background, and then I’ll have them read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He is fabulous, and we have a ton of veterans on our campus. Every year we have at least a thousand, maybe twelve hundred veterans. We have a Marine colonel who teaches the survey course, and only veterans are in that class.

ADAMS: Survey course on what?

ANDERSON: American history. They all bond. Then in my upper-division class, I get some of those who come on to study 1945 to the present, or the Vietnam War. We’ll use literature, and I use Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds when I’m talking about Iraq. Then we have discussion. We have brought O’Brien to campus to give a reading of The Things They Carried, and the students read his book, listen to him read it, and they are just amazed. They get so involved, and so do the veterans, who usually seem eager to discuss war literature.

HUBER: Does the group reading format help open up communication between the veterans and civilians in their lives?

MEYER: I think the format provides safe avenues for discussion. Oftentimes, families don’t know what the other person is going to say, or what they’re going to bring up. That’s interesting to see. Some people won’t click with a particular reading, whereas other people will. It’s really a shocking, great thing when somebody has a powerful, personal response to something from the Iliad or from Shakespeare. Maybe they didn’t expect it, but now they can process their experience and discuss it further. It’s good for understanding the other people in the circle, and for making it a safe place to explore particular wartime experiences.

Our readings allow veterans (and their families) to open up in a public setting—a group which, to some extent, is different from your family, and you’re forming a new kinship group with other veterans right on the spot. Normally, it’s hard to share these kinds of experiences. The family is almost watching this happen. They’re right there with the discussion, and they’re going through it too, but they’re not right there with you, back in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam, like the other veterans you’re speaking with. There’s always going to be that separation. But these texts and discussions allow family members and veterans to poke each other a little bit, notice this and talk about that. It allows the families, because they’re sitting there reading the text too, to be on equal footing and to be equal participants in the discussion. So, I think that’s really important to me. I like how family members are able to step right in and talk to the veterans. It’s not a veteran holding court. It’s instead everybody equally interrogating what’s going on in our discussion circle.

MEIGS: This friction recognizes two facts, one of which is the veteran’s struggle with separation and reattachment, which we’ve already discussed. The other is that the spouse has his or her own scar tissue, often as severe as the veteran’s.

If reengagement doesn’t work, you now have two stressed people operating separately. Things can get to the point where neither the service member nor the single spouse is satisfied. The children, too, become isolated and create another source of friction.

WOODRUFF: I think it’s really important to pay attention to the experiences of spouses and families, and not enough of the war literature does. We did use Tecmessa in the Ajax. Even more beautiful and wonderful is Deianeira in the Women of Trachis, a very little known play. The first half is all from a woman’s point of view, the woman who is left while her husband goes off to win glory and is terrified of what is going to happen to him and to her. Wonderful speeches there.

DORN: Increasingly in this society, talking has become a spectator sport. We can turn on the television at any time and listen to someone talking about their issues. They may be talking about something we are actually interested in, saying what we would like to say but have no practice saying. It is very important in what you and Paul are doing, to pull back from that and turn talking into an activity in which people are actually emotionally invested. You can get stuff out. You don’t have to let someone else say it for you. You can respond to the Greeks, or to Shakespeare, or to a more modern work, but you can use your own words. It’s incredibly important that we get back to talking with one another, and it is especially important to learn to talk about difficult experiences. There are very few experiences more difficult than the experiences that several of you have gone through, the experience of combat.

ADAMS: It’s not just that. I like your point about talking being a spectator sport—it’s also one that’s mediated by technology, increasingly. It strikes me that these conversations go back to the very simple idea of people in the presence of one another—live presence, not distant presence. There’s something about that kind of conversation that’s very difficult to replace because it’s an experience in itself, and it’s lived as an experience. Things happen in those experiences that just can’t happen in any other way. It’s why, I think, that there are a lot of good things to say about distance education and learning, but it can’t create that embodied presence where real emotions are flying around the room in the presence of these texts.