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Veterans Will Revisit War, Through Homer’s Classic ‘Iliad’

It’s likely that nothing really new has been written about the nature of war since Homer composed the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey more than 2,000 years ago.

There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wars since, from Caesar’s wars of conquest to the U.S.’s most recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Writers, in every era and in every country, have grappled to understand why humans go to battle and how it affects them, and changes a nation’s destiny.

But in terms of how we understand war and its costs — and its fatal allure for some — the Iliad and the Odyssey are the templates, the Bibles that every writer and reader consults: everything you want to know about the nature of war is contained in them, and nothing composed or written since has out done them.

Veterans, in particular, have a charged and intimate relationship with Homer’s epics. This Monday evening at the Howe Library in Hanover, Dartmouth College Classics professor Roberta Stewart will convene a discussion group of interested veterans to read the Iliad. Stewart has led a Homer reading group for veterans since 2008, and she sees her role as “facilitating that interaction with the text by a group of people who have a very close experience of what I’m talking about.”

Stewart offers the historical and literary context in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed and performed, and helps to guide the discussion. The group is also co-led by Vietnam veteran Alan Oakman, who lives in Canaan, and Ann Kraybill, a psychotherapist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction.

Stewart has read the Odyssey more often with veterans than the Iliad, she said. Although the epics are complementary, the Odyssey, with its story of the veteran Odysseus finding his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, tends to be more accessible than its predecessor the Iliad. But the Iliad offers equally profound lessons.

“The Iliad is a narrative of war and a narrative of the motivations of war,” Stewart said. “Time and again we have this problem of what motivates people to go into battle and put themselves forward like that — and is there any way out?”

The translation of the Iliad that Stewart will be using is by Stanley Lombardo, a professor at the University of Kansas. A New York Times Book Review praised Lombardo for being “respectful of Homer’s dire spirit while providing on nearly every page some wonderfully fresh refashioning of his Greek.”

This isn’t a class, Stewart emphasizes; it’s a collaborative discussion and analysis among veterans of all ages and experiences who find a way to talk about war by reading the words of a poet who lived long ago, but whose insights are ageless and universal.

“The Iliad is a story of war, a story of deployment ... and the dynamic of violence and the internal violence within the army itself, between commander and soldier,” Stewart said.

Interested veterans must register for the reading group, and it is open to veterans only. The group will meet on Mondays at the Howe Library in the Murray Room from 6-7:30 p.m. from March 17 through May 19. To register and for more information, call Ann Kraybill at 802-295-9363, ext. 5653.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.