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Dialogues on the Experience of War is an intimate book discussion series that uses Homeric texts and contemporary readings to help veterans access, understand, and articulate their experience of war and return. The facilitation model was developed by Roberta Stewart, Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College, who has conducted book discussions with and for veterans for nine years in the Upper Valley. Each facilitator team consists of a literary scholar, a clinician from the veteran-serving community, and a veteran. New Hampshire Humanities partnered with Dartmouth to host the facilitator training over three weekends this summer in Hanover. Over the past 18 months, New Hampshire Humanities developed an advisory team and a wide network of state and private agencies, individuals, and veteran groups to help us recruit veteran participants. In the fall of 2016, book groups will begin in Hanover, Littleton, Manchester, and Portsmouth.
Stewart’s belief in the power of reading and story-telling to build personal and collective identity and deepen human ties is a philosophy critical to the success of this project. The training has emphasized the act of reading ancient and modern literature in community with other veterans; together they discover timeless and universal truths that can provide essential moments of reflection and insight necessary for mapping a return home from war. Homer provides a salutary distancing, a safe past that veterans can appropriate for their own. Moreover, the groups represent a meaningful alternative to popular consumer culture, where anonymity is assured. Veterans commit to actively participating in 14 weeks of small group, face-to-face conversations that involve open talking, close listening, and, given time, as Stewart has found, the building of a caring group dynamic—“not around a bar, but around a book.” The discussions are not political nor are they designed to lead to specific actions or policy-making (although indirectly they might inspire that). The results are not clearly measurable, and no metric can describe when or how someone’s life is changed in the process of participating in these conversations.
The convictions behind this project are deeply resonant with the mission of New Hampshire Humanities -- to engage the public in important human stories and questions through civil discourse and community-based programs. In this case, the problems of veteran homecoming emerge as historical problems that cross cultural, political, ethnic, and class boundaries.
In phase two of Dialogues, which begins in the fall of 2017, we will invite the public to participate with the veterans. Veteran participants will have had a deep bonding experience and a careful, guided course in “reading” in a tight community. These veterans will be primed to help us evaluate and sustain what we have done, forming a nucleus around which to promote and recruit new mixed groups of veterans and civilians for a series of public activities and discussions. Phase two aims to bridge the gap in experiential understanding between military and civilian culture and decrease veteran isolation from the community. We will honor that commitment by encouraging “Dialogues” participants to invite their family members, friends and other veterans, and by using our own resources to encourage interested residents to participate free of charge.
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.