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Marshall University Program Pairs Veterans with Study of Humanities To Connect Experiences With History

Greek vase that dates to the fifth century B.C. and depicts Odysseus tied to the mast to brave the sirens.
Greek vase that dates to the fifth century B.C. and depicts Odysseus tied to the mast to brave the sirens.

The Wars Within, The Wars Without is a program at Marshall University that connects Appalachian veterans to the humanities.

Professor of anthropology Robin Riner and professor of classics Christina Franzen, co-direct the new program, which encourages veterans on Marshall’s campus and across West Virginia to discuss literature and history.

Riner says that discussing the humanities helps soldiers connect their own experiences to history.

“The humanities can help veterans because it allows them to think about similar experiences that are very distant from them in time and space, but also resonates with their own personal experiences,” Riner said.

The veterans are essentially taking a college course that lasts one semester with five public discussion groups. Veterans and active service members can explore a variety of texts, from Ancient Greece to the current War on Terror. The public discussion groups are veteran-led and cover literature, poetry, anthropology, and philosophy.

The central text for the seminar is “Civil War” by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.

“Lucan wrote about the civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 48 BCE,” Franzen said. “He lived during the time of Nero, and things were getting really bad in Rome. Civil wars all the time, from the first century BCE through the first century CE”

Franzen explained that the inspiration for the program came when a veteran student gave positive feedback. She said, “he just really responded to it because the way that Lucan writes is Impermeable.”

Some ways that “Civil War” appeals to veterans is its structure and the manner the text frames its subject. “There’s no real plot, there is no hero,” Franzen said of the text, “it doesn’t valorize Caesar, but it does lift up individual soldiers. It celebrates the soldier without celebrating the war.”

Additional classical texts include Alice Oswald’s reverent and gory adaptation of the Iliad, “Memorial.” For something more contemporary, the program covers Tim O’brien’s collection of Vietnam war short stories, “The Things They Carried.”

For the program’s inaugural lecture, Franzen and Riner invited Massimo Pigliucci. Pigliucci is one of the nation's leading experts and scholars on Stoicism as a practical philosophy. Practical philosophy is a philosophical framework someone can apply to their everyday life.

“This guy, Zeno of Citium, was a merchant and he got caught into a storm, and the ship sunk, and he lost everything,” Pigliucci said as he described the origins of Stoicism, occurring around 300 BCE. “After that, the philosophy spread very rapidly. It was imported throughout the Roman empire, by people that ranged from slaves to emperors.”

Part of Stoic thought is knowing the difference between what you don’t have control over and what you do. This is called the Dichotomy of Control. This line of control is made more complicated for soldiers.

“Soldiers are really at an extreme of where the Dichotomy of Control really matters. Being soldiers, they have to follow somebody else's order,” He said. “Especially if you see combat, then you find yourself in a situation where you really don’t have a lot of control.

“You’ve been trained, so your best bet of course is to act according to your training. But the outcome, and in this case the outcome could be coming back home in one piece, but that’s not up to you,” he added. According to Pigliucci, focusing your effort on what you have direct power over, such as how you react from situation to situation, can help one deal with grief.

The upcoming guest speaker is Lauren Ginsberg, a professor of classics at Duke University who wrote on Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the stoic philosopher. Seneca is also the uncle of Lucan.

The program is funded with grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a Marshall Hedrick Grant for Teaching Innovation, and a Classics Everywhere Grant from the Society of Classical Studies.

Riner says that this year is a test-run for the program. This spring, more discussion groups will be held in Huntington, at West Virginia University, and in smaller counties in the state.

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