From Odysseus to Odierno, 'Warrior Chorus' revives the classics

Peter Meineck is a New York University professor who had the idea to get American combat veterans – from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – to read classical literature. These are the Classics, with a capital C, stories from the ancient Mediterranean worlds of Greece and Rome. They are filled with tales of great wars, the men who fought them, their voyages home, and what they found when they got there. These are the tales of warriors whose names echo through history: Odysseus, Philoctetes, Ajax, Hector, and many more.

"The Triumph of Achilles over Hector in Corfu" by Franz Matsch

“The Triumph of Achilles over Hector in Corfu” by Franz Matsch

Who better to read and interpret them now than the warriors of today? The combination of modern warriors and Classical terminology is what gives Meineck’s project its name: Warrior Chorus. In a Greek tragedy, the chorus was a group of players who would comment on the main action. They could simply talk or they could sing and dance. It’s an apt summation of what veterans do at Meineck’s Warrior Chorus. The veterans relate to the stories very differently than a Classics student, or even someone with a Ph.D.

“The veterans interpret the stories based on their own experience of service,” says Nathan Graeser from the University of Southern California’s Department of Social Work. USC is an important partner in Warrior Chorus.  The success of the program at New York’s Aquila Theatre (where Meineck is the founder and Artistic Director) earned a large grant for its work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s now a national initiative focused on three regional centers in New York, Austin, and Los Angeles. USC is the partner bringing it to Southern California.

“This is about a public conversation with these classics,” Graeser says. “To engage in a deeper conversation about how the ethics and dilemmas of war are still in existence and how we see those through our current veterans, from Vietnam and further on.”

Graeser is not just a social worker but also a member of the Armed Forces. As a chaplain in the National Guard, he sees the power of service and the need to make the unique experiences more meaningful to those in the military.

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A classical Greek Chorus as depicted on pottery from the era.

“The [Classical] chorus is interjected throughout a story. It doesn’t advance the story at all. It’s something that just comments on everything happening in the story,” Graeser explains. “The Warrior Chorus is really a way for warriors to one, have a voice in the public but also to offer some insights and their own perspectives to the public as a public.”

After the study period, the students produce live stagings, readings, workshops, lectures, and other presentations of their reflections based on their study of the books and their own interpretations. Warrior Chorus is centered around four themes, each of which are particularly insightful for present-day veterans to focus on and repaint their own understanding. They develop their own interest within the program and are guided by Warrior Chorus scholars. The most important aspect is that veterans present their own interpretation through their unique skills and interests.

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A Warrior Chorus performer at the Aquila Theater in NYC

“Those that serve in today’s context, where the majority of people have not served, get back and now they are able to share their voice and be the modern day chorus,” He says. “Their’s is a definitive commentary on what it’s like to serve.”

The Los Angeles program is nearly finished with its study period and its veteran students will soon be creating their classical pieces for public consumption.

“I have been amazed at the great sense of solidarity between [the veterans] them as they’ve explored,” Graeser recalls. “As they’ve put pieces together in their own lives based off of what had happened 3,000 years ago, they come to say to themselves thing like: ‘No one ever listens to your story when you come home. Crazy. Oh my gosh, it’s always been this way.’ There’s something wonderfully normative about that, that they just feel like they’re suddenly in good company.”