Job Well Done, Warrior Chorus 2018

Weeks of conversation, reading, and rehearsal led to the convergence of ideas and experiences that were beautifully expressed by the Warrior Chorus during two performances. The inaugural Austin Veteran Arts Festival, organized by Chorus member Glenn Towery exemplified the spirit of the Warrior Chorus and served as the perfect venue for the first performance. An intimate Austin library held the second performance which included audience discussions.

Their moving introduction, accompanied by a soundscape by group leader Bart, presents the Chorus head on in battle. We hear the sounds of battle, a roll call, and a symbolic memorial service for a fallen soldier - Gianna’s handcrafted Battlefield Cross piece highlights the themes of battle and loss.

Meagan’s piece, titled “Tomorrow May Never Come” follows, exploring the emotional toll that the loss of comrades can take on fellow soldiers. An acoustic performance of Social Distortion’s “Reach for the Sky” follows her brief speech. James’ original piece Ebbet’s Field After a Double Header with the Giants displays dark humor and deep reflections on the phrase “Thank you for your service.” Fictionalizing his modern day experiences, James compares his “doomsday” duties to that of Ajax’s men.

Bringing classical combat illustrations to life, Terry presents the physical aspects of war with Japanese Katas. The 80 year old veteran, presented the Katas with thorough explanation, and a charm that belied the danger of the Samurai sword he wielded.

Brian’s spoken word piece detailing his military intelligence experience and concerns of citizen privacy struck chords with the audience, who no doubt walked away with nagging questions on the state of American democracy.

Finally, Glenn performs an emotional original song that questions the place of Black Americans in the military and the U.S. at large. In “What Should I Do” Glenn expresses the pain of serving a country which has subjected people to years of slavery and marginalization. It’s a powerful closing to this reflective, inspiring Warrior Chorus performance.  

The audience in attendance is struck not only by the content and depth of the performances, but the number of art forms represented by the small group of warriors.  


Special thanks to:

Austin Veterans Arts Festival

Austin Public Library

Click here to watch the first Warrior Chorus 2018 performance. Performance begins at the 12:00 minute mark.

Warrior Chorus Austin 2018 blogs were written by Tamar Price.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals begin the exciting process of putting the various artistic concepts into action. Over three meetings, the group begins to block and stage the performance under Bart’s direction. Having decided the performance order in previous meetings, these rehearsals give them time to assess how elements like music and sound effects will flow through each section.

Bart’s artistic contribution takes the form of a soundtrack designed to reflect eras of war including ancient combat and the high tech machines of today. Clashes of battle can be heard amid fierce winds and shouts. As the recording progresses, machine guns fill the soundscape. Bart explains that he envisions the soundscape being an introduction to the rest of the performances. Many of the members give input and after a brief outline, begin timing and blocking the intro. They decide to gesture various combat positions in a flowing sequence as the recording plays (the sequence of positions is eventually replaced in favor of two still rows).

Intro sequence:

wind - footsteps - pause wind - charge - battle - roll call - memorial

In each meeting, Warrior Chorus members run through their parts as their pieces continue to evolve. Terry acts out Japanese Katas; James and Meagan fine tune the presentation of their performances; Gianna unveils her welded sculpture; Glenn moves the class with his emotional song.

In true Warrior Chorus fashion, discussions on current events and social issues arise throughout the rehearsals. These conversations prove to be a testament to the bonds and open communication this program encourages.


Final Reflections

Week of August 20

As the program meetings draw to a close we see the discussion flow into topics that are not easily discussed among friends, let alone a group of people unfamiliar with each other a mere nine weeks ago. In the first meeting of the last week, we discussed previously explored topics like PTSD, police and state violence, and the realities minorities in America face with more nuance.

As each project takes shape, the run of show continues to be a key factor in conveying the motifs in a cohesive manner. Steven prompts the group to reconsider how his interactive “Yellow Footprints” piece can be incorporated throughout each presentation. They brainstorm multiple ideas for the concept, making it more apparent that the group conversations have had an undeniable affect on the individual presentations. They continue discussing how each project theme can be tied into the other. For example, Gianna’s soldier memorial could follow Bart’s piece on the death of soldiers.

The tone shifts as they begin to explore the implications of untreated PTSD on former soldiers who take up post-military jobs like law enforcement. Having been a witness to the effects police brutality can have on communities, Glenn offers a different perspective. He echos sentiments expressed in his original song  that was played for the group in the weeks prior. Naturally, questions and opinions arise on the role of individuals to perpetrate and/or overcome systemic societal barriers. How can one live outside of the limits society places on women, individuals of color, LGBTQIA, and more? For some looking from the outside-in the answer might seem simple, but as the discussion progresses it’s apparent that definitions of privilege and individual responsibility differ. The civility of this potentially uncomfortable conversation is a testament to the mutual respect formed between the members throughout the previous weeks.

Fittingly, the last meeting of the week is video recorded and features final thoughts from each of the members present. As they list their final project inspirations on camera, the veterans share how the program, texts, and discussions helped them contextualize their military service in ways they hadn’t before. James likens the camaraderie of sports and the military to that of this class, saying it began an important step of self-reflection. After explaining his project, Terry emphasizes that the community found in the program was a pleasant surprise given his initial reservations. Darrin shares that this creative outlet helped the emotional process of relocating to Austin after hurricane Harvey. Glenn concurs with the healing aspect of art and creativity, especially when one might be carrying potential trauma and unresolved thoughts.

Week to week, the sense of community grew deeper as the texts and discussions led to heavy themes. For the veterans and from the outside looking in, this program has been the catalyst for newly discovered talents, interests, and emotional and mental assessment. With that in mind, the theatrical performances and presentations promise to be both engaging and enlightening.  

Creating a Show

Week of August 13

Going over the progress for the projects ahead, it’s decided that each performance or presentation would be preceded with a unique introduction. The introductions will serve as tie-ins that give the show a cohesive feel - presenting a whole body of work as opposed to smaller pieces. The group finds this appropriate given the impact that the group discussions have had on the final outcome of their work. While each piece is individually unique, the group input had an undeniable effect on the thought process behind the work. 

 The proposed order of show.

The proposed order of show.

With themes and form considered, they now must decide on the presentation order of the shows. Brian is in favor of starting with pieces that express loss or death, then gradually moving to other topics that suggest a moving forward with life. Bart continues to lead the conversation and a flowing program is outlined through their discussions. Brian brings his compelling essay back into view and ponders the reception and intentions the audience might draw from something seemingly jarring. He emphasizes that he doesn’t want to present a moral obligation for the audience, but more so a question that requires critical thought. Bart, Glenn, and Tom reassure Brian that theater and similar community forums are not only tradition, but necessary tools for dissecting and understanding paths forward in society.

James begins a run through of his piece with a fallout themed novelty song from the 60’s, then goes into the inspiration of the piece. After his brief rehearsal, the group offers suggestions for the presentations structure and music timing. Noting the significance of each photo or reference, they relay ideas on how to punch up the points James wants to drive home. Rehearsals and formatting will continue in the coming weeks to create a program that captures the highs and lows of the motifs and individuality of each participant.

Dissenting Opinions

Week of August 6

This week we halt the dissection of context and motifs to fondly remember accomplished veteran, lawyer, and poet Charles “Chuck” Patterson, a colleague of Tom’s who passed recently. Chuck Patterson was most widely known among veterans and those interested in veterans issues for his strong and courageous defense of Manny Babbitt during the appeal to commute his death sentence to life in prison for a murder committed while suffering from extreme PTSD. Tom shares their correspondence over the years, recalling the impact Chuck's work, writing, and involvement in UT's Free Minds Project had on students. Chuck's humility when presented with academic discussions on his poems is palpable in their communications. This quote of Charles’ stood out among their conversations: “There are no winners or losers, there is no good, no evil. There is just sudden death or injury on both sides. One moment a man is alive the next he’s a corpse regardless of whose army he is fighting in or even if he is fighting, or if a civilian steps on a forgotten mine ten years later. We fought for no better reason than we were there and had to do it.” Charles’ work resonates deeply with program, not only because of its content, but in the perspective of a veteran who was able to communicate the pain of war through art. An outlet close to the Warrior Chorus mission.

Transitioning into presentations, we begin by discussing Brian’s untitled essay that was sent to the group following last week’s meeting. Expounding on the points in the previous discussion, Brian’s striking performance essay encompasses the fear and urgency he hoped to convey to the audience while remaining informative. Using imagery of a gun to one’s back and a knife at one’s throat, Brian paints grim picture of the current state of government intel and the threats against democracy. Clarifying our previous conversations on unconsented wars, Brian writes: “I was also awakening to the fact that the war that this was occurring in seemed to be the product of a surprisingly unsubtle manipulation that was performed by a more or less compliant press on a stupified and bewildered public. The evidence, the rational, the purpose of the war was non-existent in real terms.”

Having changed his performance to an original song, Glenn follows with a heart wrenching self-recorded song of mourning and questioning. The timbre of his voice is reminiscent of soulful ballads and blues, a tone that fits the melancholy nature of the song. The song conveys the pain of war and feeling othered despite service to one’s country. Glenn goes on to explain how the traumas of the ‘killing fields’ were displayed in the violent tendencies that eventually erupted through gangs in his southern California city.  

Jumping on this point, Brian adds that the tactics and scenarios displayed on popular military action shows fuel pro-war propaganda that can potentially erode the sensitivities of civilians watching. This also leads to him questioning how we fail to learn from unsuccessful wars, foreign political interference tactics, and the ills of human nature. James and Meagan offer a counterpoint to that assumption - saying that the U.S. has a long history of not heeding the warnings of dissenting government personnel. Meagan lists Colin Powell’s opposing stance as an example, while James offers slavery and the removal of Native Americans from their lands as displays of U.S. immorality.

Once the conversation spirals into U.S. imperialism based on Athenian models, Mike brings up the perfect question in relation to the audience. How are they to handle dissenting opinions while presenting their work to the public?  A great questions with reassuring answers from the rest of the group. We highlight the educational purpose of the program, and James and Glenn revel in the opportunity to present new and maybe uncomfortable perspectives to the audience. These conversations not only stimulate meaningful dialogue among the group members, they reinforce the intentions and impact of the art they hope to create.

Performance Intentions

Week of July 30

The open communication encouraged in previous meetings proves to be a great tool for fine tuning the final project concepts this week. So far, the individual and partner exercises have been used to strengthen the connection between their personal stories, presentation ideas, and the text. General ideas and themes have been deliberated and now it’s time to review how those ideas can become more concrete and rooted in the texts. Professor Tom Palaima, who led the class readings and discussions listens to each idea and offers his thoughts as needed.

Gianna’s vision has been clear since her first illustration of the the soldier’s memorial weeks ago. Inspired by Hector’s funeral pyre and her work in mortuary affairs, Gianna plans to create a life size soldiers cross. James suggests that the title of the piece could be her direct tie in from the text, as well as using it on the memorial dog tag.

Honing in on his ideas discussed in previous meetings, Bart details the intentions and inspirations behind his project - the death of the soldier from two perspectives. Comparing  Hector’s death to that of unnamed soldiers, it’s clear that social status played a huge role in the respect shown to soldiers killed in battle. Is this fair? How does this strip the humanity of the soldiers on both sides?

Darrin is able to tie in both his naval experience and the text with his idea to visually represent the “thousand ships that brought Greeks to Troy.” Tom commends the idea of pulling direct textual content.

Brian continues to shape his intent and overall messaging. At this point he wants to relay the dangers he believes are threatening our democracy. Drawing from his deployment experience as a linguist, Brian describes his feelings of sudden unfamiliarity with this country’s moral fabric. The revelations brought about by Snowden’s leaks were also influential. What were the real causes of the war versus the media representation? Should these factors be able to fly under the radar of public opinion? How can democracy be maintained among unconsented wars and a homeland spying apparatus? Tom suggests pulling inspiration from the Iliad’s Fall of Troy. Brian’s main concern at this point is how to present this in an informative yet non-threatening way to the audience. He contemplates projecting images against a screen and wire Trojan helmet.

Glenn’s highly personal performance of Man in the Mirror, by Michael Jackson is meant to recall the torrent of feelings he felt after his son’s decision to join the Marines - a reality he never wanted his son to experience. How does this tie into the text? The pleas from Hector’s family to fulfill his duties at home parallel the sentiments Glenn felt toward his son, and can also be applied to the lyrics of the song.  

Thanks in part to the the previous week’s hero discussion, Steven is able to clearly define his intentions with his immersive performance piece. Yellow footprints will usher audience members through the hero’s journey and guide them to recognize the heroes in their own lives. The yellow footprints are a very specific reference for the former Marine. He hopes to capture the vivid memory of crossing the threshold of military life and present that to attendees in a way that can mirror different aspects of life’s challenges.

For James, the question of how dead soldiers are seen through the ages is a potentially poignant focal point. It’s a question that incorporates many of our discussions, including heroism, duty, and the propagation of patriotism without criticism. Feeling both pride and guilt about his role in the service, the duality of James’ sentiments should make for an interesting piece of writing that explores many of the topics at hand.

Clarifying Concepts: What Defines a Hero?

Week of July 23

This week begins the brainstorming of the form, context, and ideas for their final projects. In the previous meeting they were tasked with creating a collage of possible themes to present to the group. They delivered a variety of ideas and forms spanning plays, dance performances, and song. The discussions that follow each short presentation not only evolve into deeper conversations about audience takeaways, they challenge common American ideals of war and valor.

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James is the first to present, showing two glossy prints of multiple images. The juxtaposition of nuclear explosions, dead sheep, Iliad characters, with cartoon characters (Road Runner) and beauty queens (Ms. Atomic Bomb 1957) is strong, provocative imagery. Another version of this collage combines all the images in a geometric shape that blooms across the page. James plans to use his play writing background to create a one act stage reading that encompasses themes explored in the text.

Megan’s piece is inspired by the loss of a close friend. Photos of some of their last moments together show the camaraderie they shared as servicemembers, friends, and bandmates. Honoring the way music helped shape their friendship, Megan plans to tell her story through an original song or medley of songs that explore death and loss.

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Steven, a former Marine with a background in choreography and French theater wants to create an immersive, participatory experience for the audience. One of the themes he wants to explore with his performance is society’s tendency to be drawn to disaster and turmoil, especially in media. He illustrates this with a photoshopped image of a colorful explosion surrounded by a crowd of dancers.

Although uncertain of the form of his work will take, Mike is very clear about what he wants the audience to glean. His time as a medevac pilot was deeply impactful and shifted his thoughts on heroism and honor. By examining the ancient Greek definition of heroism alongside the civilian interpretation and what he’s witnessed in the field, Mike hopes to expose the audience alternative views on heroism.

The common two dimensional view of military life - the hero complex vs. complicity in imperial violence, is what Bart wants to combat with his work. Emphasizing how these limiting portrayals rob veterans and fallen soldiers of their human complexities, Bart wants to explore the definitions of honor and duty as it concerns military and political responsibilities.  

Mike and Bart’s views on heroism and honor contrast in a way that sparks a passionate conversation about who our heroes are and why. While Mike believes that those who die while fulfilling military duties have earned the title of “hero”, Bart wants to consider the weight of their full human experience. As the group chimes in, deeper questions arise. Should how and why a person joined the military be considered when labeling a person a hero? Does intent matter?  Should we consider the fact that propagating heroism and death for one’s country influences the masses? Does dying in battle outweigh the full extent of a person’s life? These questions gave way to more discussions on individual ideas of heroism. While a consensus isn’t reached, a deeper understanding of the complexities of military service and its effects on individual worldview is revealed.

Closing out the final project idea presentations, Brian expresses his uncertainty about the form of his art. Sculpture, painting, writing, graphic design are some of the options he’s considering. He does know that he wants the audience to come away with a feeling of solemnity and more depth when considering the toll war takes on one’s humanity and society in general.

After this session's passionate discussions and ideas, it’s clear that the audience will take a great deal away from the group's perspectives and knowledge on war and military life.

Art Day: Visualization of the Stories

Week of July 16

With readings from the past weeks fresh on their minds and hearts, the group begins practicing the creative process. While reminiscent of grade school assignments, “Art Day” begins the important step of actualizing creative thought and textual interpretations. The group is encouraged to use one moment from their readings to illustrate with the supplies Bart has brought to class. The illustrations can be directly from the stories, or inspired by them in ways that tie in their personal experience. After 15 minutes of drawing, the works are shared (some reluctantly) and discussed among the group.

 

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James:

Class description: Planes overhead of what looks like a school with students under the desks. The American flag atop the school makes it clear that the planes attacking the school are not American. A quote is displayed at the bottom saying: “I hear the Gods calling me to my death.”

Intended Meaning: James goes into detail about his life-long history with the atomic bomb. He clarifies that the image represents his school aged experience with the Cuban Missile Crisis at age 7. The striking quote represents the mortality he had to face at such a young age.


 

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Meagan:

Class description: A soldier in war standing while mom and/or wife trying to lure him back from battle. They eventually decipher that the soldier is Hector from the Iliad.

Meaning: Meagan intended to represent how Hector’s heart is connected to his troops in battle, more so than his family. This relates to her own complicated experience of being deployed over and over again. While a soldier’s heart is obviously connected to the family back home, there is a connection in the figurative or literal battlefield that civilian family members will not often understand.

 

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Terry:   

Class description: They see battleships and a cityscape colored blue and pink. Long and short arrows point in both directions. Perhaps a stalemate or standoff situation between the two sides. They also debate whether or not they are on the same side of the battle since both the blue and pink are represented on both sides.

Meaning: “We are you, you are us.” Equality is the general sentiment that Terry wants to illustrate with this image. His inspiration came from the last page of the Iliad book 24 which closes with “all sides being even.”


 

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Darrin:

Class description: A winged goddess holds what looks like a torch. She’s perhaps signaling during or before a battle. Sees freedom, but also travesty and deception because of the gods’ tendencies.

 

Meaning: Darrin was inspired by the statues that line the UT campus where this class discussion is held. The Statue of Victory to him, represents Athena. The group accurately guessed that the drawing is Athena before going into her deceit of Hector.

 

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Gianna: 

Gianna's drawing is immediately recognized as a soldier memorial. They note that the landscape does not have the same detail as the boots, gun, and tags. Since this ceremony only happens overseas, or for the soldiers and wife and kids, perhaps this is taking place during a deployment. They discuss how social media has popularized an image that would commonly only be known to those affected by deployment and war.

Meaning: Gianna confirms the soldier memorial ceremony theory and clarifies that the desolate background is a desert, specifically Iraq. She was inspired by the description of the funeral site in the Iliad.

 

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Mike:

Class description: Two soldiers seem cornered and one is angry. A quote from the Iliad is above their heads reading, “when a young man is killed in war, even though his body is slashed with bronze, he lies there in beautiful death.” The quote overhead reminds them of barbed wire and hesco barriers.

 

Meaning: With his image, Mike intends to turn the notion of the “Beautiful Death” mentioned in the texts on its head - or in his words, “fuck all that.” Using his tablet he draws a depiction of his first mission as a medevac pilot, which still haunts him. The image depicts two remaining soldiers as they watch their deceased comrade being airlifted away. He excuses his lack of art skills, but still captures the anger and frustration from the two servicemen.

 

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Glenn: 

Inspired by his recent reading of AJAX, Glenn attempts to depict the loss of sanity Ajax experiences after the trauma of war. The middle figure represents death, while the two outside figures present a balance of conscience. 

 

 


The next step in the creative process this week is revisiting past works from group members. James, a playwright and veteran shares his one act play The Joy of Mechanical Force.

Inspired by a true story from a funeral home in Odessa, Texas, the play is humorous, dark, and reminiscent of themes discussed in the texts. The group enjoys the readings and the pop culture references thoughtfully placed throughout. Gianna related to the play through her background in funeral work in and outside of the military. There are several motifs in the play that stand out to the rest of the group - death, self-righteousness, Greek names, and uncomfortable emotions.

A short Q&A with James on his creative process follows. Questioning the overall human motivation for war vs. peace, Brian wonders how to encompass these broad themes in a way that is understood by civilians. James describes his process as highly conceptual and personal; he doesn’t create until there are emotions attached. Brian counters that he actually wants to do the opposite and explore things that can be easily translated to everyone.

Following a productive week of dipping their toes in the “creative waters,” the group is told to make a collage, or mood board of possible concepts for their final project.

The Iliad in Modern Culture

Week of July 9

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As we delve deeper into the texts of the week, the Iliad books 22 and 24, we briefly explore the cultural context of these works throughout history. Professor Tom Palaima presents an interesting point: What does the Iliad mean to culture and how does our culture inform our interpretation of the Iliad? Meaning, how do our current cultural understandings and points of view color the way we see these texts, and how can that differ through time?

After reading a passage, Tom remarks that early analyses of the Iliad often glazed over the overt sexual nature of the “prizes,” or female sex slaves the soldiers fought over as merits for their work on the battlefield. Meagan, one of the two women in the class balked at the idea that something so blatant could be dismissed in classical interpretations. Tom interjects, noting that the Puritanical views of the period would have spurned interpretations of sexuality, whereas our current understanding of sexuality and feminist movements makes it hard to ignore something as violent at sexual slavery. It’s a striking point that perfectly highlights the question of the day.

But how did we come to interpret the Iliad as a way to understand the modern struggles of soldiers at war or returning from battle? For one, the works of Stanley Lombardo and Philip Roth (The Human Stain), and interpretations from Jonathan Shay presented the ethos of these classic texts in modern form. Works like Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam gave new perspective on how the texts can be applied to understanding the challenges of returning combat veterans.

Reading through the Iliad 22, literary devices are readily identified by the group. They find that Lombardo strikes a balance between moving the story along through narration, while giving the reader clarity on how each character feels. Similes, particularly relating to animals stand out to Terry and Darren, as well as the concise writing and pacing of this Lombardo interpretation. Brian and Meagan are drawn to what’s in between the lines of the text. Lines 80-85 are especially poignant to Meagan, who finds the concept of “lying beautiful in death” familiar in our need to memorialize and idealize the fallen.

Detailing the more existential aspects of the story, Brian questions the predetermined fate of someone like Hector, whose life hangs on the balance of the will of the feuding Gods. His violent death is considered especially atrocious when considering the cruelty Achilles displays when dragging his body behind his chariot. The detail of these battle scenes are striking and reminiscent of combat and formation tactics the group finds familiar. 

 

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Finding Community

Week of June 25

Community, history, and music dominated the conversations of this week’s meetings. With new additions to the sessions, group leader Bart led us in introductions. The service men and women present ranged from former linguists and pilots, to reserve members and combat veterans, many of whom had limited experience with the arts beyond this program. Bart’s brief introduction of the program’s mission and history spurred dialogue about the importance of community among veterans and how that must be reflected to U.S. civilians.  

Returning members Terry and Meagan recounted how their experiences in the program helped them articulate the realities of the military to engaged audiences during the previous year’s showcases. Meagan remembers that attendees were open to challenging conversations and left with new perspectives on life as a veteran. Terry, a veteran who served between the Korean and Vietnam wars interjects, noting that civilians want to know the experiences of veterans. He reassures the newcomers of the program’s benefits and recalls how Bart helped him find a vision for the work he wanted to present to the public.  

The literary analysis included short passages from the Iliad 1 led by professor Tom Palaima. The contrast between the Greek understanding of war and American understanding is underlined in the discussion. War and combat were realities of Greek life that American civilians are more distant from today. This point ties into the purpose of the program - showing a more human view of veteran and military life for civilians with little understanding of the reality. As they delve further into the text, participants begin to draw parallels with their own military experiences. Meagan notes the talk of “prizes” by Agamemnon and Odysseus and the glaring entitlement of the men in power. Brian notes the pettiness and egos of the supposed “heros of war” when faced with conflict within the ranks. Finally, Tom broadens the discussion by pointing out the self examination lacking in the “shame and honor” culture of the ancient Greeks compared to the Judaism influenced society we live in today. From there, participants discuss the factors of “honor societies” and the contrasts with current culture. Honor killings in the east, rural versus urban life, and in urban life, the presence of gangs that follow these same honor or “achievement” codes of value.

The following meeting began with more introductions and general inquiries about the musicality of the Greek epics. Here, the convergence of military, arts, and performance are discussed in detail. Ranging from cultural and theatrical references, to the questions that still evade historians about the ancient Greek arts. Who wrote these epics? What did they sound like performed live? How was the tone of the writings translated to music?

A reading of Paul Woodruff’s poem “What the Veteran Said” evoked an emotional conversation about culpability in war. The interpretations of the poem varied, but centered on one theme - guilt or a lack thereof. The takeaway from the discussions was that combat veterans, clerks, cooks, and beyond can face an internal and external guilt from their service in the military. Those not on the front lines deal with the guilt and relief of knowing they aren’t in harm’s way, while those in combat face the realities of recurring violence. Many members expressed that going back to civilian life after these events can lead to conflicting emotions, especially when praised and/or criticized by the public.

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