By: Dennis Anderson
The Romantic poet William Blake wrote two cycles of poetry, of which I can remember little more than the titles a generation after pondering the distant verses in an undergraduate course. They were called ?Songs of Innocence? and ?Songs of Experience.?
But remembering anything of poetry is the memory of emotion. Blake?s songs of innocence reflected a child?s view of the world. The songs of experience reflected sadness, the wistful nature of seeing the world through much older eyes.
The second anniversary of this war is a kind of second anniversary for a father and son, both of whom moved from innocence to experience along separate but similar paths; both lives consumed in the communication arts, the one as newspaper editor, the other as radio operator with Marine Corps grunts in Fallujah.
Two years ago, I was nearing the 50 mark. That counts as an age of experience in most people?s book. My oldest friend, Mark Mooney, and my then-17-year-old son, Garrett, dropped me off at the gates of Camp Roberts, a National Guard training post on the California Coast.
Many Americans of this time, by then, were possessed of their own loss of innocence, and trembled at the threshold of experience. The loss of innocence, for many, was ushered in on 9/11, with the sight of thousands of our people dying amid the falling towers of World Trade Center and collapsed walls of the Pentagon. Loss of innocence emerges in the simple calculation, ?We are not safe.?
In days that followed, a guy named Peter Mavropoulos renewed his enlistment in the National Guard after a service gap of about 20 years. He was 44. If he could pass a physical, the Guard would take him. He abandoned his very lucrative independent trucking company in middle age — and his best earning years — to serve his country.
?I was outraged,? he told me on our initial meeting, refering to 9/11. He still is.
When Mark (my oldest friend) and teenage son dropped me off at the Camp Roberts gate, I had yet to meet Peter, or all the other Guard soldiers I would follow on their journey to war in Iraq. I met Peter a couple of days later, and his story joined dozens of others in my notebook, tributary streams making the transient river of prose that is daily journalism.
My purposes, I believed, were simple: Follow a hometown Guard unit to its arrival in the combat zone of the first big war of the 21st century. About a third of the GIs in the 1498th Transport Co. of the California National Guard hailed from the Antelope Valley. They would be my witnesses and focus in an unfolding big story.
By this time, two years later, much experience has unfolded, and much innocence has been shed.
No WMDs ever found, that terrifying specter of nukes or bio or chemical weapons that triggered the juggernaut unleashed by President Bush. No operational connection between the diabolical agents of 9/11 and the diabolical agents of the Iraqi people?s tormentors, Saddam Hussein and his gang.
Two years ago, troops trained, diligently, earnestly, in the belief that if that gas mask wasn?t sealed to the face in about nine seconds, the nerve toxins misting the winds of war would achieve their horrible work. To ensure that seal was motivation enough for me to shave a beard I?d worn since the end of my Army hitch in 1975.
To go with soldiers was to train with them. To tell their story for a while was to live with them. We had our innocence diluted and our experience gained together, in tents and mud holes and along the Iraqi roads.
That was two years ago, and in my life?s book, time enough for reflection. There were other marks in the book, though. My son?s story has been entwined with my own through this two years of war, this two years of losing illusions and gaining hard experience.
Most of the soldiers gone to Operation Iraqi Freedom learned with everyone else about the WMD mystery, and most learned that, no, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden didn?t conspire in a room together. But, as they unlocked the burial grounds, the killing fields, and torture chambers, and as they fought a guerrilla legion filling its ranks with former executioners and nutty jihadists, they came to believe there was a sufficiency of menace in need of vanquishing.
We are at it still, at great cost, and to any gain that cannot be assayed right now. Wearily, a buddy, Staff Sgt. Adam Gorey of Bravo 1/185 said, ?Just tell ?em it?s not for the oil.?
As with other Americans, our hometown GIs learned about the goon show at Abu Ghraib, which shamed all of us, and shamed them. Losses and gains are hard to measure. Surely the humiliated hundreds who emerged from Abu Ghraib will hate us forever. What about the millions delivered from Saddam?s boot?
In the hard-won acquisition of experience we have seen something emerge that is bigger than Bush, bigger than Saddam, vastly bigger than the violence Osama bin Laden and his minions want to bring to America again. We have seen people stare down the executioners and walk past them to the polls for the first time, to try to determine their own destinies by their own elections. We have seen the phenomenon spread quickly, a deeper and more historic wind than any that would carry Saddam?s vanished toxins.
My return from Iraq in summer 2003 coincided with my boy?s graduation from Palmdale High School and his introduction to the tender mercies of the DIs at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. Loss of innocence begins with the last civilian breath drawn, the instant you hit those dread ?yellow footprints.? Experience begins and hurries along.
?The hardest thing to do is carry one of your dead buddies across a street to get picked up for the ride back,? my son wrote to me a couple of months ago.
He lost his innocence and gained his experience in Fallujah in daily close contact, arm?s length combat with ?the worst kind of humans man can produce, those who do evil for the sake of evil.? If asked for specific examples of that varietal of evil, he could cite them, but probably will not share them with anyone he senses ?will never understand or even care and will treat me with misunderstanding and false assumption.?
Combat vets fundamentally mistrust those who have bombastic and rationalizing opinions when they have no ground of experience on which to base their abstruse theories.
These past weeks, another company of hometown Guard soldiers returned to the Antelope Valley. They were the Bravo Co. tankers of Task Force 185. They looked proud, happy, even grateful. Grateful for having survived. Happy that their home base civilians in Palmdale turned out in great numbers to welcome them. Proud that their guns helped secure that big, successful election day turnout in Iraq. And that is experience, too. They know some things are worth fighting for.
Approximately half the voters in this country oppose this war. They believe their reasons correct and cleave to them
with a righteous fury. The other half hold their beliefs with similar conviction. History gets to judge.
For the half who believe it a humbug, who want all of our sons and daughters home immediately, many of those sons and daughters would tell you we need to stay until the job is finished.
In the interval, with experience gained at the cost of time and with infinite sadness over the losses incurred in war, my son, headed home from Iraq in the relative safety of Kuwait, encountered ?some flowers on my way to the PX … and they smelled so beautiful, and I wanted to cry, cry for my friends who will never be able to smell the flowers again.?
?I can smell the salt air in the breeze. Home, father, home and alive. How sweet and fragile life and mortality are.?