When Johnny Comes Marching Home

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By: Dennis Anderson

Tomorrow night or early Saturday morning, I drive up to Camp Roberts, “Camp Bob,” that scruffy National Guard base built in 1941, where my odyssey as an embedded reporter, bound for Iraq, began two years ago. It may not be Homeric, but it’s the only odyssey I’ve got.

Another company of my hometown troops is almost home. In Antelope Valley, Calif., a bunch of Mojave Desert red-tile suburbs over the mountains from Hollywood — and 60 miles, or a million light-years, north of downtown Los Angeles — we have sent every Guard and Reserve unit within a hundred miles to Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of them twice. These are the Palmdale ?tankers.?

In nearly 20 years of working for the wire services — AP, mostly, and UPI, too — I had the intimacy of working with people on the street or in the suite one customer at a time, and then we would move on in time, their “big story” done. But many of these people from this war will be with me for the rest of my life: The G.I.s that I camped out with, the mothers and fathers of the dead, the wives waiting for their husbands. It has been–it is–a little overwhelming.

So, I’ll get up to Camp Bob, and many of the G.I.s from Palmdale will not know or remember that it was me, or another one or two of our reporters, who talked to them a year ago when they left. But because of the Camp Bob connection, we will be acquainted very quickly. Our newspaper has maps and fact boxes and logos, ready for the news package of the homecoming. And those newspapers will go into drawers, or be mailed to relatives everywhere, or get mounted and framed, and they will tell the little bit of that strange year for these soldiers that will be recorded for the public.

Is it not strange? Joseph Campbell was right: one mythology of gods and war. Jung was right: one unconscious, a mass unconscious, fueled now by the Internet. Paul Simon called it “The Age of Miracles and Wonders,” the age of “lasers in the jungle … this is the age of the long-distance call.”

And so it has been. Bin Laden placed his “long-distance” call a few years ago, and now the world is changed.

But I do wonder if it is changed. I was listening to NPR over the weekend, and some scholar-author whose name sailed past me was talking about the Crusades. He described it not as an adventure in pillage, but the earnest quest to hold the Holy Land and find the relics such as the Grail and the True Cross, and this pitted Christendom and Islam in the only modern wars they had at the time. And he concluded, to paraphrase, “It’s said that people are more wise today, but I don’t see evidence of it. We are pursuing many of the same ends now that we did then, and not to much better effect.”

My son, who has served in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq since last autumn, is now on a ship with the Essex Task Force, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. For the moment, his Iliad is done, and his odyssey is pointed, ultimately, toward home, after pit stops in Okinawa and Pearl Harbor, the grail relics of the Pacific War. My weekend rest stop on Saturday will be with Jim Hayes, Los Angeles Times writing coach and professor emeritus of journalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. When he was my son’s age, 19, he waded ashore, a Navy scribe going in with the Marines in the assault on Okinawa. Decades later, he had cried for my son, knowing that the boy he once was had been pulled into the furies.

Jim Hayes survived. My son, too. Me too. Ernie Pyle, not. I read that he hadn’t wanted to go to the Pacific, but he felt it was his duty. He was more than tired of war, and liberating Paris was as good as it was going to get. But he felt he owed it to the G.I.s and Marines in the Pacific to do the same job for them and give them that coverage they deserved as he had done for G.I. Joe in Europe. He was the best.

My son survived, but 50 of his brothers did not. If my San Luis Obispo pitstop works out, Hayes and I will have a cup of sailor’s coffee, or something stronger, in his kitchen. And we will not sing of arms and the man. It is too sad, too scary, too harsh. And it is what we are doing now.

Writing is a response to emotional torrent, and I am in one. But when the notebook comes out this weekend, a little professional distance will put the writer in the place he needs to be to get the work done.

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