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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2001 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE one thing Americans seem not to be thinking too much about -- at least in terms of what it really means -- is this:

What if President Bush and Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have been telling us the absolute and unvarnished truth? What if they have meant every word?

Not about strategy; not about the importance of the mission; not about the need for the United States to take the stand it is taking. We know that they mean what they say about those things.

But what if they mean it when they say this is going to last for many years? That it is going to be a long, long war?

We have nodded our heads when they have said it -- we have agreed with them that, yes, our country is in this for the long haul.

But have we truly considered what that will signify for the young men and women sent to fight the war on terrorism, and for their families and loved ones? In acknowledging that this is the right thing for our nation to do, have we considered what a profound moment this is?

It's worth thinking about, if only to prepare ourselves for what is to come. And in light of that, I tracked down a book that can give us a lesson, in advance.

It's a book I found quite by chance, several years ago, at the public library in Coronado, Calif. It was a flawless, sunny day on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and I had wandered into the library on Orange Avenue, and I just started walking among the bookshelves with no specific purpose in mind. I wasn't looking for anything; I was just looking.

I found a book called "While You Were Gone." Published in 1946, edited by a man named Jack Goodman, "While You Were Gone" had a simple premise: Our country had sent millions of men and women away for years at a time during World War II. Because the U.S. had to win the war -- the alternative was unthinkable -- those men and women were ordered away from the U.S., and sent to lands they might never have dreamed of seeing. Their lives weren't exactly put on hold -- their lives, as soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators were full, indelibly so -- but they lost connection with what they had formerly regarded as daily life: life in America.

And then, in 1945, the war ended -- and most of them came home.

"While You Were Gone" was a refresher course for them. Its 26 chapters covered, in minute detail, what took place in the United States while they were away winning the war. Twenty-six chapters, by experts in 26 fields: What Labor Did, What Industry Did, The Presidency, The World of Sports, What We Talked About, What Happened to the Younger People, The Newspapers, The Radio, The Magazines, Advertising, The Movies, What Happened in Science, What Happened in Agriculture....

I stood there in the Coronado library, leafing through the book, and it felt....

Well, it felt a long way removed. The idea of having to give a remedial course in American life to millions of people who, because their country asked them to, missed out on that life for years at a time ... the idea seemed as distant as World War II itself. Down the island, just a few miles away, Navy SEALs were in training at their Coronado base -- if you walked down the beach, you encountered them practicing landing maneuvers. But this was several years ago, well before Sept. 11, 2001. What the SEALs were doing seemed important, but not all that urgent. You could say hello to them and talk for a second; they were not in a hurry to get to a war.

The world, as we all know, has changed. The other day, with the help of the Chicago Public Library, I got hold of another old copy of "While You Were Gone," and now I'm reading it word for word. It was a serious world, back in the 1940s -- apparently the returning soldiers were willing to spend time reading no-nonsense essays about steel manufacturing, and rotation of crops, and chemistry laboratory experiments, and literary trends ... anything to help them catch up on what they missed.

There was even a detailed section compiling the votes of every member of Congress on important bills -- just so the returning soldiers would know how their elected representatives had cast their ballots while the soldiers were away. Would today's returning soldiers spend the time to take such somber interest in congressional votes?

It's difficult to say. But we may find out. That's why I am reading this old book with new attention. Our president has told us that our young military men and women may be on this mission for a long, long time. We owe it to them to think about what that really means.

What it means is that they're going to be gone -- maybe for longer than anyone has talked about. When it's over, will we have to teach them about what they have missed, here in the United States?

"While You Were Gone." Six weeks ago, it was a printed heading atop pink telephone-message pads in thousands of business offices. Today, the words have a different sound -- or are about to -- in a different world.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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