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April 15, 2010

The Children’s Crusade

American-Soldier-Boy.png

by BagNews contributor John Lucaites

I don’t know what the average age of the American soldier is, but the typical photograph we have seen in recent times suggests that “he” is in his mid-twenties or later. And what such photographs show us are young men who have completed their training as fighting machines; indeed, many such images show us soldiers who have already seen battle and so, as young as they might be, they appear as veterans and far older than their years. What such photographs fail to show us—and in the process allow us to forget—is how much going to war robs such men of their youth and innocence … and no doubt much more as well.

When I first came across the photograph above I thought I was looking at a group of adolescents “playing” at being soldiers.

Indeed, the shooter in the middle of the image looks rather like “Ralphie,” the young boy from Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story who pines for a Red Ryder BB Gun only to have a department store Santa tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” And those around him don’t seem much older as they all look awkwardly out of place in their clean camouflage uniforms and wielding what at first glance appear to be toy versions of automatic weapons. But of course they aren’t toy weapons, and these apparently prepubescent adolescents are actually recruits in basic training, “prepar[ing] to clear and secure a room.”

The photograph is part of Craig F. Walker’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning, eight part photo-essay “Ian Fisher: American Soldier,” a report which tracks seventeen year old Ian Fisher (he’s the one on the far left above) from high school through basic training to a tour of duty in Iraq and back home again—a veteran warrior who will carry this experience with him for the rest of his life.

Walker’s photographs are a stark and poignant reminder that those who carry the weight of our military efforts too often (far too often) go off to war as naïve and wide-eyed children—that they only become the adult warriors and heroes we remember in myth and movie after the fact—and those who are fortunate enough to return home will have paid a devastating and incalculable price.

cross-posted from No Caption Needed

photo: Craig F. Walker/Denver Post; The title “The Children’s Crusade” is drawn from the subtitle of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade and commented upon in an earlier NCN Post titled “What Peace Looks Like.”

  • http://www.futurebird.com futurebird

    I teach college freshmen. They look much younger… like the high school or even middle school. The army takes them young by design, though right?
    I wonder why we have seen so few images of young solders.
    The child solider is often used to illustrate the horrors of war in poor countries like “look how barbarous they are! A child with a machine gun!”
    Aren’t we onlya few years away from being the same?

  • jmac

    I’m stunned. They’re babies. All have their pants rolled up – uniforms too big thus making them seem younger? Then you see the two fresh youthful faces on the right and you want them to put down the toys and come in for dinner.

  • Julia Grey

    How insulted these teenagers would be if they could see what we are saying about them here!
    In their minds, I’m sure, they look tough and rugged, exactly the way they imagined themselves while playing outdoor “Army” games as 8-year-olds, or computer games in the dark at 12. Now they’re proudly doing it “for real” and their interior images of themselves are (of course) not at all what this photograph actually shows.
    I wonder if any of these poor boys felt embarrassed by this?
    (And by the way, did they ALL make it back alive/in one physical piece?)

  • S

    This picture reminds me a bit of some young corpsmen (medics) who worked for me when I was at Naval Med Center Bethesda at the beginning of the war—they were all pumped up with the shock and awe of CNN and embedded journalism showing the fall of Baghdad. Then they went on the USS Comfort, took care of injured civilians and even enemy combatants being cared for there and realized that it wasn’t like a video game after all.
    These kids really believed in good-guys and bad-guys, black and white–all the gray out there was very confusing and overwhelming.

  • http://www.agrippinaminor.com/wp/ Scarabus

    My brother and I both are named for an uncle who was killed after winning a Silver Star. This was WW II, and the campaign was Italy. His mother had signed the papers to allow him to enlist at age 17.
    I’m retired now, but I too taught college for over four decades; and every year I taught at least some freshman men and women. I often shared my uncle’s photo and asked them to reflect about why some people their age were at war, worrying about killing or being killed, while others were in their first year of college, worrying about sorority rush or not getting busted on the traditional get drunk/hook up night at our institution.
    This raises a lot of issues for me, issues I won’t blather on about. But you can find a photo of my uncle on my FB page. Forget me, but I think it might be interesting to compare his face to what we see here:
    http://www.facebook.com/wayne.dickson1?ref=name#!/photo.php?pid=2654367&id=594712194

  • Jason

    You’ll shot your eye out, You’ll shoot your eye out. Seriously the kid in the middle looks just like Messy Marvin – the kid from the “A Christmas Story”. They have colored tipped rifles, much like the ones they grew up playing GI Joe with. Apparently reconiotering (sp) the young man on the left appears to be the leader listening and looking out for his men. These guys are old by some poor standards around the world’ true child soldiers. These guys could be Eagle Scouts. Maybe they are IT? Members of the I-Team? If so, they should drop the ROTC and get back to space camp. I wish them well.

  • Sam

    I just read the whole photo essay–great work, gives me a lot to think about. But if I’m not mistaken, Fisher is on the right, not the left. Unless you mean their left.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com lucaites

    Sam — Opps. You’re correct. Ian is on the right. Thanks for the correction.

  • OldMayfly

    My husband was 18 when he was with the 101st Airborne in WWII. He disliked almost all war movies,(Exceptions, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Paths of Glory) partially because they were what he called “recruiting pictures” and partially because the lead actors were often too old for their parts.) He said, “if you want to know what an average soldier looks like, look at the boys in a high school senior class picture.”
    His theory was that 18-19 year olds were ideal soldiers because at that age they had a lot of endurance and they were gullible.

  • Julia Grey

    His theory was that 18-19 year olds were ideal soldiers because at that age they had a lot of endurance and they were gullible.
    Gives a whole new dimension to the term “cannon fodder,” doesn’t it?
    I had to come back this morning to look at this again. Just a note about the possible photographic technique here…the photographer seems to be taking this from a height slightly above that of the boys themselves (maybe he’s tall in relation to them?), giving them a foreshortened look. That perspective emphasizes the “kiddie” look. Excellent work.
    And I still want to know if all these guys are okay

  • jmac

    It might also be the lighting of the legs – it almost makes them look distorted.

  • Julia Grey

    Well, camouflage IS supposed to fool the eye!

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com lucaites

    Julia: I considered the photographic angles when I looked at the images. First, of course, we would expect an “adult” to be taller than most children so you may well be correct that the image is shot from slightly above … its not clear to me however that this is a major influence on the image (but I don’t want to discount it altogether). The bigger thing, I think, are the faces which are simply childish. These kids aren’t shaving yet! And it is the face that keeps drawing me back to the images. Also, be sure to look at the whole array of photos because the faces show up again and again as the visage of babies … for example … http://photos.denverpost.com/photoprojects/specialprojects/ianfisher/photochapter3.html.
    As to, “are they okay”? Nothing in the photo story addresses that explicitly. But “okay” is obviously relative. Ian returned without physical damage to his body … but as we know with the growing number of suicides and other evidence of PTSD that seems rampant, physical harm is only one of the horrors these young men face.

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p00e5523476cc8834 DennisQ

    Acting in movies requires projecting a kind of presence to make the scene believable. But I’ve never seen a war movie in which the actors get it right. There’s always too much of one thing; not enough of another. I never get the feeling of soldiers; it’s always an awareness of actors-playing-soldiers . . . badly.
    Name the movie, and I can sit through 10 minutes of it. Some of them don’t get even that much time. The worst war film I’ve ever seen is Platoon. It was wrong about everything, and it was so deadly serious that I just couldn’t watch it. It was even worse than Apocalypse Now, which says a lot.

  • moistenedbink

    My father was 18 and fresh out of high school when he enlisted during WW2, He did not have to go, he had 3 brothers overseas already. Times and people were different then. The young soldiers of WW2 lived through the depression and were already hardened by life. Children were not as protected from reality and hardship then. Once you were done with high school, if you graduated, you were immediately out to work unless you were on of the few who through money or scholarship got to attend college. Adolescence today seems to extend until about 30 and until this financial downturn a lot of under 35’s didn’t know anything but comfort and convenience. If 50 is the new 30 thanks to life expectancy then 18 is the new 10 or 12.

  • OldMayfly

    True. And the ’50s were a reaction to the Depression and WW II. After all that, a tract house and a good union job were pretty much heaven. The New Deal was still helping the middle class and vets could go to college.
    The next generation–teenagers of the late ’60s–had little or no experience with economic hardship and were turned off by materialism, conformity, and complacency in the face of injustice (civil rights) and craziness (the cold war).
    Remember the song about “little houses on the hilltop and they’re all made of ticky-tacky, and they all look the same?”

  • OldMayfly

    Another random thought about soldiers–in the mid ’70s I boarded a plane in Kentucky after a strenuous business trip, and was beginning to relax from the stress. My seat-mate was a big husky sweet-faced kid of about 18. He was friendly, talkative, and thrilled with his first plane ride. “Are you going to Atlanta?” he asked me. I was. “I’m going all the way to Fort Benning,” he said. “I’m going to Vietnam!”
    I burst into tears.
    The poor kid was alarmed that his seat-mate was a crazy lady. He looked away, and there was no more conversation.
    I have often thought of him.

  • jmac

    Dennis – Did you see The Hurt Locker?

  • http://www.photowalkpro.com Jeff Revell

    This was a fantastic read that was definitely enhanced by Craig Walker’s amazing photos. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. By the way, Ian Fisher, the subject of the story, is the one on the far right, not left.

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