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 right 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.
Photo Credit: 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.”
Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.