The Facts about Soldiers' Ages: U.S. Troops Today Are Older-And More Responsible-Than Americans like to Think

By Lembcke, Jerry | National Catholic Reporter, August 31, 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Facts about Soldiers' Ages: U.S. Troops Today Are Older-And More Responsible-Than Americans like to Think


Lembcke, Jerry, National Catholic Reporter


At a recent antiwar rally in my hometown, one of the speakers dramatized the burden that war places on young Americans by saying the average age of soldiers dying in Iraq is 21, the same the nation's undergraduate students. "She's wrong on both counts," I grumbled to the man next to me.

Actually, the speaker was right that the age of both populations is about the same, but she was way: off on the figure. Public and universities include many people retooling their some of them veterans. The average age of American undergraduates is almost 27.

But it was the image of war dead as youth that really interested me, The same image had caught my attention years earlier when it was commonly observed that the average age of the soldiers killed in Vietnam was 19. I usually heard it from antiwar activists and since I was opposed to the war, I didn't argue with them.

I gave the matter little more thought until the 1990s when I began looking into other mistaken but widely held beliefs about the Vietnam years--like that of spat-upon veterans. By then, the image of the youthful GI was nestled in the nation's memory, despite the fact that few people had ever seen data on the ages of the dead in Vietnam.

B.G. Burkett validated my unease with the figure of 19 when he claimed in his 1998 book Stolen Valor to be the first researcher to acquire the causality figures from the National Archives. According to him, the actual mean age of the American dead in Vietnam was 22.8 years. But what did it matter? Fifty-eight thousand dead GIs in Vietnam was too many; was the difference of three or so years in their averaged ages anything but an academic quibble?

I wasn't sure until I read a columnist's claim that in Iraq it was 19-year-olds who were again dying for our freedom. I ran the numbers on the first 700 dead Americans in Iraq. Average age: almost 27.

Knowing that widely held misperceptions like these often reflect unspoken unease about the group's experience, I wondered why a nation would imagine its dead soldiers as younger than they really were. Could it be that people simply don't know? Unlikely, given that the names and ages of our war-dead in Iraq are scrolled on the evening news and printed daffy in national newspapers. Just a glance at those lists, and the large number of 30 and 40-year-olds killed stands out. Yet in her Memorial Day column, New York Times writer Maureen Dowd chided politicians for leaving "our kids" to die in Iraq when inches from her words was an eye-catching chart giving the names and ages of Americans killed there on Memorial Days since the 2003 invasion.

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