School of the Soldier
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys." Thus Melville in his poem The March into Virginia." War must rely on the young, for only they have the two things fighting requires: physical stamina and innocence about their own mortality. The young are proud of their athleticism, and because their sense of honor has not yet suffered compromise, they make the most useful material for manning the sharp end of war. Knowledge will come after a few months, and then they'll be used up and as soldiers virtually useless--scared, cynical, debilitated, unwilling.
A notable feature of the Second World War is the youth of most who fought it. The soldiers played not just at being killers but at being grown- ups. Enacting a child's parody of a murderous adult society, boys who had never shaved machine-gunned other boys creeping up with Panzerfausts in their adolescent hands. Among the horribly wounded the most common cry was "Mother!" It was his mother who affectionately cut a young soldier down to size when, training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he bragged in his letters about his manly expertise in night combat exercises. "The fact of the business," she reminded him, "is that most of you still need nursing bottles instead of Night Infiltration."1 Women especially were struck by the anomaly of teen-agers turned soldiers, and not just in America. Observing the Finnish War in December, 1939, Martha Gellhorn visited a squadron of fighter planes and observed, "As always, one is astounded by the age of the pilots; they ought to be going to college dances, you feel, or cheering at football games." And later, in China in March, 1941, she notes of the soldiers of a Chinese army bodyguard provided for her party, "They all looked twelve years old and were probably nineteen."2 Devising a military hero for her Levant Trilogy, dealing