Today’s Boys: Tomorrow’s Warriors

They were “just boys” or “babies” or “young.” Often in war stories, it is the men who are at battle, but the boys who go to war. Those deciding and those fighting are men and boys, as are those leaving and those returning home.

Lieutenant General Samuel Vaughan Wilson, retelling a Civil War story told to him as a child, by his “Auntie Mamie,” who spent much of the Battle of Saylers Creek “crouched on a pile of last fall’s potatoes there on the floor of the basement” in Lockett House, which was in the middle of the battle, and used as a hospital by both sides:

“There was another one right over here where you can see that other stain still there in the floor. He was a little Johnny Reb,  couldn’t have been more’n 12 or 13,  tow-headed and not even old enough to shave. He was in real bad shape, had been hit in the stummick, bleeding real bad and his guts were spilling out all over the place. They kept trying to stuff his guts back in his belly, but it looked like it wasn’t working. I can hear him now calling for his mama—’Mama, Mama, help me, Mama . . .’ Then he called real low one last time and was quiet, and I knew he was dead too.”

The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

Looking back years later at photographs of himself and his smooth-cheeked friends in uniform, Sid Phillips marveled that America had ever “considered these young volunteers as her defenders. . . . They had the heart but not the experience.” Nine out of ten of the men in his division really were boys (their average age was nineteen) and had no real idea before they landed what combat would be like. Luckily, as one officer recalled, there were veterans scattered among the ranks whose impact on them would be incalculable.

President Ronald Reagan, Nov. 11, 1985, Arlington National Cemetery:

It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our minds as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two live – the one they were living and the one that would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do it remember.

Hitler’s War by Edwin Palmer Hoyt

Sometimes Hitler emerged to participate in some ceremony. On his birthday, April 20, he received a delegation of Hitler Youth who had been fighting at the front. They were just boys—but soldiers now—dying in a war that was already lost.

Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

I can hear them. ‘Oh,the pain, Nurse, oh, Nurse, the pain.’ And my mother, who I maintain could have been an actress, made the sounds og the poor boys calling out for morphine painful, years and years later. ‘And the worst, you see, the worst was when they were calling for their mothers. They were just boys, that’s all. I remember one little lad, he was sixteen, he had pretended to be eighteen, but he was just . . . He died calling for his mother, and I …’ and Sister McVeagh, all those years later, wept, remembering how she had pretended to be his mother. “Yes, I’m here,” I said. Oh, and when I think of it . ..’

Well, she did think of it, a great deal, and at times two streams of war horrors went on together, my mother’s  ‘Oh, the poor boys’ like a descant to the Trenches.

And So It Goes—Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields

“You were just babies then!” she said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded this was true. We had been follish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.”

That wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.

“I-I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

Iowa governor Albert B. Cummins, during his Nov. 23, 1906 speech, dedicating monuments at Shiloh (as appears in The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield by Timothy Smith):

I have been impressed, as we have gone from day to day, by one phrase which we have constantly employed. We look at a monument and we say, “the boys were worthy of this tribute.” Why do we call them boys? Why is that name so dear to the hearts of the succeeding generation? We call them boys because they were boys. Of the eighty thousand men the first day, and of the one hundred thousand the next day, upon this field, I venture to say the average age was under twenty-one; not more, at least, than twenty-one. Your boys, fighting for the honor of your country’s flag and the permanence of your country’s institutions. Ah, I do not wonder that we come here weeping. To their mothers, to their wives, to their sisters, to the maids who loved them, these men, some now gone beyond the river, some now sharing the gratitude of a succeeding generation, will always be boys. And to us they shall always be boys. The thought in my mind, however, is this, and it should fill us with transcendent hope when we reflect upon it—that boys of eighteen, twenty and twenty-one could, by the summons of war, change in the twinkling of an eye into the mature heroes of conflict. The boys who climbed the banks of the Tennessee River, and here offered themselves up that their country might live, became men—stern, unyielding men—when the storm of shot and shell fell upon them. The days of their boyhood were gone forever, and they stood, as stalwart giants, full of the sense of responsibility, with minds attuned to the music of the Union, and with arms strong to execute a high and sacred purpose.

Killed in Action” by M.P.B

Oh dirty, grimey little lad,
How proud I was to be your dad.
So brave and fearless and alert, With both feet bare, nor trace of shoes,
Sans hat, with overalls of blue,
One leg rolled nearly to the pocket,
Avoiding clutch of chain and sprocket,
You were my constant pride and joy,
Oh dirty, grimey, little boy.

Oh dirty, ragged, little man,
Remembering you as best I can,
The things you carried in your pocket,
A string, a worm, a broken locket,
The things you did, that time you hid,
When you were just a little kid
And I suspected you of smoking,
To find you only had been joking,
That time you grabbed my hat and ran,
Oh dirty, ragged, little man.

Oh dirty, grimey little lad,
The years too few were those we had.
Those many hours you spent afishin,
Are equaled by the ones I’m wishing
That, with our lives to live again,
‘Tis just a fancy sure but then,
We’d have more time to spend together,
And so the chance of proving whether
Your ways would any more annoy,
Oh dirty, grimey, little boy.

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  1. Jason Keough on January 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    And So It Goes by Charles Shields reads like Vonnegut in the preface to “Slaughter House Five”

    • Callie Oettinger on January 24, 2012 at 5:36 pm

      Jason – Thank you for your post. The mention of Charles Shields’ book, AND SO IT GOES, should have included the subtitle, too. In full: AND SO IT GOES—KURT VONNEGUT, A LIFE. More here:

      • Jason Keough on January 25, 2012 at 8:31 am

        Thanks Callie. I thought I was just getting old 🙂

  2. George Davis on January 24, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    What is it about societies that have to exploit boys as killing machines? Look at the horrible conscription of boy soldiers in Africa’s atrocities… From your post, Steven, I see this is an age-old practice. It has been, and continues to be, appalling.

  3. Anibal Delgado on February 7, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Mr. Pressfield, you have the dubious honor of being the first person to ever compose a blog post that made me tear up at my desk.

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