In a New York Times Book Review article of "The Somme," by Peter Hart, the reviewer notes that the author "daringly... comes to the defense of Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who has usually been depicted as an unimaginative idiot who sent the flower of British youth to an early grave for no good reason." (The 1916 WWI Battle of the Somme remains the most lethal single episode in British combat history—and one of the most deadly in the history of civilization—with over 19,000 killed in the first 24 hours.) Debating the case for the reclamation of the general’s reputation is of interest to me,* but it is the following assertion in Hart’s book that inspires this essay: "It is inane," Hart contends, "to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless victims. ... On the contrary, many were actively looking forward to the moment when they could finally prove themselves as full-fledged 'warriors."
There is, however, a major problem with assigning to the young soldiers the responsibility for throwing themselves into the deathly fray -- a problem that is underscored by recent studies in brain development (as reported in, among hundreds of other sites, the American Psychological Association's journal, "Monitor"). Most of these studies cite twenty-five as the approximate age at which the "executive" or judgmental brain is fully developed. Decisions made prior to that age are undertaken in an immature context of risk-taking and poor judgment. So it is simply a fact of life (and brain science) that a great proportion of young men will, of course, seek to "prove themselves as full-fledged warriors." As with decisions (in this stage of life) having to do with drinking, speeding, and sexuality, they don't know what they're doing. (Of course I'm overstating for effect -- but not by much! Do you recall the wisdom of your judgments at age nineteen?)
One reasonable conclusion toward which this brain research leads is that it ought to be illegal for anyone under the age of twenty-five to sign up for (or be recruited to) military service. Of course by that age they are beginning to realize that a guy could actually die, and to discover, in the words of the motto emblazoned on a popular brand of apparel worn by many of them, that "Life is Good." Like tobacco vendors hooking middle-schoolers, a military culture must get to the kids before they've wised up.
In any event, these studies have huge implications for how a humane nation goes about recruiting citizens for war-fighting. One such implication is that encouraging young men and women to sign up for battle may be the moral equivalent of an adult having sex with a teen-ager, or at least, to use a quaint phrase out of our dusty statutes, "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."
* Wade Davis, in Into The Silence, his compelling study of the role of British officers and soldiers in World War I, reports that General Haig’s son raised this intriguing defense of his father, who never once saw the front or visited the wounded: “The suffering of his men during the Great War caused him great anguish. I believe that he felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations because these visits made him physically ill.”
(title citation: Phil Ochs)