FORT BRAGG, N.C. One by one they approached, polite and smiling. They were so young. I have been on a book tour for weeks, and the bags under my eyes are so noticeable that I have taken to jealously checking the lack of bags under other peoples' eyes. Theirs had none. No crows' feet around the edges. No wrinkles on their foreheads. They were so young.
"Thanks for coming," they said.
"Thanks for having me," I said.
Some were holding babies. Some were with pregnant wives. Some were so clean-shaven, they did not appear capable of growing more than a few stray whiskers.
"Appreciate your coming," they said.
"Thanks for having me," I said.
Their names were Carlos or Ashley or Jimmy or Moose ("that's what we call him," his wife said). They were so young. On another day, in another location, they simply would have been a crowd of fresh-faced visitors, in a store getting a book signed by an author.
But this was not just a store. We were in the PX at Fort Bragg. And while their first names were cheery and informal, on their uniforms were their last names only, and in their titles were things like "pfc" or "lance cpl" or "specialist."
They were so young.
They were soldiers.
One spoke of a fellow soldier who said my book "helped get him through a hard time in Afghanistan." Afghanistan? He looked like he still could be in high school.
Another, a woman with apple cheeks and a pleasant smile, wore a camouflage-looking uniform and a cap. In other clothes, she could have been a high school cheerleader.
They were so young. Some had been to Iraq already. Some had pals who had been there more than once. Some had stories behind their eyes, stories that seemed too sad and serious for the faces they inhabited.
Fort. Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne Division. So many men and women have come through the grounds.
Not all came home.
They are so young.
In the New York Times last week, there was a story about troops in Iraq being told of Donald Rumsfeld's ouster as secretary of defense. According to the story, when one soldier, who had been on foot patrol for days, was told of the news, he looked up and asked, "Who's Rumsfeld?"
I believe that. I believe it more after my visit to Fort Bragg. So much of the war on terror is debated and decided at senior levels, by men in suits, men with jowls and paunchy bellies, men in some cases who have never seen a minute of combat.
But while older men and women make the rules, and older men and women debate the results on TV, the war itself is often fought by kids. It's hard to use any other word. When you see them, if you are over 40, that is your impression. They are kids.
And kids aren't always up on the latest politics. In another setting, those soldiers in the Times story might be slamming joysticks on video games. Politics could be years away from their interest.
And even when they sign up, get their hair cut short, lose 10 or 15 pounds through heavy training, take a pack on their backs, a weapon in their arms, go marching in a strange country among strange people, even then, politics is not the first thing on their minds. Survival is. Family is. Getting home is.
These are the kids we send to fight. These are the ones you see on a base or in a PX. Yes, the Iraq war has older soldiers reservists, second-timers more than some previous conflicts. But it's the young faces that stay with you, faces that make you realize we can't just debate war on cable television and keep acting as if the body count represents toy soldiers.
They are real people. They are young. And because they are young, we have an obligation to take care of them. Let's hope that last week's new faces in government remember that. If not, they should take a drive to the Fort Braggs of the world and wander around the PX's. They'd feel proud. But they'd also feel protective.