The medals will be splendid.

Created: Monday, 14 April 2003 Written by Correspondent
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Name, hometown and serial number, that's what Iraqi captors ask of our latest P.O.W.'s. These kids' faces are banged up, squinty. Eyes shocked and awed at gunpoint, they recall me to myself. Such dulled innocence drives me to confess.... I served in another such Children's Crusade. I'm qualified to call it a disaster. Even the generals who were in charge back then admit that now. The same guys are helping plan this new one. I was a kid enlisted, against his will, to do the heavy lifting for a nation launched on a mission botched from the start. The entrance imperative: all macho force. The exit strategy? None whatever. Only very young kids would be fool enough to go that far and do as told. Some claim they didn't even mind. I myself remember. And, for me, and for this new crop, I mind. I'm watching.

I know these trapped boys from the inside. Perfect physical specimens, they are cocksure about absolutely everything because they know next to nothing. From a commander's perspective, of course, that's very good. These kids signed up mostly to get some education. Their parents couldn't swing the loans. No college otherwise. All they know of war is from Dolby-deafening action movies. Mainly these kids rage in the fist of the hormonal, the impulsive, the puppy-playful. Girl-crazy, full of stock-car lore and vague dreams of executive glory -- great soldier material....Those idiotic gung-ho kids who really believe they are making up the rules, who consider they are rugged individualists (and therefore take orders beautifully)....To know that you are so much smarter than the jobs assigned, to guess that you are serving in a struggle you can neither approve nor ever understand because the old guys in charge -- guys whose sons are safe, golfing at home -- they don't speak the local language, either.

During the soldiers' first week, except for blowing sand, it might all seem a lark. Decisions are made by others who give you enough trigger-finger wiggle room so that you can feel a bit expressive, as baby-faced as terrifying. Such volunteers are as intentionally cut off from the effects of their killing as any placated 8-year-old glazed over the lethal thumb work of his Gameboy. These G.I.'s imagine glory, girlfriends waiting at home. The geopolitical picture is as far beyond their reach as the notion that learning a Kurdish dialect just might save their lives....

The latest captured Americans from a downed helicopter squat here on camera, and you see their inexperience in how they're big-eyed scared as kids at their first horror flick. Boys hang their heads with a shame almost sexual. They're blaming themselves for crashing, guilty at how sand can spoil the rotor blades of our most costly chopper. These kids mainly ''volunteered,'' to get ahead. And now, this learning curve. They are prisoners because to start at Burger King, even for a go-getter like Larry here, would get him to only assistant manager in, say, three or four years, and you can't do too darn much on 12 grand a year, can you? These are the ambitious kids, the ''good kids,'' the ones who wanted to make something useful and shapely of their lives.

Some will come home, back to their folks' ghetto stoops or trailers or tract houses strung with computer-generated welcomes, personalized, too. Their college years are still ahead of them. So look on the bright side. Bones that young knit fast. And, after a while, even after all the pain and not knowing why they did it, they will get to call this ''their'' war. And, of course, the medals will be splendid.

Allan Gurganus 04.14.03