Troops who kill and die are little more than children, as in every war
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff
When I think of who is fighting the war in Ukraine, I remember a picture I took of a boyish 21-year-old Ukrainian captain in an earlier iteration of the conflict.
It was 2015, and he stood in a 6-foot-deep trench in eastern Ukraine in a town called Pisky, a place where, in the past few days, the Russians have all but broken through with tanks and artillery.
Capt. Sasha Bak is looking back at the camera, the wrinkles in his forehead far deeper than they should be at that age. But his cheeks are a youthful red, and there is no hint yet of crow’s feet around his eyes. The body armor he’s wearing is cartoonishly oversized for him.
But Bak had already been wounded twice and was in charge of 110 soldiers, who respected him deeply. Before we parted ways, he told me a story about going home on leave. Some of his childhood friends were having drinks, and one of them asked the young officer if people were dying on the front and if it was dangerous there.
“It was then that I realized,” Bak recalled, “that I had nothing in common with them anymore.”
He would be pushing 30 now, an old man to many soldiers currently on the front line, and I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. It’s easy, in the middle of this war, to forget that many of the men and women fighting in it are practically children, whose generation has been irrevocably changed by the egregious levels of violence thrust upon them.
It is an age-old tale: Combatants in wars the world over are primarily youths. They are eager to prove themselves in combat, or have no choice, or are willing to die for causes that seem pure and unsullied by the jaded reality that comes with age.
As Herman Melville wrote in a poem that begins at the outset of the American Civil War: “Age finds place in the rear. All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys.”
Nowhere was that lesson more clear than in June, during a visit to a Ukrainian brigade on the front line near the eastern city of Bakhmut. We had just spent time kneeling in a field while a Ukrainian battle tank shelled Russian positions before retreating to avoid the artillery fire that was sure to follow.
At the tank unit’s headquarters, the living room of some abandoned village home, soldiers manned a set of radios and a pair of computers. They were awaiting orders for what their hulking, roughly 40-ton, heavily armed tanks were to do next.
The room was separated by a pair of curtains that were just far enough apart that another computer screen was visible through the gap. A Ukrainian soldier wasn’t looking at battlefield maps or writing an email home to a loved one.
He was playing a video game: World of Tanks.