“Enlisted at 17”: Legend, Trope, or War Story?

“150,000 troops landed on the Normandy beaches, many of them teenagers.”
CBS Evening News, June 5, 2019

“Pritchett enlisted at 17 . . .”
www.PNJ.com 6/6/19.

“men such as Mr. Kennedy who enlisted at 17 . . . “
www.globeandmail.com 5/29/19.

“Sandwith enlisted at 17 years old . . . “
www.marshallnews.com 5/5/19.

The idea that America sends its kids off to war caught my attention twenty years ago while working on a book. Then, it was common to hear or read that “the average of our soldiers in Vietnam was 18.” That never sounded right to me because one had to be 18 to be drafted and was not subject to call-up for six months. Allowing for some time lag between that date, draft-board proceedings, induction, basic training, leave time, and shipment to Vietnam, most of the youngest arrivals in Vietnam would have been 19 or older.

Many draftees, like me, had years of deferment for college and teaching before induction. I was nearly 25 before being reclassified 1A for the draft and turned 26 while in Vietnam in 1969. More soldiers in Vietnam, officers, career NCOs, and Guard and Reservists among them, were still older—too old and too numerous for the average age of those serving in that war to be 18.

And seventeen? A November 10, 1965 New York Times story headlined “Vietnam Duty at 17 Barred” reported that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the day before, had ordered military services to stop sending 17-year-olds to Vietnam and pull out those who were there.

So, was “enlisted at 17” really as common as I thought it was? It was 2010. So I Googled “enlisted at . . . “ and Google-automated finished my search with the shadowed “17” appearing just below my typed words.

Nevertheless, I was surprised that “enlisted at 17” was so prominent. Today, seventeen-year-olds must have a high-school diploma or the equivalent and their parent’s permission in order to enlist. The military might look good to teens failing in school but dropouts would fail the diploma requirement. Seventeen-year-olds are also prohibited from combat. The average age of Regular Army enlistees was at the time of my search, 2010, almost 21 according to the Support Army Recruiting web page. And the average of Army Reserve recruits is close to 24. So why wouldn’t Google return 21 or 24 as the most searched ages combined with “enlisted at”? Why is the age 17 so disproportionately on the minds of Google users?

I’ve written about the legend that it is “kids” that the United States sends off to war. The legend grew out of the post-war years of Vietnam when it was widely claimed that the average age of soldiers killed there was 18. That was not true either with the actual average age of those killed being close to 22. Folklore though it was, journalists writing about the new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly fond of teenaged war dead. In her May 27, 2007 Memorial Day, New York Times column Maureen Dowd chided politicians for leaving “our kids” to die in Iraq when inches from her words was an eye-catching chart giving the names and ages of American’s killed there on Memorial Days since the 2003 invasion—average age: 27. Half of them over 25. The most common age: 26. Dead, but not kids.

The Washington Post’s David Finkel is another reporter unable to resist the catnip of dead teens in war zones. “So many of them were nineteen,” he wrote of those killed in the battalion he traveled with in Iraq. But his 2009 book The Good Soldiers detailed names and ages of the dead: of the twenty-two killed, four were nineteen; the mean age of the dead was 24.7; the median was 23. The modal age range of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq as of 2018 was 25-30.

The power of the war in Vietnam to shape American discourse a half-century later holds endless fascination for students of political culture and collective memory, but its power to rewrite its own antecedents is no less remarkable. A Lexis-Nexis search of news stories from 1977 (as far back as Lexis-Nexis went) to 1993 returned only thirteen entries for “enlisted at 17.” For the nine years, 1993 to 2002 there were fifty-two such claims. From 2002 through 2010 there one hundred ten. The quantum leaps in those returns came after the first Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The miniscule number of claims—13 in 16 years—prior to the Gulf War means that “enlisted at 17” was simply not resonant with the way Americans processed their World War II, Korean War, or even early post-Vietnam War experience. And yet, the epigraphs above, drawn from the news coverage of the early June 2019 anniversary of the 1944 Normandy Landing attest to the utility of the “17” trope for historical revisionism.

Why do Americans want to imagine their war dead to be younger than they really were, or even to just exaggerate the youthfulness of those it sends to war? I speculated in earlier writing that it might be a defense mechanism for adults needing to avoid responsibility for the deaths—a sort of boys-will-be-boys attitude that holds grownups blameless for the losses. There could also be an aspect of “otherizing” in the practice, using the child-adult boundary to separate “us” from “them,” those who wage a war that “we” feel squeamish about.

The kids-dying-in-war rhetoric most often comes from anti-war quarters, sometimes with quite dramatic imagery. A 2007 article in the left-wing newspaper In These Times expressed legitimate outrage about military recruiters exploiting the immaturity of teens, but its headline, “America’s Child Soldier Problem” better befit a Robert Kony storyline.

“Enlisted at 17” also has an ideological appeal as a symbol of American innocence; an identification with tethering to innocence in a mythical past; a good people forced into war against the enemy-other who would kill children, “our boys.” Or consider religious tests of faith with calls to sacrifice the young,: Abraham set the standard when he prepared his son for sacrifice; Christians believe that God sacrificed his son for their salvation. If sacrificing sons is what good people and Divinities do, then people who sacrifice their sons must be good people. The tradition of Gold Star Mothers begun during WWI and studied by Lisa Budreau for her book Bodies of War, displaced the traditional practices of grieving the loss of sons in war with the practice of honoring the mothers who had sacrificed—as if giving their sons was an accomplishment.

The phrase, “enlisted at 17,” is often paired with other claims to martial accomplishment which leads me to wonder if enlistment at 17 has become a badge of honor, a prop in the kind of war stories that some men tell—and news reporters love to quote. That could be what’s at work in the later-life “coming out” of World War II veterans as enlisted teens. Viewed by these older veterans as a credential-enhancement that worked for Vietnam-generation veterans, they may have adopted the same stories as theirs, a characteristic of memory that writer Alison Landsberg calls “prosthetic memory.”

Facts on the ages of those who fight and die in wars are not easy to establish, and that is all the truer for researching specific battles. What we can know about are the regulations that governed the drafting and deployment of men and women for combat. Those rules in the 1960s did not make it impossible for teenagers to have served and died in Vietnam, but they make it incredulous for The New York Times to have quoted in a June 10, 2019 story, without qualification, a Vietnam veteran saying Vietnam was a “a teenager war.”

It is just as true that seventeen-year-olds were probably in uniform in June 1944 and some teens may have landed at Normandy. But we can also see in Internet sources that in May 1943 it was decided that 18 and 19 year olds would be assigned to units unlikely to deploy overseas, and that in February 1944 the War Department issued a ban on using 18 year olds, and that men of any other age were to be taken first—a very different narrative than the one the CBS viewers were led to on June 5 (the epigram above).

The trope, “enlisted at 17,” invites questions about the limits of its veracity that should interest scholars with an empirical bent. But whatever those studies might reveal, the exaggerations it begets, such as Vietnam being “a teenage war,” and the vulnerability of journalists and the public to their appeal is a cultural matter that awaits attention from students of collective culture, memory, and masculinity.

Jerry Lembcke is the author of nine books including The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998), Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal (UMass Press, 2010), and Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (Monthly Review Press, 2021. His The Cult of the Victim Veteran: MAGA Fantasies in Lost-War America came out with Routledge in July 2023. Jerry’s opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has been a guest on several NPR programs including On the Media.