Wilfred Owens' ghastly homage to youth and war, written in the dark winter of 1917-1918, sprang to mind recently as I flew into Columbia, S.C. I sat beside a teenager wearing a buzz cut, a Transformers Autobot T-shirt, baggy jeans and a nervous grin. He chattered nonstop until our little commuter jet touched down. He told me he was on his way to Fort Jackson to begin basic training, and that he'd enlisted for the steady income, to support his wife and baby back home in small-town Kentucky. He was 20 years old and that was his first airplane ride, ever.

With all the talk about President Obama sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan, I keep thinking about my Delta Air Lines seat mate. He seems awfully young for us to send into battle. It seems almost unfair for us to ask him to go.
The war was launched eight years ago, in a spasm of retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by a president who has since retired to Texas obscurity. This longest of wars has been fought valiantly by waves of young Americans, but the enemy gained steadily while George W. Bush and the rest of Washington turned their attention to Iraq. Now Afghanistan has become a quagmire with deadly currents of political chicanery, corruption, poverty and violence that has spread into next-door Pakistan, whose weak, nuclear-armed government also is under siege by Islamist extremists.

It's the most complex mess I've seen in 30 years of covering wars. Not surprisingly, the best minds the United States can muster have been unable to put it right. Now we're saying to the youth who volunteer for military service: You go fix it.
The military services enlisted more than 7,000 17-year-olds during the most recent 12-month period for which it has a detailed analysis, fiscal year 2007 (7,558, to be precise). The Pentagon's total intake of 17- to 20-year-olds was 86,072 -- more than half of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines it recruited that year (most of the other half were under age 25). On active duty today in the Army, which does most of the fighting in Afghanistan, are 66,220 soldiers 20 years old and younger, including 1,252 17-year-olds.
They are tough, boisterous and mostly likable. They are offered enormous responsibility, which most of them seize with an eagerness that would catch the attention of anyone who has raised teenagers. I forget sometimes just how young they are. A few years ago, I was lazing in the dust with a bunch of Marines during a break in training. Already combat veterans, they were about to deploy back to Iraq. They'd been practicing getting ambushed and killing the ambushers, and now they were chatting about computer games.

"Hey, did'ja ever get 'Gears of War?' '' asked Louis Duran, 19.
"Nah, I was gonna,'' said his buddy, Steven Aspling, 20, "but my Mom wouldn't let me.''

At war, they age quickly, at least on the surface. Last summer I wrote about a 19-year-old Army medic, Pfc. Randall Bone. On his first mission, with the 82nd Airborne's special troops battalion, his patrol was hit by RPG fire, and it suddenly became Private Bone's responsibility to save the life of his lieutenant, who had suffered a massive head wound. Bone kept him alive, bandaged up the other wounded soldiers, got them all back to the base hospital. Hours later, having made sure they'd all pull through, he was almost too embarrassed to ask a nurse if there was someplace he could wash off. His hands and arms and legs were soaked with blood. Click here to see him grinning contentedly. But note his hard, distant eyes.

Nothing new in any of this: It's always been the old men who start wars and the young men who fight and die in them.
At Parris Island, Marine Corps recruits finish boot camp with an arduous multi-day field exercise on half rations, then do a long overnight march to a stadium to receive their Eagle, Globe & Anchor insignia and officially become Marines. They are promised a breakfast of steak and eggs. I marched in with them one year. We slogged in at dawn to find a band playing, flags waving and a stadium full of cheering parents and retired Marines and orating politicians. The fanfare wasn't for the young Marines, I realized, but rather it was for the benefit of the older generation who would send them to war. One new Marine summed up the recruits' chief concern: "When do we get our freakin' breakfast?''

In these last days before Obama announces his decision to extend the war, I wandered through Arlington Cemetery to look at things from a different perspective. Under a lowering sky that shed light drizzle, I walked out to section 60, where the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan lie.

Along just one row, the white headstones hint of the cost so far.
Stephen G. Zapasuk, 19.
Alexander Van Aalten, 21.
Joseph Richard Berlin, Jr., 21.
Matthew W. Wilson, 19.
Anthony M. Lightfoot, 21
Jessica Y. Sarandrea, 22.