You probably know the image — a worn and weathered man with salt-and-pepper hair, a gruff 5 o’ clock shadow, and that thousand-yard stare emanating from his aged, experienced eyes. He’s been fighting since he was 18-years-old, and the actor is probably in his 40s. He’s the leading man in the vast majority of action films.
Sometimes that image is accurate. If the character is a retired Delta operator, or really a retired anything, then he might look like he’s got some mileage.
However, more often than not, the people fighting the battles portrayed in movies — the men and women in the trenches with blood on their hands and dirt under their nails — are usually in their 20s; sometimes they’re even 18 or 19. The average age of a Medal of Honor recipient is 26 years old, which is actually skewed a bit high because the average age for Air Force recipients is 33 (the other services are around 25 or so). New beat cops and Marines on their first or second deployments are typically in their thirties.
Much of Hollywood’s representation is based on what films often go for — looks. Men are generally considered better looking when they are weathered, experienced and have a few miles under their belts. This is also what’s to blame for the vast age disparity in movies — the women are in what many filmmakers might see as their prime, and the same goes for men. Older men and younger women act as if they are the same age, or in the same stages in life, when in fact the male actor might be 15 years older than his female counterpart.
As this trope has been recycled over and over again in war and action movies, many have begun to develop an inaccurate picture of what the faces on a battlefield might look like. Most people know that those who do the fighting are young — we’ve all heard the story of the guy who returned from war and still wasn’t old enough to buy a beer. But many of us, when we imagine the faces coming off a harrowing mission involving a two-hour firefight, don’t imagine the faces of very young men. We don’t imagine the same faces you might see in a freshman class in college, or even a senior class in a high school.
Part of it may be the fault of filmmakers, but another part of it may be what we consider “respectable.” While many people respect the experience of a soldier, they don’t generally respect those who are younger than them (as has been the case for all of human history). The image of a respectable soldier with multiple deployments and the image of a kid with a fresh face don’t exactly match up, so when reading books in regards to combat, they conjure up images of someone in their 30s or 40s, especially when it comes to the men in leadership positions.
You could very easily have a Ranger platoon on a mission in Afghanistan, the most senior enlisted man being a Sergeant First Class with 7 or 8 combat deployments behind him, and the oldest guy on the ground is 28-years-old. Sure, more than likely a couple of guys are going to be over 30, but it just goes to show that the vast majority of the people fighting these battles, especially the ones kicking in the doors and meeting the enemy face-to-face, are probably going to be in their early 20s. Many of them have red cheeks, aren’t particularly great looking, and are bad at talking to girls — they’re just really, really good at the task at hand. Make no mistake about that.