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Old Man's War
The War in Ukraine (2022)
Of all of the novelties I have noticed in the course of observing the present war in Ukraine, the most surprising is the relatively advanced age of the combatants who appear in images from the battlefield. Even after making allowance for the way that war makes men old before their time, I find myself concluding that many, if not most, of the combatants on both sides of this struggle no longer qualify as “young men of military age.”
Of course, I have no way to quantify this impression. (Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians have seen fit to provide me with the requisite statistics.) However, if the pictures I see on the social media accounts can be relied upon, I find myself thinking that many of the men dodging drones in the Donbas are somewhere north of thirty.
If my eyes do not deceive me, part of the explanation for the “old man’s war” belongs to the realm of demographics. Two decades ago, the fertility rates of both Russia and Ukraine were very, very low. Thus, neither country is particularly well supplied with the sort of people that modern military organizations prefer to recruit. (One exception to this rule is provided by the high fertility ethnic groups, such as Chechens and the Buryats, that have been sending large numbers of young men to the front.)
Another possible explanation for the apparent antiquity of men fighting in Ukraine is the desire on the part of each belligerent society to preserve its young men from the more dangerous forms of military service. In the case of Russia, this sentiment accords with a policy that sends recalled reservists and long-term volunteers to war while keeping conscripts at home. In Ukraine, it takes the form of an approach to mandatory service that, rather than inducting young men in a predictable manner, encourages men of a wide range of ages to enlist voluntarily. (One Ukrainian observer recently went so far as to compare draft notices to “spam” e-mail messages.)