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On Avatar’s Portrayal of War, Child-Soldiers, and Privilege

Sometimes I think about the fact that there is exactly one time that we hear someone express surprise at the fact that Aang–the Avatar– and his companions are children. And it’s in the second episode, from Zuko: 

From an out-of-universe perspective, this makes sense. And it wasn’t something that surprised me when I was a ten-year-old in 2005 when A:tLA first aired. One of the tenants, I think, of adventure children’s television is that there is a degree of wish fulfillment. Children want to be taken seriously as agents, and so it makes sense from that vantage point, that everyone takes the Gaang seriously as agents except the person portrayed as an antagonist.

But, I think this also makes sense, heart-breakingly and unlike other children’s adventure television, from an in-universe perspective. This is a world ravaged by bloody, bloody war for a hundred years. A world in which child soldiers are commonplace. We see countless examples of this throughout the series:

  • When we meet Sokka–fifteen-years-old and in-charge of security for his village–he is training small children to be soldiers. This is played off as something of a laugh, but if Aang hadn’t returned in the second episode, I think we’re supposed to think that Sokka very much would have tried to lead these little boys into battle.
  • Jet and the Freedom Fighters, who practice guerrilla warfare (fairly successfully) and regularly raid Fire Nation outposts, are children. Jet, who I think we are supposed to assume is one of the eldest of the group, is sixteen when he dies (according to the Avatar wiki).
  • The Kyoshi Warriors are one of the elite-most fighting force in Avatar World, eventually taken seriously by the Earth Kingdom military and given military jobs. And the general of the Kyoshi Warriors, Suki, and the eldest member of the group (again according to the Avatar wiki) is fifteen. She can’t have always been the eldest member. I’m willing to bet the older women are sent off to war, and Suki becomes the eldest member and the leader by default. (Much like Sokka–probably why they connect so well).
  • In Zuko, Alone, the soldiers in the village threaten to send Lee off to join the army at the front, and based on the mother’s reaction, and what we see of him when he’s tied up, this doesn’t seem like an empty threat, and it’s probably not the first time this has happened to children in the Earth Kingdom in villages like these.

I could go on. 

So of course, after living in a world of child soldiers like these, no one is going to bat an eyelash to learn that the Avatar–perhaps the ultimate non-Fire Nation soldier–is twelve-years old, and his companions aren’t much older. When Aang starts to bring this up himself to Yue, for instance, Yue doesn’t seem to understand. He’s the Avatar, he has to save them, she insists. Who cares if he’s a child?

But the Fire Nation Army isn’t filled with child soldiers. It doesn’t need them. Fire Nation children are in school. It is adults that make up the Fire Nation Army. 

And, (with the exception of Azula and her gang), when we do see a Fire Nation child attempting to take on the role of an adult member of the military, he isn’t taken seriously. (E.g. Zuko, and the way Zhao brushes him off.)

So of course it is only Zuko, who grew up in the absolute center of the Fire Nation, and, though he is banished, hasn’t really seen much of the reality of the war until he meets Aang, that looks at the Avatar and remarks in surprise that he is a child.

(If anyone is interested, I wrote a fic that deals with a lot of these themes. It can be found here.)