Crispin has been working for the National Guard for almost two years. His duties are not strictly military: he cleans, makes the bed, brings the food and carries the ammunition for his patron when on patrol duty. Crispin wishes he would get paid more regularly, but he doesn't seem to feel that he deserves more than the $10 his guardsman pays him for a month's labor. After all, he is only 12 years old.

Crispin and four other boys are sitting around on an afternoon, quietly discussing their lives with the National Guard detachment in their home town. For different reasons they have all recently left their war-torn town to spend a few weeks in a private home in relatively peaceful San Salvador. However, since they all miss their families and plan to return home in the near future, their names and the name of their town have been changed for their own protection.

Crispin, Reynaldo, Santiago, Arnulfo and Juan, all 11 and 12 years old, are sober children, calm and totally free of the infantile love of hyperbole. They are not horrified by the war between the military-Christian Democratic government and the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, nor are they shocked by their own lives.

"Necessity pushes one," Arnulfo says. "Sometimes we stop for a while, but soon our mothers are complaining that there's no food. We are scared . . . sometimes."

"Maybe six years ago," says Crispin, easily the brightest, "a long time ago, when we were children, there wasn't even a National Guard patrol." Their home was an impoverished town of migrant farm workers who tilled an acre or two of corn and beans part of the year and went off to the plantations for cotton, coffee and sugar harvests during the winter months.

In the early 1970s, partly due to the influence of the new teachings of some priests in the predominant Roman Catholic Church, large numbers of peasants in the children's province of Cabanas started organizing for better wages and minimal improvements in their abysmal working conditions. Other peasants defended the government in paramilitary organizations coordinated in each village by the local guard command posts. Sometime in the mid-1970s, the children are not sure when, the guard arrived for the first time in their town.

Those were years of ferment. The military government obstructed the repeated electoral victories of an opposition coalition made up of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party. Peasants were evicted from their lands in the Chalatenango and Cabanas provinces to build a huge dam and artificial lake at Cerron Grande.

Public school teachers, industrial workers and university students went on strike and were violently attacked by government troops. But this was all irrelevant to the children in their remote mountain village, who know only that one day the guard came to stay.

"At first we were scared of them," says Santiago, "but they're not bad." Now he and a varying number of other children spend their nights and days at the local command post or in the field, incongruous but solicitous soldiers' assistants.

"Every guard has a boy," Reynaldo says. "They need us to clean up for them, take their clothes to be washed, bring them food and keep them company." This reporter saw him months ago, nervous and silent in front of the command post, wearing his own little olive-green uniform. Now Reynaldo, with straw-colored hair and huge black eyes, is dreamy and restless by turns, but always willing to talk.

"The most boring thing is night duty," he says. "We stay up with them, talk, tell them stories so they don't get bored.'

Like many other towns in the hotly contested north of El Salvador, where the guerrillas are strongest, the boys' home town is virtually deserted.

The children's parents, like the other adults who stayed, are hard-line supporters of the National Guard. Typically, they express their support for the local guard commander, not for the national government, which has never played a major role in their lives. They seem unaware of the change two years ago that brought a new military-civilian junta into power with an ambitious program of reforms. Their political opinions are shaped by their immediate reality.

"The terrorists do bad things," one of the children said. One event in particular is recalled several times in calm, even voices. "One day on the way down from the village, the terrorists placed a mine for the guard. But the guards didn't go by. We did. Four of us died," said a youngster.

The children feel neither pride nor unhappiness over the fact that they regularly go on patrol duty into guerrilla terrain. "We always walk a few steps behind our guard, carrying his ammunition belts. Sometimes one of us leads the way." Of these children, the only casualty is Crispin, who is recovering from a slight shrapnel wound suffered during a guerrilla harassment operation.

"Sometimes the guard isn't so good either," Juan says. "The commander once got himself up as a terrorist, with a bandana tied just under his eyes, and he went around shouting that there was going to be meeting and that the people should go to such and such a house, just like his opponents do, and then when the people showed up he opened fire on the house and mowed everybody down. He is very clever."

After so much talk, the children are getting bored. They want to go run and play in the street of the modest neighborhood where they are staying. A final question brings the only awkward moment: "What do you want to do in the future?" Silence. The boys look carefully at their feet. "I don't know," Reynaldo says, almost defiantly, and they are off.