Who will fight the war?

By Vickie Haddock, Insight Staff Writer

It's white people sending black people to fight
yellow people to protect the country they stole
from red people."

--lyric from Hair

When it comes to who will do the fighting and dying for the modern U.S. mility, conventional wisdom today echoes the 1967 observation of the popular musical about the Age of Aquarius. Many people simply don't believe the Pentagon's reassurances that today's U.S. military represents a cross section of the American populatiaon.

At antiwar rallies, speakers rail that America's isolated white elite has no hesitation using volunteer "cannon fodder" soldiers, mostly poor and minority, on the Baghdad battlefield. One recent San Francisco demonstrator carried a placard aimed at the Bush twins: "Want war? Draft Jenna and Barbara!"

On Capital Hill, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of Harlem and Pete Stark of Fremont push legislation to reinstate a draft, this time with no college deferments, as pure political touche -- they figure to deter war by threatening rich white families with the prospect of having to put the lives of their children on the ine. So who's right? Who really are the fighters who would be on the front lines, assuming we launch an assault on Iraq? Would it really make us less likely to go to war if we had a drafted, and not a volunteer, military?

And what difference, if any, does the composition of the U.S. military make to power brokers who control where and when we wage war?

The facts show that both sides of the debate engage in some distortion. The U.S. military today is hardly an accurate reflection of American society. Aside from being heavily male and young, it differs in some surprising ways from the U.S. population. Here's what the numbers show:

In short, if anybody has a right to complain about bearing an unfair burden of military sacrifice in America, it's the Bubba community.

It's been 30 years since we abolished the draft -- over Pentagon objections that conscription was essential to fill the ranks. After three decades of trial-and-error with an all-volunteer force, the Pentagon has pulled an about-face. It now argues that reinstating the draft would be "a call to go back to an earlier and lower standard of performance. We do not want that."

But the debate about who should fight for this country is an old, bitter and sometimes bloody one -- witness the draft riots depicted in the current Oscar-nominated film "Gangs of New York." In the Civil War, a wealthy Union sloacker could evade the draft by paying $300, or by hiring some poor soul to take his place.

Probably the most egalitarian military conflict was World War II, in which so many troops were required that citizen soldiers truly came from all walks of life. Before the draft was banished at the end of the Vietnam War, it had become so riddled with escape hatches that anybody with deep pockets and connections could finagle a deferment or a post in, say, the Texas Air National Guard.

There were 2 million men and women in the all-volunteer armed forces by the time of the Persian Gulf War -- a conflict noted for its small numberof U.S. casualties. Whites made up 71 percent of the deployed force and 76 of deaths.

Since then, the force has shrunk by one-third. It now consists of 1.4 million active-duty troops and 1.3 million reservists.

At the same time, surveys show that the number of young people saying they would never consider joining the military has risen, from 40 percent in 1980 to 64 percent by 2000. Even the terrorist attacks of September 11 failed to change attitudes or boost recruitment.

Critics say the very notion of an all-volunteer force is a misnomer. In reality, they say, it simply illustrates that blacks "volunteer" for the Army because it's the only place offering affordable education. Thus, African Americans, who make up 14 percent of the U.S. population ages 18-24, comprise almost 22 percent of enlisted personnel.

But unlike white recruits, who come from families that are poorer than their civilian counterparts, black recruits come from families that actually are better off financially than non-military black families. White recruits come from families with a median income of $33,500 a year -- more than $10,000 less than that of white civilian families -- while black recruits hail from families with a median income of $32,000 a year -- some $4,000 a year higher than that of black civilian families.

The Defense Technical Information Center has found that people who enlist are more likely to have parents who work in factories, law enforcement, service industries or the military than their civilian counterparts.

Their parents are more likely to have graduated from high school but not college, and they're more likely to rent instead of own their homes.

Overall the Pentagon doesn't net the very poor or disadvantaged. Nine out of 10 earn a high school diploma before enlisting.

But if the poor get a pass, so do the well-to-do. The public generally presumes no Ivy League-bound rich kid would consider enlisting in the military -- and they're right.

In fact, if those not-for-attribution Petagon spokespeople were more forthcoming, they would acknowledge the fretting that goes on at Defense Department conclaves over the lack of suburban and upper-class officers, much less recruits.

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman has warned repeatedly of the growing gap between "the elites and the rest of us," noting that the Yale Flying Club was key to naval aviation in world wars. Care to guess how many Yale graduates have entered the service since 1986? A measly dozen.

As recently as two years ago, an internal Defense Department study bemoaned the glaring shortage of new recruits from upper-middle and upper-class backgrounds.

In response, the Pentagon actually is trying to market upscale. The slogan "I am an army of one" is aimed to appeal to the individualism of a higher socio-economic class. This spring the military even intends to roll out ads in high-brow publications such as the New Yorker, portraying military life as satisfying and family-friendly.

But the gap is likely to remain. Of the 535 members of Congress who voted on giving Bush authority to attack Iraq, only a handful had children who are officers in the U.S. military and just one had an enlisted son.

It is cynical to suggest that Congress and President Bush, whose twins are safely ensconced in college, are bent on war because somebody else's kids would die. It's insulting to suggest that privileged politicians would order frivolous military endeavors simply because they don't have a personal "skin in the game."

And yet any parent knows, it's different when it's personal. What can be said for a democracy when its elite policymakers and their families are comfortably disengaged from military risk?

It's this imbalance-- coupled with concerns that our current forced could be strained in escalating conflicts -- that's prompting some to resurrect talk of a draft.

Nobody expects it to happen in the foreseeable future. Even Rangel admits his draft proposal, which would funnel virtually every high school graduate into a mandatory stint in military or civilian national service, is dead-on-arrival.

And there are serious doubts about it wisdom -- a mandatory national-service draft might well produce a lower caliber of soldier, and require a huge bureaucracy to oversee the 90 percent of draftees who would have to be channeled into mandatory civilian national service. Who would train them? Who would decide which draftees became gunnery privates and which became aides to Alzheimer's patients?

And how to square forcing 4 million 18-yeaer-olds each year into national service with the Constitution's 13th Amendment, which prohibits "involuntary servitude"?

But there are counter-arguments worth considering as well. Despite Pentagon reassurances that we have enough troops, the services have struggled to meet recruiting goals in recent years. Nobody can say for sure what the breaking point will be if, God forbid, we end up battling Iraq, al Qaeda and North Korea at the same time.

The country's leading military sociologist, Northwestern University's Charles Moskos, observes that while we continue calling up reservists who work as cops, firefighters and emergency medical responders at home, we're "being drained of precisely the people we will need when the terrorists return."

It's not even clear that resurrecting a draft would put a damper on military adventurism. Moskos, who advocates a draft, argues that the public will support a war only if the children of the elite and powerful are dispatched to fight it.

Americans who campaigned to end conscription assumed that the country would be less likely to wage war if it couldn't rely on an unending supply of drafted bodies. With an all-volunteer force, politicians theoretically wouldn't risk an unpopular war for fear recruits would stop volunteering.

No less an insider than the Army Times editorialized that a new draft "would ensure that future generations of political leaders would enter office understanding the miltiary, its strengths and weaknesses, and its culture."

Duke University researchers working with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies have concluded that the more veterans hold political office, the less likely the United States is to use military foce.

Every year, fewer power brokers have any tie whatsoever to military service.

This discussion has to stop being political one-upmanship. It ought to be about exactly what the words "shared sacrifice" mean.

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