Share this article

print logo

ARMED FORCES MOSTLY MIDDLE WORKING-CLASS RICH WHITES DON'T JOIN, POOREST MINORITIES DON'T QUALIFY, DATA SHOWS

Not many rich white youths will fight and die in the event of war in the Persian Gulf, but not many of the country's poorest black youths will either, according to official data on who serves in the all-volunteer U.S. armed forces.

"You've got mainly a middle working-class: middle-class blacks and blue-collar whites," said Martin Binkin, a specialist on military manpower for the Brookings Institution. "You don't have the kids from Harvard and Princeton. By the same token, you don't have the kids from the inner city either."

Blacks do bear a disproportionate share in the burden of military service. They make up 23 percent of active-duty troops -- but only 15 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 to 24.

The Army is particularly imbalanced on this score, with blacks filling 31 percent of its ranks, twice as many as would be called in a random-lottery draft.

This figure is most striking because the Army would bear the brunt of casualties in a war.

The racial makeup of the Air Force and the Navy much more closely reflect the general population, with blacks constituting 17 percent of their ranks. Blacks form 21 percent of the Marine Corps.

Binkin said, "If we see 30 to 35 percent of the body bags coming back from the gulf filled with minorities, it can't help but raise the issue of who ought to give their lives for their country." The imbalance also has a class dimension, independent of race. Enlistment rates for children of the richest 15 percent of the population are only one-fifth of the national average.

According to Defense Department data, only 20 percent of recruits have parents in executive, managerial or other professional occupations, compared with 31 percent of the general population.

At the same time, more have parents with jobs in production, machine operation and transportation: 45 percent, compared with 38 percent among the general population.

Such figures have led many to call for the resumption of a military draft to spread the burden of service across race and class lines.

A 1988 report by the Democratic Leadership Council concluded: "We cannot ask the poor and underprivileged alone to defend us while our more fortunate sons and daughters take a free ride. . . . How long can a democratic republic survive if its most fortunate and capable citizens -- America's future leaders -- feel little obligation to contribute to its defense and well-being?"

Nevertheless, Binkin and other observers of the armed forces say, and the raw data suggests, that the resumption of a military draft would not restore class and racial balance to any great degree.

First, despite the huge deployment under way in the Persian Gulf, the military is shrinking.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney plans to reduce the ranks over the next five years from 2.1 million to about 1.5 million. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that, even to maintain the current size of the military, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. youth from ages 18 to 24 would have to serve.

Even if that 10 percent reflected a perfect cross-section of the U.S. population, it would not offset by much the existing imbalance in the rest of the service. "Unless you stop people from volunteering in order to draft other people," said Binkin, conscription is "not going to affect anything."

Second, poor, black and unschooled people are excluded from military service to a greater degree than the rich, white and college graduates.

This was not true a decade ago, but in the 1980s the military imposed stricter educational standards on enlistees.

A large chunk of the U.S. underclass, which had been accepted in the Army with no hesitation a few years earlier, began to be turned away.

In any case, Binkin said, the idea of resuming a draft for the Persian Gulf crisis "doesn't make any sense."

If a call-up began tomorrow, it would take at least nine months to draft and train foot soldiers, and at least twice that time to train technicians and operators of more complex weaponry.

The military could be more selective in part because the rise in unemployment prompted more and a broader variety of young people to visit recruiting centers. Over the next five years, as the size of the military shrinks, the armed forces can afford to be more selective still.

Today, slightly more 18- to 24-year-olds in the military graduated from high school than their civilian counterparts: 93 percent, compared with 88 percent generally. In 1979, only 64 percent of recruits had graduated from high school.

Recruits also score higher than average on reading tests.

There are no comments - be the first to comment