• U.S.

Why No Blue Blood Will Flow

5 minute read
Richard Lacayo

The nation’s capital has always had its share of hawks and doves. But as the possibility of war with Iraq looms ever larger, what powerful figures in official Washington do not have is a direct personal stake in the fate of the troops. No one in the President’s Cabinet has a child serving in Saudi Arabia. Of the 535 members of Congress, just two — Democratic Representatives Kika de la Garza of Texas and Jerry Costello of Illinois — are known to have sons involved in Operation Desert Shield. By comparison, in 1970 there were 74 congressional children serving in Vietnam or elsewhere. But the White House and Congress these days are largely insulated from the familial consequences of their decisions about how to confront Saddam. It’s one thing to be concerned about the men and women you might send into battle. It’s another to be related to them.

Yet government officials are no different in that respect from most other middle-class and wealthy Americans. Today the armed forces are filled mainly by recruits from the lower-middle range of the economic scale, regardless of their race. Blacks and other minorities also make up a disproportionate share of the ranks, especially in the Army, the branch of the service likely to face the heaviest casualties in a protracted ground war. Thus the prospect of fighting is causing the fairness question, which dominated the congressional debate on taxes last month, to return in a new form: Will the U.S. be asking its poor and working classes to do most of its fighting and dying?

The creation of the all-volunteer army in 1973 made the present imbalance inevitable. The Vietnam-era draft was full of inequities that allowed middle- class youths to duck into college and professional deferments. But once conscription ended, the proportion of soldiers from more educated and affluent backgrounds dwindled even further. Though Congress approved a military pay hike of more than 60% in 1972, most people with college degrees could find better jobs in civilian life. By the late 1970s, as military pay scales began , to lag further behind those in the outside world, even high school graduates were in no hurry to sign up. They accounted for just 54% of enlistees in 1979; the Army fell 17,000 short of its manpower goals that year because not enough qualified recruits could be found.

A turnaround began in the early 1980s, when a combination of increased military pay and economic recession made joining the armed forces an attractive option again for high school graduates. The Army also woke up to the importance of its educational benefits, which it increased after years of decline, and stepped up its advertising. By last year the percentage of Army recruits who were high school graduates had increased to about 94%, compared with a 75% graduation rate among Americans generally. But college-educated men and women and those from higher-income families are still sharply underrepresented.

That social and economic imbalance is compounded by a racial one. Though blacks make up 12.4% of the nation’s population, they account for about 20% of the more than 2 million U.S. servicemen and -women. For them, the Army represents not only a job and a training opportunity but also a better chance to rise to positions of authority than they usually find in the civilian world. Colin Powell, the African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stands at the apex of a military hierarchy in which 26 of the Army’s 407 generals are black — including two of its three female generals.

As long as the U.S. was involved in relatively small operations with few casualties, like the invasions of Grenada and Panama, it did not seem to matter much that the armed forces were an imperfect mirror of society. The prospect of sizable bloodshed in the gulf, however, has led some to ask whether the current imbalance makes it too easy for the President and Congress to send forces into battle. “If the U.S. military were truly representative of the country, you would have people going through the roof right now,” said former Navy Secretary James Webb two weeks ago in the Washington Post.

Webb is one of a small but growing number of critics who say the only way to ensure fairness is to reinstate the draft, preferably without exemptions for college students. “Unless you have universal national service or universal military service, you will always have this problem,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for manpower in the Reagan Administration. But Congress and the President are in no mood to deal with the political uproar that would surely follow any move in that direction. The Defense Department said last week it has no contingency plans to revive the draft as a way to provide replacements if a gulf war results in high numbers of casualties.

Meanwhile, the President’s decision to call up some reserve and National Guard units, which tend to have a larger proportion of white and middle-class recruits, will make the gulf force more representative. And many would agree with General Powell when he says that, for now, questions of equity can’t be allowed to stand in the way of the gulf mission. “When we decide to send the 82nd Airborne division or the First Cavalry division, they go,” he explains. “We don’t start saying, ‘Well, let me check; we don’t have enough blacks, or we have too many blacks.’ ” If bloodshed begins, however, there is sure to be a much louder debate over whose blood is shed.

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