Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Color of War

Writing in the February 3rd issue of National Journal, Sydney Freedberg, Jr, looks at current data to determine whether ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the American military. The conventional wisdom states that the military is heavily populated with rural, lower-income blacks and whites who have no other economic opportunities open to them, and that by enlisting in larger numbers than more affluent whites, they suffer a disproportionate number of deaths. The results of Mr Freedberg's study will probably surprise you.

He notes first of all that while blacks have for more than 30 years made up a larger proportion of the Army than their overall proportion of the population, that proportion has declined since 2001: in that year, blacks made up 24% of the Army; today, they comprise approximately 14%. In terms of casualties, at the end of 2003 (the first year of the war) 71% of the service members who had died since 9/11 were white and 14% were black; at the end of 2006, the cumulative toll was 75% white and only 9% black. An analysis of military personnel by home Zip Code at the time of enlistment compared to the average income of the neighborhood doesn't provide much illumination. According to University of Maryland sociologist David Segal, who studied the data, about the best conclusion that can be drawn is that "both the richest 25% and the poorest 25% of American society are underrepresented in the military, and the middle 50% of society is overrepresented."

Like all statistics, these are open to many interpretations. Mr Freedberg notes that there are many complex social, economic, and patriotic factors which propel men and women to enlist in the military, those factors vary by race, religion, income level, and geography, and the distribution of casualties is affected by individual military specialties (infantrymen are far more likely to be killed or wounded than, for instance, cooks). But the overall conclusion is inescapable: the old chestnut that Iraq is a poor man's war is not quite accurate.

As a retired career military officer, I understand the sacrifices made by those who wear the uniform. I have seen the great advantages of a military career for improving relations among persons of various races and religions, and for growing shallow young people into strong, self-confident adults. That some of those people will die is a sad and inescapable fact. But we do all of them a disservice when we reduce their sacrifice to a simple question of black versus white, rich versus poor. They're all Americans, and they deserve our support even when we may object to the policies they are called upon to carry out.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


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