As the specter of war with Iraq looms over the new session of the U.S. Congress, one representative has proposed re-instituting the draft requiring all young people, regardless of their gender, race, or class, to serve in the U.S. military.
Of the 535 members of Congress, just one has a child in the military. Congressman Charles Rangel of New York says if all young people had to serve, lawmakers might not be so willing to go to war. The argument is raising familiar questions about the racial and class composition of America's voluntary armed forces.
Charles Rangel is a representative from New York City. His district includes the neighborhoods of Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights - all of which are well-known for their "majority minority" populations. Eighty-three percent of the lawmaker's constituents are black or Hispanic and Congressman Rangel's district is the fourth poorest in the nation. In an interview with NBC television, Mr. Rangel made it clear it's his constituents that he's concerned about.
"There doesn't seem to be even in the general public of those who support the war any thought at all as to who is going to fight this war. And if you take a look at the standing volunteer army, clearly they come from the lowest economic echelon we have," Mr. Rangel said.
African-Americans and poor people do make up a disproportionate share of America's armed forces. A report published by the Department of Defense reveals the overwhelming majority of new recruits come from middle and low-income families. Twenty-two percent of all enlisted military personnel, and more than a third of those in the Army are African-American. Yet, blacks make up just 12 percent of the civilian population between the ages of 18 and 44. In contrast, whites comprise 64 percent of America's voluntary armed forces, but are 71 percent of the population overall. The military has long been viewed as an opportunity for upward mobility, particularly for minorities. And Congressman Rangel says it's because racial prejudice prevents blacks from succeeding in many other places.
"Most of the young men that are volunteering for the service, it's because they don't find opportunities in the private sector. And, unfortunately, minorities do make up more proportionately of that group," Mr. Rangel said.
But does that mean minorities will constitute a disproportionate share of the casualties, should America go to war? "No," responds Mack Owens, a professor of strategy and force planning at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Professor Owens said during the Vietnam War, 86 percent of those who died were white. Twelve and a half percent were black - a number in line with the civilian population, even though then, as now, blacks were about a third of the Army. Professor Owens said this is because many white volunteers are looking for adventure, and so they flock to combat units. Not so with black recruits.
"They come in for a career, so they're going to end up in things like 'supply', 'logistics', "transportation", and the likes. Things that are absolutely necessary for modern warfare, but which don't carry the traditional sorts of risk that, say, service in the infantry has traditionally meant," Professor Owens said.
Professor Owens also said many of the black people currently active in the armed forces are well beyond the traditional fighting ages of 18 to 26. In fact, he said part of the reason the Army is 30 percent black, is that African-Americans stay enlisted longer than whites do.
"The United States Army is the one major institution in America in which black males routinely give orders to white males. And for that reason, they stay longer," Mr. Owens said.
The U.S. government hasn't conducted a military draft since 1973, toward the end of the Vietnam War. President Bush has indicated he has no intention of drafting anyone, and at this point in time, Congressman Rangel's proposal enjoys little to no support in Congress.