America's new warrior class?

Race doesn't appear to be a significant factor these days in who fights the nation's wars.

Published September 23, 2005

Economic class does.

As the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq approaches 2,000, a New York congressman is pushing for the reinstatement of the draft.

Rep. Charles Rangel says he is under no illusions such a measure will pass Congress but wants to make the point that "disproportionate numbers" of the poor and minorities serve in America's armed forces.

"We don't have affluent kids in the military," Rangel, D-N.Y., said in an interview last week. He insisted that "50 percent" of casualties in Iraq were "rural whites and inner-city minorities." Military service, he believes, should be a "shared sacrifice."

The actual numbers challenge some of Rangel's assertions, but his argument raises important questions.

Who is dying in Iraq? And how does race and class factor into the equation?

The race part of the question is the easiest to answer.

According to the Pentagon, the number of white soldiers who have been killed in Iraq far exceeds the number of African-Americans and Hispanics. Figures through the end of August show the ratio was roughly 3 to 1, or 1,374 to 477. In Afghanistan, the numbers are similar, with the ratio of white deaths to minority deaths 4 to 1, or 185 to 46.

The same is true for previous wars, including Vietnam. The number of white deaths in the Vietnam war totaled 49,802 compared with 7,241 African-Americans, nearly 7 to 1.

The numbers didn't always lean that way.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, African-Americans in the late 1960s made up 11 percent of the U.S. population. But published reports at the time noted that African-Americans made up 20 percent of combat platoons and 25 percent of high-risk paratrooper units in Vietnam.

"Evidence indicates that there was a disproportionately high number of casualties among African-Americans, particularly for the initial years of the Vietnam War," the encyclopedia said.

"Pentagon statistics report that blacks suffered nearly 25 percent of U.S. fatalities in late 1965 and early 1966. The Defense Department, alarmed at the high rates, initiated policies to reduce that number, and Pentagon estimates subsequently put African-American fatalities at 13.5 percent in 1967 and 14 percent in 1970."

While African-Americans continue to serve in the military in disproportionate numbers today, other factors play a role in declining minority deaths. One factor is that the percentage of African-Americans serving in combat has declined appreciably.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, said the number of African-Americans serving in the infantry, for instance, is about 11 percent, down from a high of about 25 percent. He said more African-Americans are selecting noncombat fields in the military, such as unit administration and communications.

Moskos thinks the real issue is class, which is much harder to quantify because the Pentagon does not keep income data on recruits.

He said media commentators and intellectuals promote the idea that minorities bear the brunt of wartime casualties because it generates controversy. "I guess the intellectuals and media are not turned on by poor, rural whites," Moskos wrote in an e-mail. "Shame on the intellectuals and media."

Rangel, who is African-American and a Korean War veteran, said minorities and poor rural whites serve in the all-volunteer military in disproportionate numbers, largely because of cash incentives and career opportunities offered by the government.

Former Navy pilot Everett Alvarez Jr., the first prisoner of war captured by North Vietnam in 1964, noted that in the 1960s people who could afford college or to go to Canada avoided military service.

"The whole perception of blacks, Hispanics, carrying the brunt of the war was not a race thing, it was a class thing," said Alvarez, who spent nearly nine years as a POW.

Tom Hayden, a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement, said the issue caught the nation's attention in the mid 1960s because it coincided with the civil rights movement.

He said he did not support Rangel's call to reinstate the draft, but agreed that members of disadvantaged groups bear the brunt of wartime casualties.

"It's not the professional class or upper classes that are shedding the blood," Hayden said. "It's the people from the red states that voted for Bush and the people from the inner city that voted for Kerry, that seem to carry the burden."

While the Pentagon does not have socioeconomic data on recruits, it says 35 percent of them in 2003 came from the Northeast and North Central region, 64 percent came from the South and West.

Also, a Government Accountability Office study released Thursday found that most military reservists who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came from rural and urban areas, as opposed to suburban communities.

The racial makeup of America's 1.4-million active duty force breaks down like this: African-Americans 19 percent, Hispanics 9.3, whites 66.4.

In the reserves, which total 859,000, the percentage of African-Americans is 16.2, Hispanics 8.6 and whites 71.5.

In the overall U.S. population, whites total 75.1 percent, African-Americans 12.3 and Hispanics 12.5.

Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarza@sptimes.com or 813 226-3432.