In the current debate about reinstating a military draft, Americans have been misled by myths posing as arguments.
Chief among them is Rep. Charles Rangel's contention that a draft is needed to ensure "shared sacrifice" in the event of war. Rangel, D-N.Y., a decorated Korean War vet, claimed that minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented in the military and are therefore at greater risk than whites and the financially secure.
The clear implication is that poor kids who "can't afford college" and minorities "who have no options in life" are manning the front lines while their paler brat counterparts are gearing up for frat parties and shelling out daddy's dough at tanning salons.
Although Rangel doubtless means well, he is wrong.
First let's dispel the poor kids `n college myth. As both a native Floridian and the mother of a high school senior, I can say with some confidence that it is easier to avoid mosquitoes in a swamp than it is to avoid college if you've made good grades and gotten through high school without a felony conviction.
Financial aid offices don't look for qualified candidates -they hunt them. If you're academically qualified, you can go to college.
If you're both qualified and African-American, you can often go quickly and free. If you can claim American Indian ancestry -or have a last name that suggests you've never been near a white male of European descent -you can let your dog eat the application and hang your book bag from the ivy-covered tower of your choice.
Look for the white boys, meanwhile, to be dodging mustachioed Saddam clones on Baghdad Square. The fact is, the majority of high-risk military jobs are filled by whites, according to a new 11-page Pentagon report released Monday.
While blacks make up 20 percent of enlistees, compared to only 12 percent to 14 percent of the recruit-age population, they make up just 15 percent of the combat force. Otherwise, blacks fill 36 percent of support and administration jobs, as well as 27 percent of medical and dental positions.
Another report by the Defense Department and the Center for Naval Analysis looked at figures from the Vietnam War and subsequent conflicts and found that blacks constituted about 12 percent to 13 percent of all Americans killed, a figure proportionate to the black civilian population.
A quick glance at other risk-related statistics suggests that young black males are far safer in the military, even during wartime, than they are in civilian life. Recent figures from the Children's Defense Fund, for example, show that homicide is the leading cause of death among black males ages 15 to 24; the firearm death rate for black males 15 to 19 is four times that of white males the same age.
In 1999, gunfire killed 3,365 children and teens -more than 38 percent of them black. Meanwhile, black males ages 15 to 19 are murdered at a rate more than seven times that of white males in the same age group.
Rangel and others are surely right to concern themselves with racial inequality, but their focus on the military may be distracting them from the truly horrifying realities of domestic life. Without cynicism, one might suggest that young African-American males, who are also over-represented in prisons, may benefit more than any other group from joining the military.
And while it is probably true that some financially underprivileged kids who are not college material do turn to the military, it is not axiomatic that kids in college are always from privileged homes. The Pentagon report shows that 32 percent of recruits are from homes in which the father is a high school graduate compared to 31 percent of the general population for the same age group.
A draft may become necessary before we're all laid to rest, but in that painful event we should be assured that conscription be ordered for the right reasons -to meet a military need in the interest of national security and not because someone slipped a race or class card into the deck.
In real life, that's called cheating.