Who's fighting the war?

Posted: Apr 09, 2003 12:00 AM
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is very bright and very witty and a public figure who rivals Barbara Walters for omnipresence. But he can also be counted on to attempt an invidious construction of almost any feature of American life that can possibly be represented as anti-black, his latest being the charge that we ought to abandon the volunteer military and go back to a draft.

Suppose that there were no African-American minority? Suppose that everyone was white, from which it would follow that everyone in the military was white. Would Mr. Rangel still call for a return to the draft? The logic of his argument would require him to do so, though the political bottom would fall out of his brief. If everyone were white, there would still be a higher percentage of poor 18-year-olds than less-poor joining the Army, but the data would not be affected by ethnic correlations, and therefore would not attract the kind of attention Mr. Rangel seeks to attract.

Any cause that can be tied to ethnic attachments becomes noteworthy. Fifteen percent of American children have bad teeth! In the nonpolitical world, such a finding is filed in attics. Fifteen percent of American blacks have bad teeth is a finding that goes to Congressman Rangel, and on to the world at large.

But it's worth examining his analysis, if only to advise him that some of us are willing to take the trouble. "It's not fair that the people that we ask to fight the war are people who join the military because of economic conditions," Rangel said.

What's wrong with that is -- just to begin with -- the formulation. People who join the military do not do so in order to fight wars. They do so knowing that such wars as are fought, they will fight. If a young man signs up to be a policeman, he is not signing up to engage in shoot-outs with armed robbers, but shoot-outs with armed robbers will be with policemen.

Young men who volunteer for the military have a very good statistical probability of avoiding much of the military conflict that brings death or wounding. The war we are currently engaged in is unbloody, by comparison with others. But even in the bloodiest war of the 20th century, casualties were, measured as percentages of those who served, slight. There were 16 million in the military in World War II and under 1 million casualties, 671,000 wounded, 292,000 killed. One casualty out of 16 serving.

The percentage of black Americans in the military is 20, compared to 13 percent of the U.S. population. As it happens, most black service members, we are informed in Stars and Stripes, hold administrative and medical jobs. Why should that be? One major reason is that those skills learned in the fighting units of the military are of no use when leaving. Accordingly, many blacks seek out Army training, for instance in medical units, that gives a substantial advantage when going on to civilian trades.

There is another factor, which is that blacks tend to re-enlist at a higher rate than others. The reason is that "blacks believe they have a better chance of color-blind success inside the military than in the civilian world," as Lisa Burges of Stars and Stripes summarizes. This translates to more blacks, as a percentage of the population, than whites who make the military their chosen profession.

If Mr. Rangel is saying merely that military careers are marginally more attractive to blacks than to whites, he won't be questioned, but the political-ethnic point disappears. The study of Stars and Stripes relies on a report released by the Department of Defense in January. We do vainly to correct the impression, but we try: "In terms of Vietnam, the widespread impression that blacks died in disproportionate numbers during the Vietnam War is actually a myth." Blacks accounted for 10.6 percent of all Americans who served, and 12.5 percent of all fatalities. The percentage of blacks of military age at that time was 13.5.

Not much is left of Mr. Rangel's idea. There are some Americans (I am one of them) who believe in national service for everyone, but the distinction here is an extension of the very idea of a voluntary military: National service should be voluntary, not compulsory, but social pressures to serve should be militantly in place, doing day and night duty by exerting pressure on young men and women to give a year of their lives to the country that protects their lives and their freedom.