Thursday, October 13, 2011

Minority Over-Representation in the Military: the Myth That Won’t Die, & Why

I have been reviewing events that occurred during my recent sojourn, covering the news (which is somewhat perishable) and commentary (arguably less so).  I have to prioritise my observations and reactions to match the available time, but one particular article strikes me as worthy of comment, and more.

The Wall Street Journal published Ann Marlowe’s piece entitled “The Truth About Who Fights for Us” about two weeks ago (27 September), and it involves the persistent perception amongst the Sophisticati that the military, particularly the Army and Marines, is populated primarily by the losers in society -- the poor and the minorities -- who turn to the service in last-resort, economic desperation or patriotic ignorance (the ones who "cling to their guns and religion", I expect), and the military is glad to have them, needful as it is for lambs to the slaughter. 

The article has the legs for review not just for now, but for some time to continue, as it explains and attempts to correct a misconception that just won’t go away and for good reason: there are a sizable number of people who don’t want it to go away.  It serves their purposes and their world view.
Just last week, two well-educated and well-known writer acquaintances of mine remarked in passing on the "fact" that those who serve in the U.S. military typically have no other career options.  America's soldiers, they said, were poor and black.
They don't mean this to denigrate their service – no, they mean it as a critique of American society, which turns its unemployed into cannon fodder.  Especially today with high unemployment, the charge goes, hapless youths we fail to educate are embarking on a one-way trip to Afghanistan.  [John Kerry said as much.] 
These allegations – most frequently leveled at the Army, the military's biggest service and the one with the highest casualty rate – are false.
Ms Marlowe, using a Heritage Foundation study of 2008 (which includes reference to earlier studies as well), demonstrates that only 11% of enlisted recruits come from the lowest economic quintile (one-fifth), whereas 25% come from the highest quintile.  This upper number is expanded in the case of officer training programmes such as ROTC, where 40% come from the upper quintile, "a number that has increased substantially in the last four years".

As for the stereotype that the high school dropout can always join the Army, the answer is ‘no’.  Only 1.4% of enlisted recruits in 2007 did not have a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to 20.8% in the general population of 18-24 year olds.

Are blacks and Hispanics over-represented?  No again.  Black population in the service matches that of the general population, and Hispanics are actually significantly under-represented, probably a result of language difficulty.

I have retained some earlier examples as well, such as this item from the Wall Street Journal of 7 January 2003, speaking of the same topic going back to Viet Nam:

A research paper published last April [2002] by Aline Quester of the Center for Naval Analysis and Curtis Gilroy of the Defense Department reports that in Vietnam, ‘black fatalities were between 12% and 13% of all Americans killed – a figure proportionate to the size of their civilian population and actually lower than their percentage of the army at that time.’  In the six military operations since then, blacks have comprised 15% of combat fatalities while making up 13% of the population.  Still, say the authors, that 15% is ‘considerably below the percentage of blacks in the active-duty army (about 19%).’
Trends suggest that this will be even less of an issue in the future.  Today's military finds more blacks than ever in military occupations where they are less likely to physically engage the enemy.  According to the latest Defense Department figures, for example, just 12.6% of blacks in the military are in the category that includes infantry, gun crews and seamanship specialists; the figure is 78.4% for whites.  By contrast, 26.4% of blacks, against only 11.9% of whites, serve as functional supporters and administrators.  The Special Forces, who led the Afghanistan campaign and who would likely play a key role in Iraq, are overwhelmingly white.
Then there is this item from the New York Times on 7 April 2006:
An article on Feb. 9 about the military's recruitment of Hispanics referred incompletely to the belief of some critics that Hispanics in the Iraq war and blacks in the Vietnam War accounted for a disproportionate number of casualties.  Statistics do not support the belief.  Hispanics, who are about 14 percent of the population, accounted for about 11 percent of the military deaths in Iraq through Dec. 3, 2005.  About 12.5 percent of the military dead in Vietnam were African-Americans, who made up about 13.5 percent of the general population during the war years.  The error was pointed out in an e-mail in February; the correction was delayed for research after a lapse at The Times.
Tellingly for the New York Times, the above was item number three in the Corrections column, published two months after the original allegation.

Returning to our original article, Ms Marlowe goes on to conclude:

Why do myths persist despite all the evidence?  One reason is lack of firsthand exposure to the military: Doing a journalistic embed with American troops or visiting a U.S. military base – or simply having some friends in the military – would disabuse my acquaintances of their beliefs.
This detachment is the result of a withdrawal of our urban elites from military service.  And it suits the interests of many members of the urban elite to believe that the military they do not join is composed of poor, uneducated victims of an unfair society.
The hidden assumption in this myth is that an institution that is heavily black is an inferior institution.  The myth of the ghetto Army is as nastily racist as it is false.
I agree, but it is beyond racist: it is elitist in the worst way, and the attitude has been with us as a part of our culture for centuries, remarked upon, for example, in Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy, as in
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap. . .
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An 'Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool – you bet that Tommy sees!
A more recent and articulate view reflects the fact that the military fully understands that it exists in a different culture, and embraces it as a bulwark against a civilian society that not only doesn’t understand, it doesn’t want to understand; taken from Tom Wolfe’s wonderful history of the beginning of the American space programme, The Right Stuff:
Even in the 1950s it was difficult for civilians to comprehend such a thing, but all military officers and many enlisted men tended to feel superior to civilians.  It was really quite ironic, given the fact that for a good thirty years the rising business classes in the cities had been steering their sons away from the military, as if from a bad smell, and the officer corps had never been held in lower esteem.  Well, career officers returned the contempt in trumps.  They looked upon themselves as men who lived by higher standards of behaviour than civilians, as men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honour while civilians lived by opportunism and greed.  Opportunism and greed: there you had your much-vaunted corporate business world.  Khrushchev was right about one thing: when it came time to hang the capitalist West, an American businessman would sell him the rope.  When the showdown came – and the showdowns always came – not all the wealth in the world or all the sophisticated nuclear weapons and radar and missile systems it could buy would take the place of those who had the uncritical willingness to face danger, those who, in short, had the right stuff.
In fact, the feeling was so righteous, so exalted, it could become religious.  Civilians seldom understood this, either.  There was no one to teach them.
And more recently, the movie Hurt Locker (Best Picture, 2008), dealing with explosive ordnance disposal in Iraq, explained a more poignant (yes – poignant) feeling in a scene toward the end, where the protagonist has returned home to wife and family and at one point finds himself standing in an aisle in a supermarket, feeling perplexed and out of place.  My civilian acquaintances confess that they simply don’t get it, but the veterans I know understand and appreciate that scene far too well.  I had a similar epiphany at a little league game.  I occasionally say that I will never be a civilian.  I am not joking.

So, Ms Marlowe (currently embedded I think with the TNC army fighting in Libya), thank you for your contribution to the subject, but I fear that it will have little impact on the Sophisticati and the willfully benighted, for invincible ignorance cannot be defeated.  They shall always be among us.  On behalf of the veterans and those who serve though, we appreciate the effort.

Update:  The subject reared its ugly head again in the campaign for the Republican nomination in New Hampshire.

1 comment:

  1. My own Father is guilty of such bias. He served in the Air Force in Vietnam, and was horrified that I joined the Army. He was also disgusted that I had no interest in going into "Intelligence," but wanted to be in a combat MOS. I actually requested to be in the Infantry (or a helicopter pilot) when I was at the MEP station, neither of which were available to women in 1989. Some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people that I have ever had the privilege to meet were infantry soldiers, and that includes my husband. We still refer to other people as civilians, and consider ourselves soldiers, and will do so to our dying day.
    I've got a friend who has volunteered for 10 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (he's still over there). If I were still in, I would do the same, and so would my husband.


Comments are welcome and discussion is open and encouraged. I expect that there will be some occasional disagreement (heaven knows why) or welcome clarification and embellishment, and such are freely solicited.

Consider that all such comments are in the public domain and are expected to be polite, even while contentious. I will delete comments which are ad hominem, as well as those needlessly profane beyond the realm of sputtering incredulity in reaction to some inanity, unless attributed to a quote.

Links to other sources are fine so long as they further the argument or expand on the discussion. All such comments and links are the responsibility of the commenter, and the mere presence herein does not necessarily constitute my agreement.

I will also delete all comments that link to a commercial site.