Who Fights in Today's Volunteer Army?

By Kamala Platt
February 1991; page 9; Volume 2, No. 4

This article is reprinted with permission of NOKOA.


African-Americans and Latinos as well as working class whites are disproportionately represented in the U.S. military, particularly in the most dangerous and least skill-related units. This was true during and following the Vietnam War and even the Department of Defense (DOD) statistics finally released on January 3, nearly five months after the first Desert Shield troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia, show that 29.8% of the Desert Shield army forces are African Americans.

The DOD claims that 4.5% of Desert Shield is "Hispanic," however figures obtained earlier from an unofficial DOD source and published in the "Valley Morning Star" in South Texas indicate that 30-40% of the Desert Shield troops are Latino. The discrepancy may be due in part to the fact that application forms often represent Latinos as white or offer no alternative with which many Latinos will identify.

Recruitment Offers Little Truth and Few Options

The disproportionate representation is not denied by the Bush administration. It is, in fact, being used as an excuse for re-establishing a draft. The implications of these statistics and the relased discriminatory practices of the military are rarely discussed in the media or by administrators in a meaningful way, however. A recent commentator on National Public Radio suggested that the disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos in the armed forces in combination with a new war tax might help race relations by uniting people in the war effort! (Meanwhile, money going to Desert Shield personnel drops when they are deployed to battle because they lose their "food allowance;" those who have families living on that allowance feel the effects of the pay cut.)

Today's 'Volunteer' Army

President Bush claims that a disproportionate number of people of color and working class whites is not cause for any relevant concern because our army is "volunteer." He fails to recognize that the notion of volunteerism has to be understood in the context of socioeconomic conditions which offer few choices to those without the financial resources to pay for job skill training or higher education that the military so readily promises.

To make matters worse, and what is often left unreported about a volunteer army that urges recruits to "be all that you can be," are the misrepresentations that recruiters use to get people to enlist. Despite assertions that the military trains people of color for skilled labor, only 12% of men and 6% of women use these skills learned from the military after discharge. NPR, interviewing people in December who were coming out of recruiting centers, discovered that they were being told that they would never have to face combat in the Desert Shield campaign. Targeting of certain groups, often people of color, by the military continues with programs like Desert Shield's "Quick Fix," which offers two thousand dollars to an unlimited number of high school dropouts with GEDs if they are willing to be deployed within thirty days to risky jobs in Saudi Arabia. The Mexico City newspaper, Cuestion, reported that Latin Americans without U.S. citizenship were recently sent letters offering citizenship in exchange for joining the military.

Recruiters rarely emphasize casualty statistics when attempting to bring in new young Latin American or African-American men. Fifty percent of the Latinos sent to Vietnam served in the combat units, according to AFSC sources. From January 1961 to February 1967 and from December 1967 to March 1969 Mexican-Americans had a higher death rate in Vietnam than other servicemen. And this, according to The Minority Trendsletter, at a time when people of color made up 30% of the military, but were represented by only 11% of the officer's corps.

"They were being told that they would never have to face combat in the Desert Shield campaign."

Manning Marable points out that in both the Civil War and the Vietnam War "black troops were never more than 12% of the total number of armed forces, yet they suffered almost twice the casualty rates as whites." Social class also demonstrates its vulnerability to military discrimination as is evident in a Chicago study that reveals a casualty rate among youths from low-income neighborhoods three times higher than that of youths from high-income neighborhoods during the Vietnam War.

Will the Draft be Less Discriminatory?

This history of discrimination and disproportionate representation perhaps explains why the DOD did not release statistics on people of color or women in Desert Shield for the first five months, and it offers clear warning of continued trends in matters such as the reinstatement of the draft, which may soon become a reality. The APA News Service announced on Sunday, January 13, that the U.S. Armed Services Committee would meet on January 15 to discuss possible reinstatement of the draft. Ironically, the premise for the meeting was to find a way "to share the burden of war with groups that are under-represented in the military." It is important to recognize just how "selective" Selective Service can be.

For example, throughout the 1960s, a proportionately higher percentage of blacks (30 percent) than whites were drafted from the Selective Service lists. Another study, "Selective Service and the American Society," found that 38.4% of all black draftees were in combat units while 23.9% of white draftees were in such units. A similar situation existed for Latinos during Vietnam. For instance, in Vietnam, Californians with Spanish surnames (10% of the population) made up 20% of the servicemen and 22% of the state's casualties.

And, while people of color and working class whites have tended to be more vulnerable to draft selection, they have also found it more difficult to obtain conscientious objector status. Penalties for draft violations have also been more severe for blacks than whites. In fact, one study showed that throughout the country, prison sentences for draft violations were about one year longer when imposed on blacks as opposed to whites.

Understanding the relationship of people of color to the military is a sensitive and complex issue. We must think about Operation Desert Storm in light of the fact that people of color make up disproportionate numbers of combat troops, in particular, and are over-represented in the armed forces at large. As U.S. casualties rise during ground level conflict in the Middle East, the reality of this inequity will become more harsh - a reality the draft seems unlikely to change.