'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, October 15, 2007

African Americans Abandoning the US Military Revisited 

UPDATE: Remember, if you are in the US military, and get orders to attack Iran, disobey them. You will find yourself in good company.

INITIAL POST: Last Monday, I linked to a Boston Globe article indicating that African Americans are abandoning their historic levels of participation in the US military. I had intended to comment further about it on the following day, but got distracted. There is a significant implication to the development which has been overlooked.

Most importantly, it appears that increasing numbers of African Americans are refusing to enlist, regardless of their economic situation:

Eager to bolster its stretched-thin ranks - and meet a congressional mandate to increase its force by about 65,000 troops within five years - the Army has launched an aggressive recruiting campaign targeted at young black people like Daley and his friends, with ads featuring a young black man convincing his parents that enlistment is a good choice. The Army has also raised its enlistment bonuses, highlighted its access to college tuition money, and loosened its age and physical fitness standards.

But Damon Wright, a senior at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, was not impressed. "There's no guarantee I wouldn't have to go over there," he said. "I'm trying to play football in college. I might go over there and lose a leg?"

The Pentagon and military analysts say the downturn in enlistments partly reflects the fact that young African-Americans have broader options, pointing to the growing number of black students in college. But the decrease in enlistment also comes amid high dropout rates among African-American youths and a 7.7 percent unemployment rate in the black community, almost twice that of whites.

Negative opinions about Iraq - and attitudes like Wright's - have overshadowed the military's efforts to highlight the positives about military service.

A recent CBS News poll showed 83 percent of African-American respondents said the Iraq invasion was a mistake. In addition, the president's approval rating has hit rock-bottom with black voters at about 9 percent, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll.

Liberals have often sought to rationalize the willingness of Americans to enlist in the military and perpetuate the horrors of the occupation on the ground that it is an understandable response to economic duress. For a typical example, consider a dialogue that I related here about a couple of years ago:

During a discussion on the DC indymedia website, I engaged in a dialogue with a purportedly antiwar woman who said the following:

Not everyone is privileged enough to be able to spend their time protesting. Many people have to make hard economic choices, and joining the military is one of them.

And, then later, after I disagreed, inquiring about her attitude about the loss of Iraqi life, and the harshness of the occupation:

I OPPOSE the war. That is a separate issue and I should not have muddied the water. I stand by my belief that my brother's choice to serve his country as a way to feed and clothe his kids is honorable but I abhor the war as much as he does.

Let's get this straight: she opposes the war, but publicly supports a family member who made a hard economic choice to feed his kids by volunteering to go to Iraq and kill people there. Now, I could understand if she privately expressed this within her family, but to publicly do so, and expect others to empathize with it . . . well, as I said there, it's morally myopic, a failure to hold someone accountable for their actions. Nowhere in this dialogue, despite being prompted to do so, did she ever express any sadness for the loss of Iraqi life, and the brutalities, like the torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. For her, the allegedly "hard economic choices" of Americans are more important than the Iraqis who are subjected to American military violence every day.

African Americans have apparently come to a different conclusion as their rate of enlistment has fallen 58% since 2001. Objecting to the war itself, and legitimately alarmed at the prospect of being injured or killed there, they are consciously refusing to facilitate the occupation through enlistment. Such a refusal implicitly suggests, contrary to the empathetic liberal perspective, that many of those who do enlist either support the occupation, or, alternatively, have no moral issues achieving other personal ends by enforcing it through violence.

Despite facing an economic situation more dire than the one facing white Americans (an unemployment rate twice that of whites), African Americans are voting with their feet and refusing to enlist, rejecting the financial incentives of the military, looking to other ways to survive that do not entail killing Iraqis. Why is this? Are they more empathetic to people in non-Eurocentric cultures, capable of humanizing them in ways that mainstream American culture cannot?

Or, are they, person by person, engaging in a different risk-benefit calculation, and deciding that, unlike others, being sent over to Iraq is just too dangerous? It is certainly plausible, after all, as the article notes, there is a history of subjecting African Americans to either demeaning assignments, or, conversely, extremely hazardous ones:

In World War II, African-Americans were again assigned mostly to support duty, but they made up 75 percent of truck drivers for the Red Ball Express - a dangerous, nonstop supply convoy that fueled General George H. Patton's sweep across Europe.

When President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military in 1948, African-Americans saw the Army as a key avenue for advancement. Joining up became "a way out of a worse situation," said Gregory A. Black, a retired Navy dive commander and creator of blackmilitaryworld.com, a website devoted to the history of African-Americans and the military.

By the Vietnam War, the Army had a full complement of black combat troops, including Colin Powell, who did two combat tours as a captain and major and later became secretary of state. But civil-rights leaders complained about the disproportionately high casualty rate among black soldiers, arguing that the Pentagon was drafting young black men and sending them directly into combat.

"A lot of African-Americans are still messed up over Vietnam," said Black. Yet Defense Department statistics show African-American soldiers today are more likely to work in clerical or support jobs than fight on the front lines.

Perhaps, African Americans are more persuaded by the past, by Vietnam, and even, say, Port Chicago, than by contemporary Pentagon statistics, especially as these statistics do not exclude the possibility that African Americans are still more likely to serve in combat than other ethnic groups.

African Americans may be taking a leadership role in rejecting service in the occupation of Iraq. The article also states that white enlistment is down 10% and Hispanic enlistment is down 7%. Instead of providing liberal rationalizations for enlistment, we should instead encourage all Americans to follow the exemplary example of the African American community.

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