African-Americans are about 12% of the U.S. population, but they could become 25% of U.S. casualties in a massive ground conflict with Iraq. This is a bitter prospect for those who believe that blacks did more than their fair share of the dying in Vietnam.
Even though that belief is mistaken, it has had a powerful effect on public attitudes and on military-personnel policy. It caused blacks, along with most other Americans, to accept a devil's bargain, the all-volunteer force.
The belief that blacks bore the brunt of battle in Vietnam is not totally baseless, however. In 1965 and 1966, blacks were more than 16% of all combat deaths and more than 20% of the Army's fatalities.
These figures prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to complain that "we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them . . . to guarantee liberties in southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia."
King's complaint profoundly affected the body politic, even though many leaders, including some prominent civil-rights activists, rebuked him for it.
In an effort to correct inequities, the Selective Service System eliminated most draft deferments and began conscripting white, middle-class college students. This evened out the combat burden so that blacks were roughly 12% of U.S. fatalities in Vietnam; but it also turned college campuses into hotbeds of anti-war protest.
The all-volunteer force emerged from an unholy alliance of doves and hawks; the former opposed the Vietnam War and thus compulsory service, while the latter supported the war but avoided battle. Because the all-volunteer force did not come into being until 1973, it has not been tested in a major conflict.
For the past decade, African-Americans have constituted around 20% of the 2 million-plus people on active duty. Their representation varies greatly across ranks, services and military occupational specialties. As of mid-1990, blacks made up almost 23% of active-duty enlisted personnel but less than 7% of commissioned officers.
Partly because of the Vietnam experience, each service now tends to distribute combat training roughly in proportion to its own racial composition.
The Defense Department has not provided detailed information about the makeup of units in the Persian Gulf. With more than 200,000 U.S. troops already in place and an additional 200,000 scheduled for deployment, however, the force probably represents a good cross-section of the total active force.
Statements about battle tactics and body counts are necessarily conjectural. In the best-case scenario, Iraq's occupation of Kuwait will be resolved without a shot being fired at U.S. forces. In the worst case, the United States and its U.N. allies will become involved in a large-scale ground conflict that lasts for months and produces thousands of casualties. In the latter scenario, about one out of every four U.S. casualties is likely to be black, and about one out of every three is likely to be Latino, black, Asian-American or American Indian.
Little can be done to alter the composition of the military, at least not quickly. Returning to conscription, as some have proposed, would have virtually no effect. Draft calls are used to make up for a shortage of volunteers, and in recent years the services have seldom run short of volunteers. Under current economic conditions, the only sure way to reduce black representation is to impose racial quotas.
During the past 15 peacetime years, the all-volunteer force provides benefits all around: middle-class youth kept their careers from being sidetracked by military service; the poor of all races found opportunities not available in civilian society; women proved their mettle in a previously all-male domain; the armed forces got good personnel, and political leaders were let off the hook, not forced to deal with this nation's enormous social inequities.
If we go to war, however, those benefits will turn into heavy burdens; blacks will die in large numbers, legions of Al Sharptons will contrive to turn the private grief of their families into public hatred, and the country will suffer another season of discontent.
We can alter the terms of our devil's bargain by committing ourselves, as a nation, to improving education and employment opportunities for all Americans. This is a long-term task, however, requiring greater moral and political fortitude than this country's leaders have shown in recent years.
In the meantime, we must deal with the instant case. Those of us who worry about a disproportionate combat burden are obliged to exercise special care. Expressions of concern must not undermine the morale of our soldiers or give false hope to an adversary. No returning black soldier should be made to feel that he was a "chump" for having served.
Furthermore, the prospect of a disproportionate combat burden, however worrisome, is not sufficient reason to reject what the Bush Administration is attempting in the Persian Gulf. As a matter of principle, a policy should not be judged solely by the degree to which blacks are involved in its execution.