- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) — The Pentagon denied that minorities and the poor comprise the bulk of its combat forces or bear disproportionate hazards in war, a perception left over from the Vietnam War era and the television show M*A*S*H, a senior defense official said Monday.

"It's interesting how long old ideas persist in the country at large," the senior defense official said.

At issue is a bill introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to reintroduce the draft.

"I believe that if we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice," Rangel wrote in an opinion article in December explaining his bill.

He contends the minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented in the military and that the burden of service should be more equitably spread amongst all races and socio-economic backgrounds. As only a handful of members of Congress had children in the military, Rangel contends the decision to commit them to war is too easy.

During the Vietnam War, the affluent, men in universities, married men and those with children were able to avoid the draft.

From the Pentagon's perspective, the demographic composition of the force is essentially immaterial because everyone in the services volunteered to be there.

According to Defense Department numbers, minorities are actually underrepresented in combat positions.

African-Americans of new enlistment age comprise roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population, but more than 20 percent of recruits are African-Americans, according to the Pentagon.

"Blacks today account for 21 percent of the enlisted force, but make up only 15 percent of combat arms (e.g. infantry, armor, artillery). In contrast, blacks account for 36 percent of functional support and administration and 27 percent of medical and dental career fields."

To support the assertion that African-American soldiers are not put at disproportionate risk, the Pentagon cites casualty figures from the Gulf War: "While blacks accounted for 23 percent of military personnel deployed to the Gulf, they comprised only 17 percent of the combat or non-combat deaths. Whites, who made up 71 percent of the U.S. forces in the theater, accounted for 76 percent of the deaths."

The senior official asserted that African Americans in the military do considerably better than their counterparts in the civilian population, earning on average $32,004 annually, compared to the average African American's salary in the private sector of $27,900.

"Beyond earning more than their civilian peers, blacks in the military are better educated, more likely to come from two-parent households and come from families in which both mother and father are better educated," states a Pentagon fact sheet.

The Pentagon contends the composition of enlisted recruits is not very far off the composition of the same age population at large. Moreover, it claims the recruits come from marginally better-off families than average — not the poor.

A survey conducted in 1999 of newly enlisted recruits showed a slight edge over their private-sector colleagues. Roughly 32 percent of enlisted recruits had fathers who had completed high school — an indication of economic power — compared to 31 percent of people the same age in the general population. Another 30 percent of enlisted recruits' fathers had completed some college, compared to 25 percent in the general population.

Ninety percent of newly enlisted recruits' fathers were employed, compared to 89 percent of the fathers of the recruit-age general populace.

However, when it came to college graduation or beyond, the families of the general population have a significant edge — with 30 percent of their fathers having earned degrees, compared to 22 percent of the fathers of newly enlisted recruits.

Congress abolished the draft 30 years ago this summer.

While Rangel's proposal is unlikely to pass congressional muster, the Pentagon is adamant in its opposition to the idea.

"I think we all want a force that, roughly speaking, looks like America, and I think by and large that's what we have in the military — in the military today. It's a great force," the senior defense official said Monday. "We think the volunteer force performs a lot better."

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