The condemnation of Lynndie England, the abuser of prisoners, in some ways echoes the exaltation a year ago of Jessica Lynch. Both young women come from small West Virginia towns. The privileged who offer such strong opinions about them are not their peers; they would never make the decision to enlist that these young women did. Notwithstanding the livid horror of Abu Ghraib, there is something condescending and unconvincing about the portrayals of the poor people who are fighting the war for the rest of us.
The class issue has shadowed the war from the start but has lately been getting more attention. It is the impetus for several initiatives on Capitol Hill and a theme of Michael Moore’s antiwar documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 . “It’s a poverty draft,” said Rick Jahnkow, who does anti-military recruiting in California. “The vast number of people in this country who are escaping this draft are not elites. They’re middle-class or upper-middle-class people.”
The issue started percolating politically last year.
“We were looking at casualties from Texas on the Department of Defense Web site and it struck us that ‘Gee, these kids are coming from towns in Texas that we never heard of,’” said Robert G. Cushing, a retired sociology professor in Austin who works with the Austin American-Statesman . “Not just small towns. But small towns not even close to metropolitan areas.”
The newspaper undertook a study of the numbers and found that while one in five Americans live in non-metropolitan counties, nearly one out of three casualties in Iraq have come from these counties. These are places that do not have a city over 50,000 people and are not within commuting distance of a big city. The paper’s interviews with enlistees from these places have shown that they can’t find good jobs in their communities and feel that a university education is out of their reach- they couldn’t afford to move to a community near a state school.
Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking minority member on the House Armed Services Committee, was even more emphatic. Last fall he stated that 43.5 percent of the soldiers killed in Iraq came from rural cities and towns with a population below 20,000.
These kids tend to be rural white. The others who have been disproportionately affected are blacks and Hispanics from the inner city.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘These kids want to fight, they volunteered,’” said Charles Rangel, the longtime Harlem congressman. “But I saw these kids go off to camp and then to Iraq, and I’ll tell you, they need the sense of importance of a uniform. And they’re torn. They say, ‘Congressman, continue to fight against this war, but don’t worry about me. I’m going to make you proud, I’m going to be a good goddamn staff sergeant.’”
Representative Rangel came out for the draft as a more equitable means of sharing the risk. He promptly heard from Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina.
“Fritz Hollings said, ‘My rednecks are catching hell,’” Representative Rangel recalled. “In these small towns, you’re a big shot if you have a couple of stripes on your shoulder or bars on your collar.”
The issue took on a special poignancy in South Carolina last year after three young men from one small town high school, Orangeburg-Wilkinson, died in Iraq, sowing disturbance in that community.
How many high schools in Westchester or Montgomery County, Md., have similar records? None; we’d have heard about it.
While the draft proposal has gone nowhere on Capitol Hill, the larger issue of fairness has gained a following in the “red” districts, to cite the red/blue divide of the last Presidential election. One conservative Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, has endorsed the call for a draft, while another, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, has called for a national debate over the question. In the meantime, Mr. Skelton has called on the General Accounting Office to study the socioeconomic composition of the military.
Michael Moore has also showed up on Capitol Hill. In a scene in his new documentary, the filmmaker and provocateur approaches three congressmen outside the Capitol, trying to recruit their children to the military. According to people who have seen the film, the congressmen walk away flabbergasted or blathering.
The issue goes well beyond Congress. Anti-recruiter Rick Jahnkow points out that Junior ROTC’s can be found in every high school in San Diego except for the three high schools on the affluent north side of town.
The same exemption goes for the big Northeastern cities. The most startling statistic produced by a Defense Department human-resources contractor (humrro.org/poprep2002) is that at the end of the Vietnam era, the Northeast provided 22 percent of the people in the military. Today that number has sunk to 14 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of enlistment from the South has risen. Enter Jessica Lynch.
“In so many communities the choices seem to be, here go work at Burger King or go into the Army where you can have a career path, and get money for college, get training for a career,’” said Nancy Lessin, a member of the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out.
The obvious response to this imbalance is that the military has always functioned in this manner, as a bridge for powerless groups to rise into the middle class. It served that role for white ethnics during World War II and for blacks in the last generation. The poor will always be over-represented at the front lines; the educated will almost always find jobs as paper-pushers.
Yet the difference in Iraq is that the selection of the poor is purer than ever. Yes, multitudes of affluent people got out of the draft during Vietnam. This time around they don’t even have to worry about it. When Representative Susan Tauscher, a moderate Democrat serving the affluent hill communities outside Oakland, called for an increase of forces in Iraq and introduced legislation seeking more aggressive recruitment, she could be confident that those numbers won’t be coming from her soccer-mom constituency.
And while the left often asserts that Iraq is recapitulating Vietnam, the big improvement from the military’s standpoint is the passivity of those who oppose the war. Poll numbers suggest that opposition is widespread. But the campuses are quiet. There haven’t been big anti-war demonstrations.
“All the demonstrations are on the telephone,” said Emile Milne, an aide to Congressman Rangel.
For all their vehemence against the war, the affluent aren’t waking up with nightmares about their children. If privileged youth were called upon to make the greatest sacrifice that a society demands of its citizens, this war would probably be ended in an instant. “The decisions about this war are being made by people with no personal stake,” said Nancy Lessin (who said that on three occasions her organization tried to speak to John Kerry about the war, and on three occasions he could not make time for them).
Or as Congressman Rangel said, “It’s easy to make the decision to go to war if you don’t expect an uproar.”
The poverty draft reflects the great divide in the new economy. The college-educated would regard it as a waste if their children were to join the military. No, they must be trained to the highest degree for participation in the global economy. Meanwhile, high risk can be outsourced, to the new immigrant from Guatemala or the ghetto kid who can’t find employment. And to ice the deal, the military offers bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars to those who enlist, while editorialists who favor a larger military involvement call for “better incentives” and “better marketing” to enlistees.
There’s got to be a better way to define citizenship. Representative Rangel served (and froze) in Korea, and while he didn’t see the mission that time either, he has never forgotten the democratic lessons the military taught him: “We had the ability then to bring people of different classes and races together, and force their asses to respect each other.”
The Iraq war has replaced that sense of a democratic collective with disrespect for those who can’t participate in the new economy. And don’t think that the citizens of Arab oligarchies don’t see that. We like to think that we’re exporting democracy. So far we’re exporting ruthless capitalism.