Collateral damage

There was a fairly long and well-researched article in the Boston Globe about the decline in military enlistment among blacks. The author cited a number of reasons, from the unpopularity of the war to dissatisfaction with the present Administration and/or societal response to issues such as Hurricane Katrina– all of which are entirely reasonable.

I emailed the article to the Better Half, who was a paratrooper and Jump Master in the 82nd Airborne in the Army in the early to mid 80s, and then in the Reserves, including Special Forces, for a far longer stint. Both of us are white, and come from fairly middle-class families living in more than predominantly white neighborhoods. But unlike a lot of our friends and family, we’ve both had a lot more exposure to our non-white fellow citizens. We’re both of us a bit more conscious of other people’s (and our own) assumptions and discomforts as a result. Because the Better Half’s unit in the Army and in the Reserves was composed of a much more mixed group of soldiers, he got to know a lot of folks from lots of different backgrounds, and served under several black NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and sergeants. So I emailed him the article, to see what he thought about it. He had this to say, and thanks again for letting me reprint it, m’dear:

This makes perfect sense based on my experiences and observations as to why people join the military, particularly the Army. Many minority folks (and women) join the military to get a good job with benefits, pension, training etc. while a large percentage of young white men join for the action. Minorities then continue on and make a career while most of the white boys bail out after their first enlistment. The war in Iraq makes the military much less attractive to people looking for a good job.
The large percentage of black and Hispanic NCO’s is very noticeable. When I was in, there were infantry units in the 82d where almost all privates were white and many of their NCO’s were black and Hispanic. This becomes even more apparent in the more elite units like Ranger and Special Forces while its less noticeable in heavy infantry and armor (tanks) units.
People complain that black and other minorities are over-represented in the military, but that’s only in the aggregate. During Vietnam, the draft pulled in all kinds of people and black and Hispanics were probably more likely to get assigned to combat units than white. In the current all-volunteer Army, front line combat units tend to be much more white than the Army as a whole. Whites tend to choose the infantry and other combat arms skills while minorities pick the service areas.
I don’t know as much about officers but I tend to think the opposite is true. Blacks and Hispanics may be more likely to use the military to pay for college (ROTC) and get some basic management experience and then leave for the private sector.

He makes some interesting points that could be the subject for a research thesis, much less a blog post. The American economy is not long on jobs with high security or good benefits these days, no matter how well you do your job. It makes sense to take a potentially lower pay, but more secure job, with a guaranteed pension and benefits, even after retirement. Our public school system as a whole also tends to shy from teaching practical vocational skills, or even show students how to translate academic training in reading and math into things like how to write a memo, or read a spreadsheet. And if a kid’s never worked a job before finishing high school, the opportunity afforded by the military to learn job skills while still being cut a certain amount of leeway to do a little growing up and learning how to do the 9 to 5 thing can’t be underestimated. But– if you’re more likely to get shipped to combat, and there are background social issues like Katrina, and our shameful, shameful response, then the fall off makes sense.

Neither of us pretends to have even a small percentage of the whole picture, but it was good food for thought for both of us, so I thought I’d share.

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One thought on “Collateral damage

  1. sognatrice

    Very interesting. I think there’s also a social class issue going on that cuts across racial barriers–if I had a nickel for every time someone in my lower middle (white) class family urged me and/or others to get a safe government job with benefits….I remember reading about that idea being the great brainwashing of the middle and lower classes, actually, because those are precisely the kind of jobs to have that will ensure you never really move up the social ladder. Wish I could remember where I read that because I’d love to revisit it….

    Reply

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