The volunteer Army

January 22, 1991

Critics of the administration's Persian Gulf policy express dismay over the fact that blacks and other minorities form a disproportionately large percentage of U.S. military personnel. Blacks, for example, make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet are nearly a quarter of the armed forces and about 30 percent of the Army's ground troops. Military analysts concede that in any protracted conflict, minorities also would bear a disproportionate share of combat casualties.

Does that make service in the all-volunteer Army inherently unfair? Not necessarily. True, most recruits -- black and white -- volunteer at least partly for economic reasons, which in turn is a reflection of the unequal distribution of opportunity available to poor and working-class youngsters compared to their middle-class counterparts. But that doesn't mean those who choose military service aren't patriotic, or that money is the only or even the most important incentive for their decision to join.

Blacks, in particular, traditionally have viewed military service as a route toward greater recognition of their abilities when they return to civilian life. Today's high-tech military has attracted a much better educated and more highly motivated corps of recruits than the Vietnam-era conscript army, and is probably also the American institution least hospitable to racial and gender bias.

Viewed in that context, the true test of fairness is not whether the number of women and minorities in the armed forces precisely mirrors their proportion of society as a whole, but to what extent that society is prepared to honor its commitment to equal opportunity and justice when the troops come home.

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