Let privileged share sacrifice

January 30, 2003|By Maurice Zeitlin

LOS ANGELES - The prospect that President Bush will take us into war in Iraq has raised anew the issue of the relationship between an all-volunteer military and democracy.

In the words of Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, who has introduced legislation in the House to resume the military draft, "If we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice." For, contrary to that principle, in the enlisted ranks of the military today, "the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent."

The tradition of the "citizen soldier" has never meant, not even during World War II, that men from all civilian walks of life, high or low, had the same chances of dying on remote battlefields. No military draft has ensured that the most privileged Americans were present in the ranks of the nation's fighting men.

During both of America's major 20th century expeditionary wars, the police action in Korea and the conflict in Vietnam, "selective service" meant not that the risks of death in war were shared equally but that, lopsidedly, men from poor and working-class families were the ones who got selected and were the ones who suffered the casualties of war.

A 1955 study of Korean War casualty rates among men from different areas of Detroit, for instance, showed that both "the relative economic standing of a man's home area" and its racial composition loaded the social dice in favor of a man's becoming a war casualty. The poorer the soldier's home neighborhood or the more blacks in his neighborhood, the worse were the odds of his coming out of the Korean War alive.

As to death in Vietnam, my own analysis (conducted with two colleagues in 1973) of data on the income and the occupation of the fathers of fighting men from Wisconsin showed that in the Army and in the other military services, men from poor families (below the official poverty line) were roughly twice as likely to get killed in Vietnam as their more affluent peers. Among Army privates alone, the poor were three times as likely to get killed.

Similarly, comparing the Vietnam death rates among servicemen whose fathers were workers, farmers, or "middle class" (professionals, managers, salesmen, clerks, etc.) showed that only the sons of workers were overrepresented among the dead. The other classes were underrepresented.

And it was the servicemen from poor working-class families who were by far the most likely to have borne the greatest burden of the war in Vietnam, in the measured but immeasurable precision of death.

Why? The answer, as Newsweek's Stewart Alsop put it bluntly in a column June 29, 1970, is that the Selective Service System was "quite clearly based on class discrimination." Or, as Wisconsin's Republican congressman, Alvin O'Konski, said at the time: "They say the poor are always with you. ... If the draft goes on as it has, they may not be with us much longer."

The income-related bias in deferment policies, especially the college deferment, imposed a draft that was especially skewed against men from working-class and low-income families. Since they were much less likely to go to college and stay in college than the more affluent, they were more likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.

More subtle processes were also involved in skewing the selection process against them.

Local draft board members were authorized to some extent to decide on deferments, to decide "who serves when not all serve." Hardly any board members were workers, let alone poor.

In metropolitan areas, only 6.6 percent of local draft board members during the Vietnam era were employed in manual occupations; outside of these areas, the figure was 7.3 percent. Too often, board members relied on the evaluation of the registrant' s personal appearance or even his choice of words in a letter when deciding on hardship or occupational deferments, the types of deferments available for men who couldn't go to college.

In short, the draft, as it existed in our recent past, operated to protect the sons of the privileged from the ravages of war. Only a draft that spares no man who is eligible, that exempts none but the ill, the disabled and the conscientious objector, and that selects inductees via a lottery would be a draft that ensured that Americans would, in Mr. Rangel's phrase, "shoulder the burden of war equally."

Maurice Zeitlin is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent book (with Judith Stepan-Norris) is Left Out (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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