The Changing Face Of War

Military: As the armed forces become more diverse in age, race and gender, fewer and fewer wealthy Americans are enlisting.

May 02, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

In some ways, it is not surprising that the best-known GI Joe from the war in Iraq is named Jessica.

That would be Jessica Lynch who was turned into a heroine despite her fervent denials that she deserved such status for being rescued from an Iraqi hospital after being wounded and taken prisoner in the early days of the war.

Though Lynch's story resonated in large part because it fit into so many stereotypes - a blond woman in jeopardy - in many ways she accurately represents what is different about the people who are fighting this war.

For one, a lot more women are involved than in previous fighting forces. They make up about 15 percent of the armed forces and probably more than 10 percent of those 130,000 deployed in and around Iraq. In Vietnam, about 7,500 women served there - all as nurses - during the decade of that war.

Though they are barred from most combat positions, many women do come into harm's way in a war where a supply unit is as much a target as an infantry squad. At least 19 women are among the more than 700 who have died in the Iraq war. Seven women died in the Vietnam War.

"The number of women killed here is much higher" on a percentage basis than in previous wars, says military sociologist Charles C. Moskos of Northwestern University. "There has been no public outcry over that."

More characteristic is Lynch's background - she is from rural West Virginia. Though the United States is rapidly becoming a more urban - and particularly suburban - country, that is not true of its military.

"This war is being fought by people from the small towns of America, mainly white, and from the inner cities," mainly black, Moskos says. "It is not people from the suburbs."

But in its diversity, this military is probably more representative of the population of the United States than the one that fought in Vietnam.

"In the composition of the force, there are more African-Americans in Iraq than in Vietnam," says David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Remember in Jessica Lynch's unit, you also had Shoshana Johnson," a black woman who was severely wounded.

"It has become a more diverse force just as the American labor force has become more diverse," Segal says.

The rural bias might be explained by what sociologist James Burk of Texas A&M says are the three basic motivations for joining an all-volunteer military.

"One is the desire to serve one's country, and along with that doing something in the family tradition, something considered good. The second is a desire for a new experience or adventure. And the third is economic, which is the most powerful of the three," he says.

`Sense of duty'

All three of these factors come together in small-town America - military traditions are stronger and economic and social conditions are weaker. Joining the service makes your small town proud of you - and also gets you out of there.

"Both the top and the bottom of the social strata are absent from the military," Segal says. "The bottom gets screened out for mental aptitude, for health reasons, for felony convictions, because they are not high school graduates.

"The top pretty much screen themselves out because they are not interested in serving," he says. "Back when John Kerry graduated from Yale, there was that sense of duty. Most people don't feel that way any more."

There is a recent striking exception to that - Pat Tillman, the National Football League player who walked away from a multimillion dollar contract to join the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks. Tillman, an Army ranger, was killed in Afghanistan on April 22.

Figures show that few Americans felt a similar call after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There was a little bump in recruiting, but not a big bump," Burk says.

"It was very small numbers," Segal says. "There was lots of increased interest initially, the recruiting home pages of all the services had a lot of visits. But very few followed through.

"I think it is because of the way the administration responded to the attacks," he says. "Initially, you may recall, these were not seen as acts of war, but as criminal acts. The people who benefited in recruiting were the FBI and CIA. They had huge increases."

The sacrifices of the New York firefighters and police officers were also emphasized in those early weeks, he says. "People like Tillman are pretty rare."

Moskos sees this as further evidence that the country has a different attitude toward the military.

Moskos notes that the difference is evident in two generations of Kennedys - President John F. Kennedy and his three brothers all served, but none of the 15 male cousins in the next generation joined.

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