US military sees sharp fall in black recruits
Dolly Wilson’s father proudly served in the Second World War and her husband in Vietnam. But her children will not join the military if she has any say in it.
“We don’t want our kids to go into no war for nothing,” said Mrs Wilson, snatching a cigarette with colleagues outside her Washington office.
Marines listen to George W Bush at Camp Pendleton
“Bush has two daughters. Let them go over and fight,” she added, to a chorus of “That’s not our war” from the others.
James Golladay served in the US coastguard, but would discourage his two teenagers if they came home talking about enlisting. “I wouldn’t want them to experience anything like that,” he said, as he passed a US army recruiting office on 14th Street, Washington.
Constance Allen’s husband, grandfather, uncle and son all served, but she would “never” let her grandson join up.
Mrs Wilson, Mr Golladay and Mrs Allen are not typical of America as a whole. But their views are enough to give the Pentagon cause for alarm. The reason? All three of them are black.
For years, black Americans have formed the backbone of the all-volunteer US army, filling a quarter of its ranks, though blacks account for only 13 per cent of the population. Blacks are more likely to treat the army as a lifelong career; a third of senior sergeants and non-commissioned officers are black. Suddenly, that is changing.
Apart from a sudden fall in the past two months in recruiting for the part-time National Guard, army recruitment as a whole has held more or less steady this year, with the help of increased enlistment bonuses and an early call-up for some youths originally due to enter basic training next year.
But the proportion of black recruits into the army was only 15.6 per cent, down from 22.3 per cent in the fiscal year 2001. In the part-time army reserve, the drop is sharper.
Army officials decline to speculate about the collapse in black recruiting, instead noting what they call a positive development, that army numbers will now reflect the make-up of society better.
Behind the scenes, there is more concern, according to Prof David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.
“If there are fewer blacks coming in – and it is blacks who stay in and become NCOs – then six, seven, eight, nine years down the road, you can anticipate a shortage of sergeants,” he said.
Prof Charles Moskos, an expert on the military and race at Northwestern University in Chicago, said the drop-off began even before the Iraq war, with the election of President George W Bush in 2000 in the face of overwhelming black antipathy, an attitude that lingers to this day.
That hostility increased exponentially with the invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by a large majority of black Americans, amid suspicion over the reasons given for toppling Saddam Hussein and anger at billions of dollars spent overseas, rather than at home.
Mrs Allen pointed to the rain-lashed streets of Washington, a large, poor, mainly black city that also happens to be the nation’s capital.
“You’ve got so many homeless people here, they were in the military, half of them. You look at that, people ask, ‘Why should I go fight the white man’s war when there’s nothing for us here?’ ” she said.
Mr Golladay said blacks tended to join the military for stable employment, college scholarships and the chance to learn valuable skills.
Pentagon statistics from 2003 back him up, showing that 67 per cent of black soldiers served in support or rearguard units, working as technicians, medical assistants, clerks or cooks. Only 16 per cent of black soldiers were in combat units.
Asked why blacks chose rear-line units, Mr Golloday answered: “People looked to the military as a way of receiving benefits. People want to transition into a civilian life later. Being a chief gunner isn’t something that people will pay a lot for.” Then he laughed, and added: “And they don’t want to die.”
Crucially, among older generations there are also sharp memories of the Vietnam War, in which blacks were seen as bearing an unfair burden of casualties. Martin Luther King spoke of it being fought by people of colour against people of colour in the interests of whites.
Kayla Roach, a black woman, said: “I know families whose kids want to join the military, and their parents are saying no. Maybe they have just one or two children and it’s scary to them.”
The perception has spread among black Americans that in the war on terrorism, rear-line units are as vulnerable as front-line infantry squads.
Prof Moskos defended the US military as one of America’s most racially integrated large institutions.
“The army is not a utopia but it is the only place where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks,” he said.
To Mr Golladay, the military is not the problem. “People join understanding that they might go to war,” he said. “But this war now, I feel it’s unnecessary.”