Equality Requires Shared Sacrifice

Posted May 29, 2003 at 4:12pm

The U.S. armed forces should not be dominated by Americans — whether from inner cities or rural areas — driven into military service because of meager opportunities available in civilian life. Nor should the military appear to be a haven for immigrants seeking a fast track to citizenship. Yet that is the picture that emerges in a profile of those who served in the Iraq war.

March 23 was one of the worst days of the Iraq invasion, particularly for the 507th Maintenance Company. The support unit lost nine members that day, six of them minorities, including Pfc. Lori Piestewa, the first American Indian woman soldier killed in combat.

Six other members of the 507th were captured and held as prisoners of war, including two women, Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson of Fort Bliss, Texas, and Pfc. Jessica Lynch of Palestine, W.Va. Johnson, the mother of a two-year-old daughter, joined the Army to hone her skills as a chef. Lynch, the daughter of a self-employed truck driver in an Appalachian town with a 15 percent unemployment rate, planned to use her G.I. benefits to attend college.

The cases of Johnson and Lynch highlight the growing phenomenon of military service among women, who now comprise 15 percent of the armed forces, 47 percent of whom are from minority groups. Like Johnson and Lynch, these women typically are seeking to expand their economic horizons.

Among the immigrants killed were Marine Sgt. Riayan Tejeda, who was killed on April 11, and Marine Cpl. Bernard Gooden, killed on April 4. They were among the 37,000 legal immigrants serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Tejeda, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic, was a resident of Washington Heights, in my Congressional district in New York City. Tejeda and his family were seeking the fruits of their new life in America, but he will have to settle for posthumous citizenship, for which his parents have proudly applied. Gooden was born in Jamaica and had resided with his mother in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

The casualties suffered by poor whites, minorities, women and immigrants in Iraq dramatically depict the changing makeup of today’s military. They also belie predictions prior to the war, when the Pentagon attempted to refute concerns that the disproportionate minority presence would result in comparably high rates of fatalities. The Pentagon went so far as to argue that blacks were less likely to be killed because only 15 percent of them were in combat units and the rest in supply, maintenance, medical, communications and other technical positions. [IMGCAP(1)]

The reality of the outcome was far different from the Pentagon’s predictions. It reflects what I knew well as a veteran of combat in Korea: No enemy is so sophisticated as to consider the specialties of their targets. In fact, in Iraq, minorities represented a disproportionate 32 percent of the deaths among combat-related specialties and 40 percent of those among the non-combat ranks.

Clearly, it is meaningless to attempt to predict the relative likelihood of being killed. However, in today’s warfare, technical specialties are so vital to effective functioning of the force that these soldiers are never far from the front or out of harm’s way.

As of April 24, more than 16 percent of the soldiers killed in Iraq were black and 14 percent were Hispanic, exceeding their roughly 25 percent representation in the general population. All minorities combined accounted for 35 percent of fatalities, reflecting the aggregate minority representation in the war, which had a peak deployment in the Persian Gulf region of 340,000 troops.

I salute the bright heroic young men and women whom I’ve described. The fact that they joined the military, at least in part, for economic reasons does not detract in the least from the value of their service or their patriotism.

But I do deplore the fact that Americans and Americans-to-be of their socioeconomic positions make up the overwhelming majority of our nation’s armed forces, and that, by and large, those of wealth and position are absent from the ranks of ground troops. Under the current system, the American principle of shared sacrifice has gone AWOL. My solution to the problem was legislation, H.R. 163, to establish a system of universal national service, whether military or civilian.

I was immediately attacked by former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, who argued that African-Americans’ disproportionate presence in the military somehow reflected their heightened patriotism. Current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in rejecting the idea outright, said that draftees in Vietnam had contributed little and, therefore, had already proven that the draft would not be effective, especially in the high-tech military.

Not once did either of them, or any military experts who denigrated my idea, address the vital question of shared sacrifice. They were in no position to argue that the current system is fair in distributing the burden of military service among all Americans because the Pentagon’s own statistics show otherwise. So they ignored the issue.

I have never suggested a universal call-up of the more than 34 million young people, aged 18-26, theoretically eligible for the draft. Maintaining a force of 1.4 million active duty soldiers would require an annual conscription of fewer than 250,000. The point is that, under a draft, every economic group, every social class, men and women, would be given the opportunity to contribute to the defense of their country.

While religious convictions would be respected, other deferments would be limited to those completing high school, up to age 20. For the 30 million-plus who were not called to serve in the armed forces, national civilian service in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, ports, forests and urban centers would be among the required options. In this era of state and local budget cuts, there are countless areas of the nation’s infrastructure that need the help of idealist young Americans.

To say that the war on terrorism should continue to be fought by one segment of the population, or by reservists repeatedly torn from their families, is not my idea of democracy. Democracies of the past were not well served by warrior classes. I do not believe that our great democratic republic, without shared sacrifice, will fare any better.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee.