Military Update: Black enlistments drop as war in Iraq goes on
When Danny Edwards, 26, enlisted in the Army in April 2001, he expected to stay for a career. He changed his mind while serving in Iraq in 2003, a war fought for reasons he said he still doesn’t understand.
Edwards, who is black, has for several years advised black youth in his neighborhood in Savannah, Ga., to avoid the Army and “the hell” of Iraq.
Black youth across the country appear to be heeding similar advice from parents, teaches, ministers, coaches and other black veterans. There have been changes in the racial composition of U.S. forces, particularly among first-term enlistees of ground forces heavily involved in Iraq.
Racial data on enlistees, compiled for Military Update by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), show that in fiscal 2002, the year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Army had 43,400 blacks among its first-term soldiers, or 21 percent of the total. By 2006, the number of blacks on their first hitch had fallen to 30,000, down to 14.5 percent.
That’s a drop of 30 percent in black representation over four years.
Over that same period, while the number of black first-term soldiers fell by 13,400, Army’s overall first-term enlisted population rose by 2,700. The number of white soldiers rose to close that gap while the proportion of Hispanics serving first enlistments didn’t shift significantly.
Two years ago, we reported here that Army recruiting of black youth had fallen by 40 percent from 2000 through early 2005. The new DMDC data show the ripple effect of that decline. The most likely cause is deep disapproval of the Iraq war among black communities across the country.
The Marine Corps, another ground force under enormous strain from the war, likely has seen a decline in black enlistees proportional to the Army. Marine Corps data, however, is less useful for tracking changes racial composition because a large number of Marines elect not to indicate race on their records. That became an option for servicemembers on guidance issued by the Department of Defense in late 2003.
DMDC data on the Marine Corps show that there were 12,600 blacks serving first-term enlistments in 2002, which represented 11.8 percent of all Marines on their first hitch. By 2006, the number of first-term black Marines had fallen below 8,000, or to 7.2 percent, a drop of more than a third.
However, the number of first-term Marines who declined to identify their race on Marine Corps forms rose from 819 in fiscal 2000 to 4,600 in 2006. That limits the Corps’ ability to track enlistment and re-enlistment decisions based on racial data.
All services saw declines in the proportion of blacks in their enlisted forces from 2002 through 2006. The overall proportion fell in the Army from 27.5 percent to 22.2 percent, in the Air Force from 18.1 percent to 16.6 percent; in the Marine Corps from 15.2 to 10.8 percent and in the Navy from 21 percent to 18.6 percent.
Army and Marine Corps personnel chiefs, both African American three-star officers, declined interview requests to discuss the DMDC data.
One officer who finds the data disturbing is retired Brig. Gen. Robert A. Cocroft, executive director of National Association for Black Veterans Inc. Cocroft said blacks for decades have viewed the military as a path out of poverty and as a “meritocracy” where race doesn’t factor in advancement.
A downshift in enlistments “is a telling indication that something is amiss about the military experience” for African Americans, he said. That difference, he said, appears to be the war in Iraq.
The black community, at its roots, is more conservative than portrayed in the media or in popular culture, Cocroft said. Black churches reinforce Judeo-Christian values and one of those values is that “actions be predicated on truth,” Cocroft said. “Too many active component soldiers view current wars, especially the war in Iraq, as being ‘Bush’s war’ and that it was not predicated on the truth.”
An Army recruiting command spokesman said blacks represent 15 percent of recruits, down from 21 percent in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. While black representation is down, it remains slightly higher than the percentage of blacks (14.3 percent) among all youth qualified for service.
“It appears from market research that the ongoing Global War on Terror continues to have a disproportionate effect on the African-American youth market,” the recruiting official explained in a written statement.
In November 2003, seven months after the Iraq war began, Army marketing surveys showed that 22 percent of black youth still had a “propensity” to enlist. By November 2004, a year later, that propensity to join among black youth had fallen to 11 percent.
Edwards said while at war his superiors “gassed us up” about how proud people back home were of their service in Iraq. But Edwards said he didn’t feel that pride when he returned to Savannah.
“People here in America don’t care about that war, man. If you wasn’t a victim or family of a victim most people really don’t give a care.”
An Army friend of Edwards, Herold Noel of Brooklyn, N.Y., was the subject of a documentary on homeless vets, a condition he faced for a time as a consequence of post-traumatic stress on returning from the war in 2004.
“I felt such a disconnect from my community,” Noel said, describing how blacks at home shrugged off the war that soldiers of all races had fought as brothers. Noel recalled visiting a motor vehicles office to renew his driver’s license which had expired in Iraq. A sergeant had advised him it would be renewed for free if he explained he was an Iraq War veteran. Not so in Brooklyn, Noel said.
“This lady looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care if you came from Iraq. You didn’t fight for me. You fought for Bush!’ And this lady was my own [race]! I [expletive] snapped. Excuse my language, but I snapped.”
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