The Color Of Combat: The Minority-Disproportion Myth

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2002

As I was channel-surfing late one evening last week, I was stopped in my tracks by the spectacle of Phil Donahue "interviewing" fellow master of pomposity Chris Matthews about the latter’s views on a war with Iraq. Matthews was waxing indignant about how President Bush’s Iraq policy had been hijacked by neoconservatives who had never served in uniform. (Of course, neither did Matthews.) He then claimed that in the event of a war with Iraq, racial minorities would suffer disproportionate casualties, since minorities make up nearly 30 percent of the military. Donahue heartily agreed.

This old saw also has found its way back into politics. A case in point is the Texas senatorial race. In a September 13 speech in San Antonio, the Democratic candidate, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, accused his Republican opponent, John Coryn, Texas Attorney-General, of being more favorably disposed toward war with Iraq because the children of the latter’s wealthy friends would not be "in the front lines." "Look who would be doing the fighting," said Kirk. "They’re disproportionately ethnic, they’re disproportionately minority…I would be curious to see if we would go to war without any thought of loss if the first half-million kids to go came from families who made one million dollars."

The contention that in America’s wars, minorities bear a disproportionate burden of the fighting and dying has long been a staple of Left-wing rhetoric since the Vietnam War. Even as late as the Gulf War in 1991, Jesse Jackson, addressing a largely black audience, claimed that "when that war breaks out, our youth will burn first."

But as Will Rogers once said, "It’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t true." The claim of disproportionate minority casualties wasn’t true during the Vietnam War, where the record indicates that 86 percent of those who died during the war were white and 12.5 percent were black, from an age group in which blacks comprised 13.1 percent of the population. It is even less true today.

To understand why, it is necessary to look a little beneath the surface. While overall, minorities comprise 30 percent of the Army, one of the two services that would be expected to bear the brunt of close combat in Iraq, they tend to be underrepresented in the combat arms. As the incomparable Tom Ricks observed in a January 1997 article for the Wall Street Journal, the "old stereotype about the Army’s front-line units being cannon fodder laden with minorities" is false.

The fact is that blacks disproportionately serve in Army combat-service support units, not combat units. When Ricks wrote his piece, such units had become "majority minority," with more black soldiers than white. By contrast, he observed, the infantry, which generally suffers the most casualties in wartime, had become "whiter than America." African Americans constituted nine percent of the infantry, compared to 11.8 percent of the age eligible civilian population. In 1995, 79 percent of the new troopers were white, compared with 74.3 percent of civilians. There is little evidence to suggest that these figures have changed much over the last five years.

Why is this the case? Ricks pointed out that the new demographics of the Army have to do with the dynamics of an all-volunteer force—Blacks and whites join the military for different reasons. On the one hand, white youths are frequently looking for adventure while they try to raise money for college. As a result, they tend to flock to the combat arms, especially elite units like the Rangers and airborne. On the other, young black males, "are generally seeking skills, and so gravitate toward administrative and technical jobs. Because they often find the Army a fairer and better place to live than civilian society, blacks tend to stay enlisted longer: Though only 22% of today’s recruits are black, the Army itself is 30% black."

In addition, most pilots are white, as are most special-operations forces, e.g. Navy SEALS and Army special-forces. This leads one to the conclusion that in a war, middle-class white kids, not minorities, would be at the greatest risk, since they make up the bulk of the combat arms. So much for the conventional wisdom.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.