Tom Philpott / Daily Press – 2005-03-07 23:19:24
(March 6 2005) — The Army’s wartime recruiting challenge is aggravated by a sharp drop in enlistments by black people during the past four years. Internal Army and Defense Department polls trace that to an unpopular war in Iraq and concerns among black citizens with Bush administration policies.
The Army strains to meet recruiting goals in part because black volunteers have fallen 41 percent. They’ve gone from 23.5 percent of recruits in fiscal 2000 down to 13.9 percent in the first four months of fiscal 2005.
“It’s alarming,” said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, commander of the Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., and one of the Army’s most senior black officers. He said no single factor explained the drop. But clearly, he said, the propensity of black youths to enlist is affected by the war and increasingly by views of parents, teachers, coaches, clergy and other “influencers.”
“The influencers of these youth are causing them to be less inclined to listen to what good the Army could do for them in the long run,” Rochelle said.
Officer recruiting is hit, too. Black soldiers enrolled in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program is down 36 percent since 2001.
The Marine Corps also reports a drop in black recruits. But its recruit racial data is now suspect because of a government policy – effective Jan. 1, 2003 – that allows recruits and all new federal workers to decline to identify their race. The Army has found a way to continue to track accurately its racial data, said S. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the recruiting command.
U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat whose New York City district includes Harlem, said he wasn’t too surprised by the Army recruiting data.
“I have not found a black person in support of this war in my district,” he said. “The fact that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus – emotionally, politically and vigorously – opposes this war is an indication of what black folks think throughout this country.”
Rangel also said there was “overwhelming disappointment” among black citizens after Bush, in a disputed election, became president in 2001. The disappointment “plummeted after he declared war in Iraq,” Rangel said.
Results of the Defense Department’s own Youth and Influencer Polls, conducted in May, affirm that administration policies and the Iraq war have lowered the propensity of black youth to enlist. That’s particularly true in the Army and Marines, the ground forces taking most of the casualties.
Although the war reduced the likelihood of youths in general to join the military, the Youth Poll report read, “Black youth reported being more negatively affected. …
“Black youth were less supportive of U.S. troops’ presence in Iraq, less likely to feel the war was justified, more disapproving of the Bush administration’s handling of foreign affairs and more disapproving of its use of U.S. military forces than were whites or Hispanics.”
Black youths’ unemployment remains above 10 percent, higher than for Hispanics and double that of whites. Black youth also tend to view military pay as more attractive than do other racial groups. In years past, such factors enticed a disproportionate number of black citizens to see opportunity in the Army. In some years since the draft ended in 1973, the percentage of blacks among Army volunteers approached 30 percent.
In fiscal 2000, blacks still represented almost a quarter of Army recruits. That percentage fell to 22.7 in ’01, 19.9 in ’02, 16.4 in ’03, 15.9 in ’04 and 13.9 percent through four months of fiscal 2005. No such decline has been seen among Hispanic or white recruits. Their percentages among Army recruits grew during the first George W. Bush administration.
Because black youths are 14 percent of all recruit-age youth, their recruiting numbers remain “acceptable,” i.e., proportional to black citizens in U.S. society, Rochelle said. But the steep general drop in black recruits does hurt plans “to grow the Army,” he conceded. Congress has ordered a 30,000 increase in the number of active-duty soldiers by October 2009.
Rangel said many blacks, surprisingly, were still enticed into service by benefits and cash incentives, which are rising sharply.
He said, “It has amazed me that, not withstanding the general feeling of the community, they still have enlisted and fought. When my (Guard and reserve) outfits come home, these guys get their medals, and they’re proud. But when I’m called up (to speak), they cheer and stomp their feet, knowing that I fought against the war. It’s inconsistent as hell.”
Another Army-directed poll, the U.S. Military Image Study, is posted on a Defense Contracting Command Web site – likely by mistake. The study was based on interviews with 3,236 people ages 16 to 24. Its report read, “Recruiting an all-volunteer Army in times of war is increasingly difficult.”
Money for college remains a big motivator to enlist, but the Iraq war leaves youth – particularly black youth – conflicted. “More African-Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don’t support as a barrier to military service,” the report read.
Fear of being killed or injured was the top reason to avoid service for 26 percent of youth in 2004, almost double the 14 percent reported in 2000.
Poll data also show that more black parents, particularly mothers, worry that their children could be killed or injured in the war.
Many black citizens still believe black soldiers suffer higher casualty rates than other racial groups. The numbers, Rochelle said, “do not bear that out, neither from Vietnam nor subsequent conflicts.”
He also said, “We would never, ever deny that in the short term, there is danger associated with being in the Army.”
But he worries that black youth now “are depriving themselves of pretty substantial opportunities.”
“If we were able to tell the Army story in a very balanced way to more young African-Americans, as well as to their influencers, then clearly the numbers would grow,” Rochelle said. “I’m convinced of that.”
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