Working Class Women as War Heroes

lynchPrivate Jessica Lynch is a hero, the kind who in her hopefully long life will never escape her youthful fame. The baby-faced 19-year-old fought off Iraqis in an ambush, endured broken bones, gunshot and stab wounds, and went eight days without food. This movie played in real time has all the elements that make fast-paced war flicks like "Behind Enemy Lines" box office magic. Her face, frozen with what must have been shock, pain and relief during her rescue, is already one of the most haunting images of the war.

Lynch is linked in more ways than one to Shoshana N. Johnson, a 30-year-old mother from El Paso, Texas. Johnson, who left her 2-year-old daughter with her parents when she deployed, joined the army to get training to be a chef. She ended up one of the first American prisoners of war in Iraq. Lynch -- well, she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.

How did a chef-in-training and a future teacher end up toting guns in the desert? Both of these female war heroes come from hometowns fighting their own battles, economic ones. Lynch comes from the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up town of Palestine, in Wirt County, a farm community in western West Virginia of 5,900 people, 99 percent of them white. Wirt has a 15 percent unemployment rate; 20 percent live below the poverty line; and the average income per person is $14,000.

El Paso County is huge by comparison -- nearly 700,000 people -- but no more prosperous. Seventy-eight percent of El Pasans are Latino, and 24 percent live below the poverty line. The border city, hit hard by the impact of NAFTA, has a per capita income of just $13,000.

The folks in Wirt and El Paso are separated by half a country, but they have a lot in common. In both places, the economy has collapsed. The military is probably one of the best games in town. Jessica Lynch's family says she joined to get an education, something she probably couldn't have gotten otherwise. Now that she's a hero, a group of colleges have stepped forward to offer her a scholarship.

Wouldn't it be great if people like Lynch and Johnson didn't have to go to war to get a job or an education? At the same time that Americans are protesting against the war, thousands this week protested in favor of affirmative action, which faces its latest Supreme Court challenge. Working-class women and African-Americans like Lynch and Johnson will be among those to lose if affirmative action is ended. But affirmative action, as useful as it is, only gives a fraction of Americans the chance they deserve. Schools in working-class neighborhoods are becoming more like truly impoverished ones. In other words, they've become places where too many bright students lose hope.

Yale graduate and notably lackluster student George W. Bush got the benefits of an affirmative action program called "legacy admission," i.e., preference for the kids of alums (particularly the rich ones). For all his hawkishness, Bush went AWOL from his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War, 1972-1973. His father was a war hero. But these days rich men (and women) don't fight.

That's left to the working class. A New York Times article titled "Military Mirrors Working-Class America" notes, "With minorities over-represented and the wealthy and the underclass essentially absent, with political conservatism ascendant in the officer corps and Northeasterners fading from the ranks, America's 1.4 million-strong military seems to resemble the makeup of a two-year commuter or trade school outside Birmingham or Biloxi far more than that of a ghetto or barrio or four-year university in Boston."

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying money's the only reason people join the military. A lot of enlistees are following their dreams of serving their country. Others, like a 27-year-old interviewed in the Times article, like to blow things up (though not necessarily people). And some, like a friend of mine who spent ages 17-20 in the military, think it's a great way to grow up and find your mission in life.

There are a few other options for young Americans seeking a way to give to their country, earn money for college and get skills; in particular, the service corps like City Year and Americorps. In these programs, young Americans the same age as Lynch can spend a year or two giving back to a local community -- working on buildings, serving the elderly, even helping teach kindergarten. With school budgets being slashed, there's plenty of need and plenty of room for young recruits to lend a hand.

But these programs are still modest compared to the size and stability of the military. Before the motto an "Army of One," the Navy boasted the slogan, "It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure." Some people just want a job. What they get is far more uncertain.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

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