Death For Akbar Won't Solve Army's Racial Woes

The instant a military panel convicted U.S. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar of the killing of two army officers and wounding 14 other U.S solders at a military base in Kuwait the first week of the Iraq war, Akbar's father screamed racism. He claimed that white racists and Nazis had harassed his son in the barracks, and that drove him to his murderous assault. He demanded an army investigation. That isn't likely to save Akbar from getting the death penalty. The death penalty for him sends the stern message that any hint of disloyalty or rebellion within the ranks will not be tolerated, especially when it results in the wanton killing of other American soldiers. Five soldiers are now on death row at the federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

The army denies it tolerates racial extremism in the ranks. It has not investigated John Akbar's claim. But his demand for an investigation should not be casually blown off. Akbar is a Muslim. The number of Muslims in the military has risen in recent years. It's not farfetched that at least some Muslim military personnel have privately expressed qualms about fighting other Muslims. There have been reports of anti-Muslim tensions in the military. Akbar is also black. And that could have further marked him as a target for persecution. The army denied that racial harassment had anything to do with his act. Before Akbar's deadly attack there was little public hint of disloyalty by blacks within army ranks and only scattered reports of racial conflict within the military. However, this does not mean there is no racial conflict in the army.

The army has always kept a tight lid on information about racial conflicts within its ranks. It paints a picture of the army as a place of racial and religious nirvana where blacks can acquire education, skills and training, and advance their careers. It's not total military puffery. According to Department of Defense figures, blacks make up one out four army enlistees. Black women make up fully half of the army's enlisted women. Since the mid-1990s, the number of black commissioned officers has jumped. Twelve percent of the Army's officers are black. While ROTC programs have been dumped from or chased off numerous major university campuses, they have expanded at black colleges. Half of all army ROTC commissions received by blacks are awarded at 21 black colleges.

The top-heavy number of blacks in the military has reinforced the public perception that the army is a comparative racial oasis. As one observer noted, "It's the only place in American life where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks.'' That hasn't stopped the wholesale stampede of blacks away from military recruiters. In the past four years there's been more than a forty percent drop in black army enlistment. That drop comes despite an astronomically high unemployment rate among young black males, and a nearly fifty percent high school drop out rate for them in some urban school districts.

A significant number of the blacks in Iraq are in front line-fighting units. Though they aren't dying in disproportionate numbers to whites, black opposition to the war is far higher than that of whites and Latinos. The perception is that army service is risky business for blacks. That's the biggest reason many young blacks give for disdaining the military.

Blacks are also wary of the military because of the Iraq war. They oppose the Iraq war in greater numbers than whites and Latinos. The war is seen as Bush's war, and they revile anything that has to do with Bush's policies. That presents a big dilemma for the army. It desperately needs black enlistees to fill its rapidly depleted ranks, yet despite Bush's frequent promises that the military has gotten the upper hand in Iraq, the killing continues. This further increases black suspicion that if they enlist they can be killed in battle.

The fear that blacks, especially poor blacks, will die in disproportionate numbers in an unpopular war was a big reason that Harlem congressman Charles Rangel pushed hard in Congress last year for the reinstatement of the draft. That supposedly would equalize the chance that whites would serve in the military, and thus equalize the risk of death. Bush and military officials vehemently opposed bringing back the draft. Congress took no action on it.

Whether Akbar was driven to commit murder out of anger over racial harassment or not, his deadly act was an extreme and indefensible example of frustration with a war that many blacks don't believe in. They have chosen to show their opposition by just saying no to the military. A death sentence for Akbar will close the book on a deadly chapter in the Iraq war. It won't change the view of many blacks that the army is a deadly place for them.

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