In October of 2008, during the height of the Great Recession, then-undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, David Chu, boasted that U.S. military recruitment was soaring. “We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society,” he said. “That is a situation where more people are willing to give us a chance.”
Now, a study released in August with little fanfare is confirming what America’s top military recruiter acknowledged years ago: “America’s economic downturn means that increasingly it is not the governing class, but the working class that disproportionately sends soldiers to fight and bears the burden of physical and mental war wounds.” This trend has grown more pronounced throughout history, the researchers argue, meaning that “even more than previous wars, Iraq and Afghanistan have been working class wars.”
The findings were published in the Memphis Law Review by Douglas Kriner, associate professor at Boston University, and Francis Shen, associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota. The authors explain that they based their conclusions on “a series of empirical investigations—including analysis of over 500,000 American combat casualties from World War II through Afghanistan, combined with seven unique surveys of American public opinion.”
The researchers note that the Department of Defense “does not release data on the socioeconomic status of individual soldiers who have died or been wounded in America’s wars.” So instead, they looked at the “communities from which our nation’s wartime casualties hail” to determine which socioeconomic classes were hardest hit during World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The following graph shows that what they call the “sacrifice gap” has widened over time when it comes to wartime deaths.
The study determines that “In raw, inflation-adjusted dollar terms, this income casualty gap increased over time from a $5,500 gap in Korea, to an $8,200 gap in Vietnam and now to more than an $11,000 gap in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This gap, the authors note, also applies to the visible and invisible wounds of war. “We found that once again there was an unequal relationship: Counties with lower education and income levels had higher percentages of their residents wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the researchers write.
“Put slightly differently, the nation’s poorest communities (those in the lowest three income deciles) have suffered fifty percent more non-fatal casualties than the nation’s wealthiest communities (those in the top three income deciles),” the study states. Meanwhile, the authors note that poor people are likely to face worse health outcomes after their service, due largely to lack of social support and resources once they are discharged.
Penny Dex, an organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War, told AlterNet that there is a clear “economic draft.” She said: “In some places in the country, the dangers of war seem not as bad as having health insurance or being homeless with your kids. It’s the only option for a lot of people, but if your life ends in Iraq of Afghanistan, it doesn’t do you much good.”
“When I joined I was in a poor town in Washington where a Walmart moved in, and it was the only option to have a job,” Dex continued. “They set up military recruiting offices next door. It was the only way out of our poor town.”
Kriner and Shen identify numerous factors behind the “sacrifice gap.” In a nod towards Chu, they note that recruitment soars during times of economic downturn and high youth unemployment. They also observe that people of lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be funneled into lower-enlisted roles that are carry greater risks.
“Because lower-skilled recruits are more likely to come from less advantaged communities, and because they are subsequently more likely to be assigned to occupations with greater combat risks than are recruits with higher skills, the occupational assignment mechanism may produce a casualty gap, even if the military as a whole were representative of the civilian population,” the authors write.
Yet, the public is largely unaware of the unequal prices paid by military service members, who today comprise less than one percent of the U.S. population. Kriner and Shen conducted a nationally representative poll in 2011, in which they found that “just under half those surveyed (45%) believe that the country is equally sharing military sacrifice. This is roughly the same percentage as those who correctly believe that there is inequality.”
A separate Pew Research Center poll from 2011 found that half of the public says that U.S. wars have “made little difference in their lives” and a plurality—45 percent—stated that military campaigns since September 11, 2001 have not been “worth the cost.”
According to Kriner and Shen, “The invisibility of casualty inequality artificially inflates public support for war and the leaders who wage it.”
Meanwhile, separate data indicates that the lawmakers who bear responsibility for U.S. wars are more likely to be wealthy. According to an analysis released last year by the Center for Responsive politics, 271 of the 533 members of Congress (50.8 percent) are millionaires. The lawmakers’ disclosure filings show that the median worth of a member of Congress in 2013 was $1,029,505, compared to $56,355 for the average American household.
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