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For African-Americans, Folly of This War Hits Home

by Derrick Z. Jackson

Military sociologist David R. Segal was asked Monday over the telephone what he hears in his surveys of soldiers. He quoted an African-American veteran of the Iraq invasion and occupation: "This is not a black people's war. This is not a poor people's war. This is an oilman's war."Gregory Black, a retired Navy diver who last year started the website BlackMilitaryWorld.com, said that quote sums up what he too hears from African-American veterans of Iraq.

"African-Americans detest this war," Black said yesterday in a phone interview. "Everybody kind of knows the truth behind this war. It's a cash cow for the military defense industry, when you look at the money these contractors are making. African-Americans saw this at the beginning of the war and now the rest of the country has figured it out. It's not benefiting us in the least."

Asked about the reference to an "oilman's war," Black said, "It's basically about oil, basically about money. It's an economic war." He said veterans are saying they are tired and burned out. "Guys are saying we're halfway around the world fighting people of color under the guise of democracy and we can't see how it's benefited anyone," Black said. "It's hard to fight halfway around the world for people's freedom when you're not sure you have it at home."

This war, launched under false pretenses, now has so little merit that the enrollment of African-Americans in the military may be at its lowest point since the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973. In 2000, 23.5 percent of Army recruits were African-American. By 2005, the percentage dropped to 13.9 percent. National Public Radio this week quoted a Pentagon statistic that said that African-American propensity to join the military had dropped to 9 percent.

Technically, 13.9 percent is about the proportion of African-Americans in the general population. But the military's meritocracy has long been a disproportionate option for young African-Americans because of a disproportionate lack of career opportunities and decent public schools to prepare them for college.

The drop in African-American enrollment in the military may be as powerful a collective political statement about Iraq as when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, major polls showed that African-American support for the invasion was as low as 19 percent, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, while white support ran between 58 percent and 73 percent in major polls.

Even today African-Americans by far lead the way in calling the war a mistake. According to Gallup, 85 percent of African Americans say it was a mistake, compared to 53 percent of white Americans. According to Pew, a plurality of white Americans, 49 percent, still say it was the right decision to invade Iraq, compared to 21 percent of African-Americans.

"African-Americans are always more sensitive to anything that smacks of neocolonialism, which this war did smack of," said Joint Center political analyst David Bositis.

Segal and Black said that sensitivity has nothing to do with patriotism. "What we're getting is not an opposition to war, but considerable opposition to this war," said Segal, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization. He has done soldier attitude surveys for the Army. "What we're seeing is a growing resentment that it feels to them that the military has gone to war, but not the nation. The military has gone to war, the nation has gone to Wal-Mart."

Black said that he still believes "without a shadow of a doubt" that the military still provides one of the best opportunities for African-Americans to advance in a nation where civilian opportunities remain checkered. But he said the military may underestimate how young people are absorbing the horrific images in Iraq's chaos. Pentagon officials largely attribute the drop in African-American interest in the armed forces to "influencers," parents, coaches, ministers, and school counselors who urge youth not to enlist.

"I think some of that is true," Black said. "But I taught ROTC in high school, and the kids themselves are a lot smarter about this stuff. They see the news and they can't justify going into a fight for something they have no faith in."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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