NEW YORK - A couple of months ago, Kim Rosario found an improbable e-mail message in her Monster.com inbox.
The mother of a U.S. soldier, she travels the country publicly denouncing Washington's policies in Iraq, and is a featured speaker at an upcoming rally in New York's Central Park to mark the second anniversary of the Mar. 19, 2003 invasion.
”It was from the military, asking if I've ever considered a career in the Navy,” Rosario recalled. ”I said I might if you send my son back from Iraq!”
Unintended irony aside, she believes the offer is a sign of the Pentagon's growing desperation to counter dwindling recruitment numbers -- especially in the lower-income communities once viewed as fertile ground.
Reflecting the skepticism felt by many people of color toward the Iraq invasion, a study commissioned for the Army last August concluded that ”more African-Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don't support as a barrier to military service..”
It added that attitudes among youth in general toward the Army had taken a downhill turn.
”In the past, barriers were about inconvenience or preference for another life choice,” the study said. ”Now they have switched to something quite different: fear of death or injury.”
Five years ago African Americans made up 23.5 percent of army recruits. Today, they are less than 14 percent.
Rosario and others are quick to point out that the low numbers are not for a lack of zeal on the part of military recruiters.
”I see them in the subways and the streets, right around the time kids are coming home from school,” said Rosario, who has started speaking at local high schools to urge students not to enlist. ”They target low-income neighborhoods, and they use really young guys who look like teenagers to hook them in.”
Under President George W. Bush's ”No Child Left Behind” plan, public high schools must provide military recruiters with contact information for every student or face a cutoff of federal aid.
”Kids tell me that not only do the recruiters call them at home, but they have copies of their grades, and will say, 'So Johnny, you're not doing very well in class. How are you going to get into college?'” Rosario said. ”There is an opt-out form, but a lot of parents don't know about it.”
If the shortage of new soldiers persists, many worry that the government will be forced to reintroduce a compulsory military draft for the first time since the Vietnam War.
There are already signs that the Selective Service System (SSS), as it is known, is gearing up for business. By Mar. 31, the SSS boards in every state must certify to Washington that they are ready to induct the first young men within 75 days.
”They're putting in place the mechanisms to actually do a draft,” said Dustin Langley, a spokesman for the Troops Out Now Coalition representing more than 400 labor, community and human rights groups.
”In the past the SSS has basically been a mailbox. They haven't even prosecuted people for not registering,” he said. ”In their latest Performance Plan, they talk about increasing efficiency, but it is more than that. The report goes way beyond basic housekeeping.”
”They need two sets of boots at home for every one on the ground overseas. If you do the math, it's clear that they can't maintain the current level of the Iraq occupation -- let alone send troops anywhere else -- without a draft. It's impossible.”
Community activists note that youth of color are already being deployed at higher rates than whites. Minority groups make up 35 percent of the military, and black servicemen and women alone make up 20 percent of the total. That far outstrips the percentage of African Americans in society, where the figure is about 12 percent.
Nellie Hester Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, a group that works for affordable housing, describes the current situation as equal to ”an economic draft.”
”Blacks and Latinos and people of color are dying disproportionately in this war, and they are mostly young people who joined because they saw themselves as having very little future in the U.S. economy,” she said.
”In the Harlems throughout the United States, we have seen the direct connection between the cuts in social programs and the new 81 billion dollars that has been appropriated for the war,” Bailey said.
”Not to mention the unforgivable and unimaginable permanent damage to the young men and women coming back wounded and psychologically scarred, and the ones who will never return to their communities.”
As part of the Troops Out Now Coalition organizing for Mar. 19, Bailey also emphasized that the demonstration planned from Harlem to Central Park would dispel once and for all the notion that anti-war activism has a white face.
”I am so tired of the established anti-war movement pointing their fingers at communities of color and saying you're not doing your part,” Bailey said. ”We must have a principled united front against this war, but there is a tremendous disconnect.”
”United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ, a major activist group) has not signed on and that is a travesty,” she continued. ”They will no longer be able to distance their agenda from communities like Harlem and portray themselves as a liberal organization.”
UFPJ's national coordinator, Leslie Cagan, told IPS that the situation was ”complicated”.
”Building alliances and strengthening the multiracial character of the movement is a concern that we take very seriously,” she said. ”At our recent national meeting, more than half of the new steering committee was people of color”
”We're not trying to minimize the (Troops Out Now Coalition's) contribution, they're certainly part of the anti-war movement. We haven't said anything negative about the Central Park rally, and in fact many member groups of UFPJ will be there.”
However, Cagan said that early outreach materials drafted by the Coalition included language supporting the Iraqi resistance, which was a significant political difference with UFPJ, an umbrella coalition of 1,000 national and local groups.
”It's not that we have a negative position on the resistance, we just don't have a position,” she said.
Others told IPS that regardless of who endorses the New York rally, new alliances have been built among a broad spectrum of communities and groups that will last well beyond Mar. 19.
”The success of the Coalition has been a wonderful, wonderful surprise,” said Nana Soul, a singer and activist featured on a new anti-war CD by Black Waxx records.
”We're trying to energize people that normally wouldn't come out, first and foremost, people of color,” she explained. ”Harlem is the Mecca of black culture, and we felt it would be very symbolic for us to start there.”
The Coalition is planning to file suit early next week to demand the right to march down New York's ritzy Fifth Avenue, which has been declared off-limits by the city. Organizers note a tradition dating back to the Vietnam War, when one of the biggest local groupings was called the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade.
They are also still angry at decisions by officials to refuse a Central Park permit to protesters during last August's Republican National Convention, and to block a Fifth Avenue march in February 2003, when an estimated 10 million peace activists rallied around the world.
”There has been an ongoing pattern of denying, attacking and restricting the right to political dissent,” Langley said. ”At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand.”
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service