Every night at the end of Jim Lehrer’s News Hour on America’s PBS channel, there is a roll call of American soldiers who died in Iraq that day. Apart from their tragic fates, most of the dead have something else in common – they come from places of which few people have heard.
Obscure towns like Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire and Thermopolis, Wyoming, dominate the listings rather than the big cities.
“It is like watching a different reality,” says Larry Wilkerson, a former colonel who was chief of staff to Colin Powell. “Nothing could better illustrate the alienation of America’s armed forces from the college-going Americans for whom the Iraq war has meant tax cuts, SUVs and nice holidays.”
During the week since the 3,000th American soldier was killed in Iraq – by a roadside bomb in Baghdad – Washington’s attention has turned to speculation over George W. Bush’s reported plans to order a “surge” of US troops to Iraq.
What is often missing from America’s increasingly recriminatory debate over Iraq is how isolated are the communities that bear most of the human cost. The Pentagon does not disclose the socio-economic background of the 25,000 US soldiers who have been killed or wounded in Iraq.
But a breakdown of their ethnicity and states of origins shows they are overwhelmingly white and from small towns in the interior states of mid-America and the South.
For example, the ratio of killed to the state’s population is 221 per cent for South Dakota, 178 per cent for Nebraska and 163 per cent for Louisiana. In contrast, the District of Columbia, which is home to Washington, the US capital, has a ratio of just 52 per cent, while Connecticut is 66 per cent and New Jersey is 60 per cent.
Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, says the divorce between the social origins of most US army personnel and the character of the population as a whole is greater than ever. When he attended Princeton as a student in the late 1950s, 400 out of his class of 750 had served in uniform. Last year only nine of Princeton’s class of 1,100 had been in the armed services, he says.
Even during the Vietnam war, when the well-connected, such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, were able to avoid combat in spite of a national enlistment lottery or, like Bill Clinton, dodge the draft altogether, America’s middle classes were better represented.
“There is a myth that Americans respect people who have served in combat,” said Mr Moskos. “But if you look at the last four presidential elections, it is the draft dodger who has been elected to the White House. They might hate to admit it, but middle class Americans identify with the draft dodger.”
As the war continues, the US military is finding it increasingly hard to meet enlistment targets. Spending on recruitment has risen several times to more than $1bn in the last twelve months. Standards have been lowered too. The army is now enlisting men aged 40, paying recruitment bonuses of up to $40,000 and has lowered the mental threshold to “category three” which, according to Mr Wilkerson, is “one level above imbecility”.
Some, including Charlie Rangel, a Democratic representative from Harlem, have even argued for a reinstatement of the draft to make recruitment fairer. Others argue for much larger incentives for graduates to enlist.
Cindy Sheehan, the celebrity anti-war activist whose son Casey was killed in Baghdad in 2004, says she is receiving a huge volume of emails from mothers worried their sons should not sign up. “People are joining the military for economic reasons,” said Mrs Sheehan, who is from Vacaville, California. “I call it the poverty draft.”
However, according to a poll by the Military Times this week, serving US soldiers are not yet fully disenchanted. Seventy-two per cent said they would support their son or daughter if they wished to enlist.
But their opinions on Iraq offer little comfort to Mr Bush as he contemplates whether to increase the number of soldiers in harm’s way. Almost half the soldiers polled said the Iraq war bore no relation to the “war on terrorism” – a key justification for continued fighting. And only 13 per cent said the US was “very likely to succeed” in Iraq.
Copyright © The Financial Times Limited 2007