Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.

War toll speaks to geography, class split

Washington // Taken together, the stories of the 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq in the past two years tell a poignant tale about who is bearing the largest burden.

The victims are disproportionately working-class young men, most in their 20s, Pentagon statistics show.

They are largely from the South or small towns and cities such as Bedford, Mass., and Gypsum, Colo., distant from the nation's political, cultural, academic and media centers.

They were raised in areas where uniformed service is common and respected, often near military bases or where the economy is struggling and prospects are limited, such as in northern Maine.

The median income of families that include a soldier is lower than for those without one serving, Army statistics show.

Whites account for 74 percent of Iraq deaths, while Hispanic deaths were 11 percent.

Baltimore lost two African-American soldiers in an accident north of Baghdad in mid-October; blacks have accounted for 10 percent of all fatalities.

Southern, rural As has been true through much of American history, Southern states have taken the lead in service and in death.

Thirty-one of the war dead came home to Mississippi in flag-draped coffins, one more than from Massachusetts, even though Massachusetts has nearly twice as many prime service-age men and woman as Mississippi - 325,000 vs. 180,000 ages 17 to 24.

Tennessee, with 316,000 from that age group, had 46 dead while New Jersey, where that group is nearly a third larger, had 37 dead.

South Carolina also saw a high percentage of war dead relative to its population, with 31 dead, the same number as Maryland, even though Maryland has 25,000 more young men and women of recruiting age.

Among the South Carolinians who died was Nolen Hutching, a 20-year-old Marine private from Boiling Springs, who was killed March 23, 2003, in a friendly fire incident outside the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah.

His mother, Carolyn, recalled last week that the family was living in North Carolina when Nolen, then 12 years old, was encouraged to join the military by a neighbor who had been a Marine. Moving to Boiling Springs, his interest was whetted by coaches and fellow members of the Northside Baptist Church, some of whom also served.

Despite her worries about his safety, Nolen was adamant about joining, and he enlisted in 2000, two months after graduating from high school.

"People here, they just appreciate a person who goes and wears the uniform and makes sacrifices for his country," his mother said, remembering no such martial spirit in her hometown in New Mexico. "People in the South are different, more patriotic, I guess."

The South contains 35 percent of the youth population but provides 41 percent of the Army's new soldiers, according to Army officials. The Northeast contains 18 percent of the youth population but provides 13 percent of recruits.

Class concerns For a number of years, defense analysts have worried about a growing divide between the military and much of society.

Senior Army officers say privately that there are only a handful of members of Congress who have sons or daughters in the military, although a third of the Army generals have children in uniform. And the number of Episcopalians among the Army's enlisted ranks is as small as the number of Muslims, each group counting about 1,800 soldiers among its membership, according to Defense Department records.

Ralph Peters, a former Army officer and military analyst, plays down the class issue, saying that the military has always drawn a disproportionate number from the South and working-class enclaves, such as the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania where he was raised. Only in "emergency wars," such as the Civil War and World War II, were all classes of society represented, he said.

"The truth is, we're getting the middle class; they're your officer corps," added Peters, who said the retention rate for combat units is very high, and there is little support within the military for a draft.

"The Army's response would be, 'We don't want anyone who doesn't want to be here,'" said Peters.

John Hart wanted to be in Iraq. The 20-year-old Army paratrooper from Bedford, Mass., a small working-class town west of Boston, was killed in October 2003 outside Kirkuk when his Humvee came under attack. Brian Hart remembered that his son always leaned toward the military, an interest perhaps piqued by two uncles who are Marines, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were the determining factor.

Bedford High School also draws a sizable number of students from nearby Hanscom Air Force Base, and John was a member of the Junior ROTC program at the school. Hart noted that Bedford has two deaths from the Iraq war: the other was Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Desiato, who was a year younger than John and died last November.

But absent from the military, he said, are the children of wealthier suburbs, such as neighboring Lexington, where on an April morning in 1775, local militia fired the opening volleys of the American Revolution.

"You've got Lexington with over 30,000 residents and little Bedford with 12,000 people and two casualties," said Hart. "Almost none of this country is involved in the fight."

A similar pattern is visible in Maryland, where the largest share of the Iraq war dead has come from blue-collar neighborhoods and small towns. Wealthier suburbs have felt relatively little pain.

No one from Bethesda, Potomac or Columbia was among those from the state who died in Iraq. Instead, young soldiers from places such as Elkridge, Port Deposit and Waldorf gave their lives.

Nine of Maryland's dead listed Baltimore as home. Among them was Spc. Bernard L. Ceo, whose funeral was held Friday in West Baltimore.

At the funeral, Lt. Col. Linda L. Singh recalled a brave, loyal sol- dier, but a man who also was more than that.

"He's not just a soldier," she said. "He's a son, a brother, a companion, a father figure to many and a friend to many others."

Ceo worked with troubled youth at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and part time as a gym teacher at Harford Heights Elementary School. A high school graduate, he dreamed of one day becoming a teacher, getting married and having a family.

Ceo's ambitions - as simple and earnest as a Norman Rockwell painting - reflect the roots of many of the 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq.

There are notable exceptions to the military class divide.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of a new book on Abraham Lincoln, has a son who served in Baghdad with the 1st Armored Division. Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, also has a son who is a young Army officer.

Volunteer force Cohen wrote a commentary in The Washington Post in July and recalled being told by someone with no family or friends in uniform that the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq was not that high and that he shouldn't "get exercised about them." Cohen suppressed a desire "to slap the highly educated fool."

"As long as it's not their kid, they're not worried about it. If you want to end the war tomorrow, activate the draft," said Hart, who has pressed Congress for better military vehicle armor in the wake of his son's death.

Hart also pointed out that campus protests such as those that spotlighted the Vietnam War aren't happening these days.

"The Gold Star Mothers are protesting," he said, referring to the women who lost sons and daughters in the war. "It's the families most affected, not draft-eligible college students as you saw in the '60s."

But as the military enters the fifth year of what the Pentagon calls "GWOT" - the Global War on Terror - there is little support for the draft. Last year, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat and Korean War veteran, spearheaded a bill to reinstate the draft, which ended in 1973 with the creation of the all-volunteer force.

"We've never had a war like the one we have now. It should be an equitably shared sacrifice," Rangel told The Sun after he introduced the measure for compulsory national service, either in the military ranks or in a civilian capacity for all men and women 18 to 26 years old. The measure failed 402-2 in the House. Only Rangel and Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. supported the bill.

Despite an impressive re-enlistment rate, the Army - the largest military service - is falling further behind in its recruiting goals, about 7,000 short in the past year.

The Army National Guard is about 13,000 recruits shy of its goal. The Army is having a particularly hard time attracting African-Americans. In 2001, African-Americans made up about 22.3 percent of the Army, compared with 14.5 percent today. Army officials say there is sagging support in the black community for the Iraq war.

To attract more recruits and expand the 494,000-soldier force by 30,000 over the next several years, the Army and the National Guard are dangling bigger bonuses - some reaching $30,000 - and bringing in more recruits without high school diplomas or who score lower on the military aptitude test.

At the same time, the Army is trying to find recruits and close the class divide by attracting young men and women who are in college or on their way.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University and an Army veteran, recalled that when he left Princeton in 1956, there were 750 members of his class and about 450 of them went on to serve in the military. In the Princeton class from last spring, eight of 1,100 served, he said.

The fight in Iraq, he said, mir rors the Army in Vietnam, which was largely drawn from the white working class despite the draft, since the middle class collected college deferments and bypassed jungle duty by retreating into the National Guard and reserves.

Another approach What's different today is that while there is lagging support for the Iraq mission - like Vietnam - there is strong support for the soldiers, which was not present during the Vietnam-era protests. Moskos called that "patriotism lite," meaning there is little sacrifice from the elite.

Moskos is pressing for a 15- month Army enlistment geared toward college students, as opposed to the typical three- or four-year enlistment. The short-term enlistees could serve as MPs, for example, said Moskos, and the military could pay for their schooling. Polling his students, Moskos said about a third were receptive to the idea.

But some defense officials say that is too short a time to train a soldier and expect any adequate time in uniform. Another proposal being discussed at the Pentagon would pay for Army recruits to complete four years of college with the understanding they would then enter the active Army or reserves for an undetermined number of years.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said it was an idea worth exploring.

"It would give the Army a reach into communities it's not reaching," he said, "a linkage between the military and civilian sectors of society."

tom.bowman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading