Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

The opinion piece written by Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen and published in today's Los Angeles Times confirms what a lot of people have long suspected: wars are actually fought by the economically disadvantaged, and the casualty rate reflects that. Using the data and conclusions from their recently published book, Casualty Gap, the authors point out the inequalities in the way the US wages war and what it means.

Over the last six years, we have studied this inequality by collecting and analyzing data on the hometowns of more than 400,000 members of the armed forces who died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. By integrating these records with census data, we demonstrate unambiguously that, beginning with the Korean War, disadvantaged communities have suffered a disproportionate share of the nation's wartime casualties, while richer communities have been more insulated from the costs of war. Furthermore, the data suggest that this "casualty gap" between rich and poor communities has reached its widest proportions in the ongoing conflict in Iraq. ...

Nationally, in the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, communities in the lowest three income deciles suffered 35%, 36% and 38% of the casualties, respectively. Yet communities in the top three income deciles sustained significantly fewer casualties — 25%, 26% and 23% of the casualties, respectively.

More advanced statistical analyses, which account for a variety of other important factors, also offer strong evidence of casualty gaps between communities with different levels of income and education. In Los Angeles, for example, citywide almost 27% of residents hold a college degree. By contrast in the specific L.A. neighborhoods that have lost a young man or woman in Iraq, less than 12% of residents graduated from college. Similarly, in New York City, the citywide average median family income is nearly $42,000, while the average in neighborhoods that have experienced an Iraq war casualty is $34,000, 19% lower.

The authors point out that the military has always depended on the poor to fight wars, and the military has made certain that it has a steady stream of willing fighters by offering some pretty attractive incentives: a job during a time of a high jobless rate, a shot at a decent education via the G.I. Bill, even a fast track towards citizenship for those born elsewhere. Essentially, serving in the military becomes a shot at upward mobility for young men and women who see no other way. The price for the ticket into our society, however, can be extremely steep, as the families of the 6,000 men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan will attest this Memorial Day.

In the mean time, however, the US has a standing army, one ready to be shipped to wherever the politicians/corporatists want to meddle next. And we allow them to do so, often unquestioningly. It is at this point that Kriner and Shen surprised me by pointing out that it doesn't have to remain this way.

What would happen if the nation openly acknowledged the casualty gap? Would citizens rethink questions of war and peace? To find out, we conducted a series of original public opinion survey experiments with nationally representative samples of Americans. We found that citizens informed about the existence of a casualty gap were significantly more likely to oppose ongoing military operations and less willing to support future ones than were their peers who were not informed about casualty inequalities. For example, in evaluating a hypothetical military mission to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program, respondents told about casualty inequalities in the Iraq war said they would tolerate 40% fewer casualties to achieve the mission's goals than would their peers who were not given this information.

These experimental results suggest that if Americans were to learn of wartime inequalities, the public would become more circumspect about future military action. However, the casualty gap is not part of our national dialogue. The reason is clear: Casualty inequalities challenge our fundamental American values. Bringing a frank and honest discussion of the casualty gap into the public sphere could significantly alter the tenor of political discourse in Washington.
[Emphasis added]

While the syntax in the quoted section gets downright murky, the point is that knowing that the poor are disproportionately represented in the casualty numbers would cause most Americans to be less likely to support the kind of war-making our nation has engaged in, especially in the last 50 years. If that is true, and I have enough optimism left in the sense of fairness most Americans have to believe that it is true, then the fact that the casualty gap is not part of our national discourse is shameful.

The authors have given us the ammunition to force the discussion. It's time we used that ammunition. We've kept our powder dry for just about 50 years too long.

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