Monday, June 11, 2007

A volunteer force: choice or “choice”?

by Daniel Newhart, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

I have a brother in the military. He is currently serving in Iraq, as a combat medic in the United States Army. He has saved many lives, both Iraqi and American, and for that I am proud, even though I do not agree with the war. One thing I keep thinking about, however, is whether his enlistment in the Army was a choice, or a “choice” – an act of perceived agency in light of structures of opportunity that restrict poor and/or minority residents of the United States. Whether or not you agree with the War on/of Terror (depending on your perspective), one would hope that the entrance into the military was a function of choice, rather than a natural progression from structures that determine opportunity. I am beginning to think the military is not a choice, but rather, the only option.

Race and the military has been a subject of study for many years now, and one case that there may be familiarity with is the case of the number of African Americans who disproportionately died in the Vietnam War. Now, in the current war in Iraq, we see that the racial disparity has extended to class disparity, with a number of poor whites entering into the casualty list as well (or potential casualty list, like my brother). The military now describes itself as an “all volunteer force”; however, is this the case? How can an all-volunteer force exist within the current economic structures in our country?

My argument here is the construction of “volunteer” is sometimes nothing more than an illusion of agency. Of the whites and underrepresented soldiers who have died in Iraq, most have been from poor areas of the country (check or for some details). One could make the case that the military was the only option in these low opportunity areas, and for some, an alternative to prison. In the latest proposed immigration bill that was recently withdrawn, citizenship was even going to be granted to those who served in the military. The military is seen as a pathway to mobility in this country for some, but the reality is, once the soldier returns from the military the same socioeconomic structures exist, and the playing field is not made more level. We can begin to see here how something like structural opportunity begins to affect a great deal of the United States population, of all races.

Rather than construct the military as the only option, we need to examine the socioeconomic structures and context in which the “choice” for the military is being made. One could argue that things like structural racism and poverty play a major role in the “decision making process” of individuals who enter the military. While I am not saying their making this decision under these circumstances is a bad thing, I think it is alarming if so many people are choosing the military as an option because they have no other alternative. Entering the military in this fashion does not make these soldiers any less patriotic. Nevertheless, a society that fosters structural disparity and forces its residents to choose service as an alternative to poverty is not patriotic. We can and should do better.


  1. Wouldn't more opportunity be available across the spectrum if non-military organizations were as effective as the military in promoting diversity?

    Since the Grutter decision, who has taken notice of the "green brief" and incorporated similar measures to promote diversity in their future employee pipeline? Is anyone learning from DoD's leadership?

    (I'm seriously interested in john powell's thoughts on this...)

  2. I joined the military in 1983 because that was the only option to work and get paid. There were no jobs for minorities at that time, I saw many young black women joining the military hoping for a career of some kind.