Every year, we try to present a diverse selection of battlefield stories, to best reflect the makeup of the military. We seek representatives from each of the services. And we want to make sure that every hero we feature isn’t a white male.
And, in most respects, this section succeeds in that. We rarely have to search for Hispanic troops to profile. We’ve had trouble finding women, but that’s not unexpected given the Defense Department’s prohibition against women in combat.
But finding African-Americans who have received valor awards has often been difficult. It has meant scouring other newspapers and blogs looking specifically for black heroes. It has meant tactless last-minute calls to public affairs officers asking for help identifying “troops with heroic stories, but they have to be black.”
But broad demographic shifts in the military over the last decade suggest that one of the main reasons we’ve seen fewer battlefield awards for African-Americans is because there are fewer African-Americans on the battlefield.
According to figures from the Defense Manpower Data Center, today there are more than 241,000 African-American active-duty troops in the four services, and nearly 130,000 more in the Guard and Reserve.
But those numbers have dropped significantly in recent years. In 2000, one out of every four soldiers was African-American. In 2010, it was less than one in five. The Marine Corps saw the proportion of blacks drop from nearly 16 percent to about 10 percent over the same span.
Why are fewer African-Americans electing to serve in combat units? Dorn said it’s a combination of factors, most pointing toward why many African-Americans are drawn to the military in the first place.
“Some of it has to do with racial trends in society,” he said. “[African-Americans] join the military because they see it as a place they can get a leg up, with more opportunity than the civilian economy. So they think about it as a career, or think about the kind of jobs that can translate into a civilian job later on.”
That means gravitating to administrative jobs that provide a long-term career track or are easier to translate into resume-friendly job skills.
African-Americans comprised roughly a third of Army combat infantry ranks during that conflict [the Vietnam War], according to [John Sibley] Butler’s research. Thus, parents who have encouraged their children to join the military in the last 20 years have also pushed them to seek jobs outside of combat specialties.
“So, while Vietnam was fought disproportionately by blacks,” Butler said, today’s wars “are being fought disproportionately by whites.”
In fact, only about 9 percent of the troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been black, even though they make up more than 17 percent of the total active-duty force. In contrast, Hispanics make up roughly 10 percent of the active-duty force and 10 percent of the deaths from the current wars.