WEST POINT, N.Y.—It’s a bright, crisp fall afternoon at the United States Military Academy, with cadets in their gray uniforms filing out of classes through stately stone courtyards, and rifle drill teams practicing on green fields. All around, the Hudson Highlands glow pastel under the falling sun.
The distant rumblings from Iraq, however, intrude on these serene campus scenes. In a small office in Thayer Hall, three military sociologists are working at their computer screens and entering data for a new study that is now considered a vital part of every war effort.
Day by day, as new casualties from the Iraq war mount and are posted on a Pentagon website, civilian Professor Morten Ender and Army instructors Maj. Todd Woodruff and Maj. Remi Hajjar enter the grim statistics into the database for a study titled “Is Iraq A Class War?”
Using sophisticated software and models that allow them to parse endlessly the demographics of war casualties, the West Point team will address the riddles of race, class and military specialty that will allow the next generation of Pentagon planners to assess the composition of the armed forces and understand who dies where in battle.
Understanding the casualty patterns in Iraq has taken on new urgency as the death toll of American service members approaches 1,050, and insurgent attacks and bombings accelerate to a pace of more than 50 a day.
Ender and his colleagues are part of a small coterie of military sociologists who pursue the arcane science of casualty demographics, a discipline that often yields insights into how social conditions at home affect who is most at risk during war. Ender is particularly interested in such issues after accompanying a unit of the First Cavalry Division this summer to help survey the needs of the Iraqi civilian population.
“A lot of people might think that it’s strange to study in such minute detail these military deaths,” Ender says. “But we have to make these studies now because this is a time when the American public and political institutions are suddenly paying attention to the military and making new decisions about deployment. . . . People don’t ask fundamental decisions about the military unless we’re at war.”
Precise studies of casualty patterns can produce highly influential findings that can change with every war and type of threat. The “war phase” of active fighting in Iraq that ended on May 1, 2003, for instance, left 138 U.S. service members dead, for an average of 3.1 casualties a day. During the “occupation phase”—everything since then—casualties have been running at under 2 per day, but roughly 900 more soldiers are dead.
“The presumption going into Iraq was that forward fighting units, which expect to take casualties, in fact are at the greatest risk and have to have armored vehicles,” Enders says. “But by studying who is really dying in a war like this we may well find that significant casualties are not in fact happening in forward units but in so-called support roles like transportation, civil affairs, communications units and the like. So maybe everyone has to be protected with armored transport.”
Most demographers agree that with one notable exception -Hispanic casualties in front-line combat units—the death statistics from Iraq bear few overt signs of class inequality. But they also point out that it’s important to understand who serves in the armed forces.
“Within a couple of percentage points, the figures from Iraq show that the deaths are representative of the composition of the military right now,” says David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who is director of the university’s Center for Research on Military Organization. “So the real question is how representative is the military of society as a whole.”
Segal says that studies show that the all-volunteer military is resolutely middle American, with the top 25 percent—the economic elites—and the lowest 25 percent largely failing to serve.
“There’s a preponderance of what we might call upper-working-class or lower-middle-class servicemen,” Segal says. “The numbers represent economically distressed America, small-town kids with ambition but no jobs who are using the Army as a way to get out and progress.”
One study of American deaths in the Iraq war has already yielded significant findings about race. Brian Gifford is a researcher with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of California, Berkeley. His study “Combat Casualties and Race: What can we learn from the 2003-2004 Iraq Conflict?” will be published this winter in the journal Armed Forces & Society.
“Hispanic deaths were way over-represented in the opening war phase in Iraq, comprising about 16 percent of all deaths,” Gifford said. “But they represent just 11 percent of Army and Marine combat personnel and less than 9 percent of all active-duty personnel.”
Other studies show that in some Marine units involved in the heaviest fighting before the occupation, Hispanic casualties were as high as 19 percent of all deaths.
Hispanic casualty rates dramatically declined, however, as soon as the occupation began and there were less-frequent, less-intensive battle conditions. For this period, Hispanic deaths represented less than 12 percent of all deaths, roughly proportional to the group’s numbers within the active military.
“If any group of minority service members faces an elevated risk of casualties, it is Hispanics under high-intensity combat conditions,” Gifford wrote in his study. “When U.S. tactics dictate a more active, aggressive role in finding and attacking enemy targets, Hispanics incur casualties in excess of their participation in ground combat units. In less intense environments, the Hispanic casualty rate more closely resembles their presence in the military as a whole.”
Most experts agree on the explanation for these unexpectedly high Hispanic casualty rates. The majority of Hispanic recruits are either first- or second-generation Americans with relatively low rates of educational achievement. Their test scores simply don’t justify placing them in relatively select—and safer—occupations behind the front lines.
“Because they’re torn between two cultures, Hispanic language skills are more Spanish than English and they’re relatively educationally disadvantaged,” Enders says. “They go into the Marines because infantry is the big stress there.”
Gifford found that blacks, who make up about 20 percent of all active-duty personnel, represented 16.7 percent of all casualties during the war phase and 12.2 percent of deaths after the occupation phase began. Gifford and others agree that a black death rate lower than their proportional representation in the military is relatively easy to explain. African Americans have historically regarded the military as an economic steppingstone and picked relatively safe “support” occupations—medical units, computers, air traffic control—that translate well in the civilian economy.
“All the studies show that the military was the first to integrate and is regarded by African Americans as the most fair institution in the country,” says Woodruff, the West Point researcher. “So African Americans are very savvy about using the military for advancement.”
Whites represent about 65 percent of all active duty personnel, and were underrepresented in deaths during the initial war phase of the conflict, with 60.9 percent of deaths. This probably reflects the fact that whites serve in greater numbers in the relatively protected officer corps, and also heavily populate the more selective “support” functions far from the scene of battle.
But this apparent privilege of race dramatically reversed itself during the occupation, and now death rates for whites make up 70.6 percent of the total. This suggests that the randomness of the violence since President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”—the ambushes of military convoys, mortar attacks on rear command positions, urban conflicts with civilian militias—provides little safety for soldiers in elite specialties or rear positions.
But Gifford suggests that the dramatic break in casualty rates for whites between the war and occupation phases may be explained by other factors that should be carefully studied.
National Guard and reserve units now represent about a third of the 140,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. The Pentagon’s heavy reliance on National Guard and reserve units has clearly affected another vital Iraq War demographic: the rising age of those killed in action.
According to Enders, the mean age of soldiers killed in Vietnam was 22.6 years old. But the mean age for soldiers killed in Iraq is 26.3, with significant numbers of soldiers killed in their 30s. To some degree this reflects the demographics of the all-volunteer Army, which tends to retain soldiers longer than a drafted force.
But part-time reservists and National Guard members frequently remain in their units until retirement in their 50s, and these aging weekend warriors are clearly having an effect on the death statistics. Enders found, for instance, that the mean age for active-duty personnel killed in Iraq is 25.4 years old. But for the Reserve and National Guard dead, the mean age is 30.6.
An additional and salient conclusion can be drawn from the casualty statistics from Iraq. The introduction of the all-volunteer military in 1973 led to fears, often expressed by anti-war activists, that economic factors would force America to rely too heavily on minorities, who would then become “cannon fodder” during a war.
In fact, minorities now make up about 31 percent of the U.S. population, and are slightly over-represented in the military, with a 35 percent participation among all active duty military personnel. But minorities represent 31.7 percent of all military deaths in Iraq—well below their numbers in the military. Whites, meanwhile, represent 65 percent of all active duty military personnel, but they constitute 69 percent of deaths in Iraq.
“You periodically hear these arguments since Vietnam that minority Americans—blacks in particular—are used as cannon fodder in America’s wars,” Gifford says. “What you find from this data is that this myth is not true.”