International relations scholar Andrew Bacevich has been one of the most important critics of American warmaking in recent years, not least because of the convergence of three aspects of his biography: he is a self-described conservative, a retired Army officer, and the father of a soldier killed in action in Iraq. If it is true that only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a Bacevich can make the American center see the error of its unchecked militarism.
In a new essay in The Nation, a review of Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen’s The Casualty Gap: The Causes and Consequences of American Wartime Inequalities, Bacevich takes on the dynamics of American political culture that allow us to enter war after war, considering two very good reasons not to: (1) war’s casualties are now disproportionately among the poor, and (2) with debt and unemployment mounting, war is more expensive than ever.
Kriner and Shen provide data to show that (1) was not always as it is now:
Only in the case of the war against Germany and Japan did “the nation’s long-held norm of equal sacrifice in war” prevail. Given the reliance on conscription to raise the very large forces required for that conflict along with the military’s refusal to induct anyone who didn’t meet strict, if arbitrary, health and literacy standards, “the poorest and most undereducated counties actually suffered lower than average casualty rates.” In 1941–45, there was no casualty gap. During the cold war, fairness vanished. With the US intervention in Korea, Kriner and Shen write, “the data show a dramatic change: strong, significant, socio-economic casualty gaps begin to emerge.” The evidence they amass strongly suggests that this gap widened further during Vietnam and became greater still when the Bush administration invaded Iraq.
Bacevich goes on to take the consequences of their conclusions further than do the authors:
For Kriner and Shen, the policy implications are clear: citizen awareness of the casualty gap can serve as a “democratic brake,” helping to avert ill-advised or unnecessary wars. The key to activating this brake, they believe, is to “encourage an open discussion of how the burden of wartime sacrifice … is borne differently across the country.” Open discussion will raise public consciousness, constraining warmongering policy-makers as a result. Would that such expectations were even remotely plausible. The authors’ faith in the power of “open discussion” is touching but profoundly naïve.
Although Americans more generally might bemoan the casualty gap, they won’t exert themselves to close it. The reason seems quite clear. Casualties affect public perceptions of policy when they hit close to home, when the sense of loss is direct, immediate and palpable. Yet the communities on whom the burden of sacrifice falls most heavily are precisely those that wield the least clout. Not having much money, they are easily ignored. “Citizens from low-income, low-education communities,” Kriner and Shen write, “are disproportionately less engaged in politics than their fellow citizens from socio-economically advantaged communities.” “Less engaged” is, to put it mildly, an odd formulation. The plain fact is that in Washington the less affluent are less likely to get a hearing. “The populations with the most to lose in war become those communities with the least to say to their elected officials.” That’s one way to put it. Another is that these communities are most easily blown off.
He insists that, for us to stop making war so indiscriminately, the cost of war has to hit us where it hurts. (Bacevich, of course, knows this far too well.) He turns to issue (2):
Consider the following back-of-the-envelope calculations. Since 9/11, the Pentagon budget has more than doubled to approximately $700 billion per year. Let’s peg current war costs at $400 billion annually (almost certainly a lowball estimate). There are approximately 150 million single or jointly filing taxpayers in this country. Reduce that number by the 30 million veterans who have already given at the office, as it were, and the per capita cost of ongoing US wars comes to more than $3,300 per annum. Add that as a surcharge to every American’s tax bill (or subtract that amount from the annual payout to Social Security recipients), and the “democratic brake” will bring American wars to a screeching halt.
As often-incoherent assaults on government spending and out-for-number-one slogans like “don’t tread on me” become the prevailing substance of American political discourse lately—and it’s a shame to say it—Bacevich could be right. If we can’t get one another to care about innocent people being killed by our weapons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, or about the human cost of our “wars of choice” being suffered by poor Americans, or even about the fiscal irresponsibility of it all, reaching people’s greed may be the only way to convince them to approximate compassion.
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Issue #1 is simply FALSE. If the argument is made for the post WWII-Vietnam conscript US Army, the author would be correct. The draft had opt outs that the more affluent could exploit. Trying to shoehorn the argument to the US Military Post Vietnam is simply laughable.
Here’s some facts to chew on:
” 1. U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Heritage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demonstrates that the same is true of the officer corps.
2. Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods-a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.
3. American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18-24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree.
4. Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.”
All of this flies directly in the face of the position the author stakes.
Issue #2: The author uses $400B / year as a “lowball” estimate. He might want to redo his back of the envelop math. A simple search will give you varying costs around $1T for both wars since 2001.
The same argument can be said of major social programs. If the gov’t charged everyone with the true costs to fully fund social programs like Obamacare, SS, Medicare, ect you might find that there may be an outpouring of support for using the “democratic break” to rid the lawbooks of these programs.
If he REALLY wants to talk about taxes, fine. The top 10% of income earners pay 71% of the income taxes collected. The top 50% pay 97% of income taxes collected. How about 38% of US households have ZERO income tax liability.
So much for thinking there was a good argument here. It would help the author’s argument not to try and manipulate facts or use them out of context.
Thanks for your comment, as ever.
As for “issue 1,” none of the facts you cite contradicts the basic claim of the book being reviewed, which in turn is apparently based on a careful quantitative study. All of the figures you cite refer to people actually in the military. That study concerns those who suffer casualties in war. Two different questions with two different answers—and it’s very interesting to juxtapose them.
As for “issue 2,” you’re right that he high-balls the allocated cost of the wars themselves. I should have pointed that out originally. The National Priorities Project puts the total cost for both wars comfortably below $200 billion per year, totaling at a bit over $1 trillion. Bacevich seems to be suggesting that more of our military budget goes to fighting the wars than is usually admitted. (Even the War Resisters League’s useful picture of the military budget places war spending around $200 billion annually.
It is an interesting question you propose: would we want to drop medicare too? Frustrated as I am over inflated medical costs, I think I’d rather pay taxes to support the health of our elderly than the manufacture and use of weaponry. And if I were in the top 1% of the tax bracket, all that money would feel awfully lousy if I knew that people in need weren’t being cared for (which, unfortunately, remains all too much the case).
On issue #1, I’ll grant you that the information I cited was for the US Army as a whole, not the casualties, but it’s only logical that the casualties mirror closely the demographic make up of the Army. So, I dug a little further:
The report comes to this conclusion: “These data seem to show that the preponderance of our fallen servicemembers come from those in our nation’s middle-earning communities.”
The report also looks into reasons why lower income communities are underrepresented in the Army and conclude that the screening the Army uses disqualifies more recruits from lower income households because of educational requirements (lower income disporportiately lack HS diploma/GED) or medical requirements (obesity is twice as likely in poor households, than in middle class households).
The report concludes:
“However, if suffering wounds while in a combat theater or suffering a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice is used to define this burden, then objective measures reveal that these burdens are being borne by a racial cross-section of America and by communities that are disproportionately middle class.”
On Issue #2, the cost of the two wars have only approached $200m during the last four years, averaging $170m. The 10 year average being $120m. The War Resisters League places more of the burden of servicing the debt to the US military expenditures.
I would prefer my taxes to national defense rather than be forced into some form of income redistribution. At least the spending during an ongoing war end, spending on entitlements go on forever.