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The Casualty Gap

September 10, 2010

Returning to the recurring (only?) theme of who’s serving in today’s military, today’s bloggings is all about Andrew Bacevich’s article over at The Nation, which is itself all about The Casualty Gap. Hopefully I can track down a copy of the book itself, but in the meantime, Bacevich’s article provides an interesting summary of the history and causes of the way lower-income, lower-educated members of society are more likely to serve and sacrifice (though Bacevich seems to conflate the two, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen are strictly looking at who dies in combat).

A couple things jumped out at me:

1. This gap wasn’t always present.

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.

In deciding who should and would serve, relaxed standards have had the predictable effect of drawing in greater numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged folks. I feel like maybe I’m calling for the return of a noblesse oblige, but I believe there is something fundamentally important about sharing the burden of military service.

Anecdotally, I haven’t noticed many sons and daughters of Roswell, GA or even Atlanta, GA in the DoD casualty announcements, though there are plenty of other Georgians.

2. Higher casualty rates lead to less political engagement.

3. Bacevich doesn’t cover whether Kriner and Shen tease out whether troops from lower-income/education communities are proportionally more likely to die than troops from higher-income/education communities.

What to do about it? Why does it matter? Why should we care who serves, as long as service is done? Because that’s the American ideal, and dropping standards to be able to recruit lower down the education totem pole is militarily, financially, and socially undesirable – or should be.

How do you get the upper echelons in? Tell them about veterans’ preference in government hiring. Tell them about the on-the-job leadership training. Tell them how business school loves former officers. The current messaging may work in some cases, but for some, words like honor and duty feel propagandistic. Like any major brand, the military should have multiple advertising campaigns targeting multiple consumers.

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