By George Curry
“Hell no, we won’t go!” That was a popular chant of protesters during the Vietnam War. Although there were scattered anti-war protests to mark the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 16, military-age Blacks have been protesting over the past five years in a quieter, more profound way–fewer are enlisting in the Army.
Blacks have bravely served in every American war, even unpopular ones such as the one in Vietnam. Unlike many of their elders, however, an increasing number of young Blacks are no longer willing to risk being shipped into a war zone to fight for a cause they do not support.
Department of Defense Youth and Influencer Polls conducted last May concluded, “Black youth were less supportive of U.S. troops’ presence in Iraq, less likely to feel the war was justified, more disapproving of the Bush administration’s handling of foreign affairs and more disapproving of its use of U.S. military forces than were Whites or Hispanics.”
The war in Iraq exacerbated a downward trend among Black Army recruits. In fiscal 2000, Blacks represented nearly a quarter of Army recruits. That figure fell to 22.7 percent in 2001, 19.9 percent in 2002, 16.4 percent in 2003, 15.9 percent in 2004 and 13.9 percent through the first four months of fiscal 2005.
The steady dip in recruitment does not mean there aren’t thousands of Blacks being deployed to Iraq. I got a chance to speak to about a dozen of them in February when I gave the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. address at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. The sprawling Army base, sandwiched between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, is 37 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif. and 100 miles from nowhere.
As soldiers lined up to complete papers before leaving for Iraq, they told me of their fears and aspirations. Even those who gave the impression that they had reservations about the war were intent on keeping their end of the bargain. They recalled, in matter-of-fact tones, the personal toll the war was extracting on their families. Many were sending their wives and children back home to live with their parents or in-laws. A few would leave their families at Fort Irwin.
Last year, on the opposite end of the country–Fort Bragg, N.C.–and the opposite end of the age spectrum, I had witnessed many members of the National Guard about to be deployed to Iraq. Many were in their 40s and 50s and were being recalled to fight in what many call a young man’s (and woman’s) war. Most of these men and women had served earlier, but their lives were interrupted when their National Guard units were activated.
In addition to speaking with soldiers on both coasts just before they left, I also visited with some of the troops in the Persian Gulf. Two years ago, just before the fall of Baghdad, the NNPA News Service sent me to Dohar, Qutar to cover the daily briefings of Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks. There, too, I found service men and women who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan. They had risked their lives at a time when some elected officials back home were talking about cutting their benefits. It would later be disclosed that, if any of them had been killed during the war, their families would have received death benefits of only $12,420. Administration officials promised to increase that lump sum payment to $100,000, but that provision was not included in the Pentagon’s 2006 proposed budget. Congress will be asked to make a separate appropriation.
When I think back on the past two years, having looked into the eyes of departing soldiers in California, North Carolina and those stationed in the Persian Gulf, I keep asking myself: Was it worth it? Was it worth disrupting the lives of middle-aged citizens who had already served their time? Was it worth it to launch a war based on lies? Was it worth it to be led to war by a group of “chicken hawks” who talk tough but avoided military service themselves? When talking about rebuilding Iraq, shouldn’t we also be talking about rebuilding urban America?
It is not surprising that a growing number of young Black men and women are asking these same questions. Would-be recruits are saying that they love their country, they don’t mind fighting in a just war, but when it comes to fighting in Iraq: “Hell no, we won’t go!”
(George Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com. His radio commentary is syndicated each week by Capitol Radio News Service. He may be contacted via his website, www.georgecurry.com.)