Who would fight: a diverse military

Changes in Army since the Gulf War include more Latinos, Muslims, and women.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If the United States goes to war, the people who will be shouldering the burden of battle will in some respects be unlike any other military force in American history.

They will be older and more experienced - on average 27 years old. They will serve in a military that is one-third smaller than the one that existed just 12 years ago in the Gulf war. Most important, they will be far more diverse than almost any military force of the past.

A record number of women will be serving on the front lines, for instance, as will a higher percentage of Latinos. Perhaps most unusual for a war in the Middle East, more Muslims would be taking up posts on aircraft carriers and pitching tents in the Iraqi desert.

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"It's more reflective of the population than most other organizations," says Juanita Firestone, a military sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Of all the demographic changes in the military since the Gulf War, none has had more impact than the role of women.

Since 1994, nearly all military jobs except ground combat and submarine duty have been opened to women, who now fill 15 percent of the enlisted ranks.

If fighting starts, women will fly combat aircraft as they did over Afghanistan and Kosovo. But they may also get far closer to fighting on the ground, building the bridges that cross Iraq's rivers as combat engineers or responding to chemical and biological attacks.

Mostly, though, female soldiers will serve in support, supply, and administrative roles. Many of the females manning such logistical functions are African-American.

Black soldiers gravitate towards jobs with skills transferrable to the civilian economy, says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Minorities account for half of all female enlisted troops, and African-American women outnumber white women in the Army. In fact, the proportion of African-Americans in combat units is actually smaller than the military as a whole.

Take, for example, the 101st Airborne Division, which has deployed to the Kuwaiti desert for an expected helicopter-borne invasion of Iraq. African-Americans constitute only 23 percent of the 101st Division even though the Army as a whole is 29 percent black.

It's the military's most elite units that remain the most homogeneous. Few minorities serve as combat pilots or in Special Operations such as the Navy's SEALs or the Army Special Forces. African-Americans still make up a smaller share of the military's officer corps - 8 percent overall.

"Our deployed forces are increasingly representative but are looking at who is leading them and seeing white faces," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Elsewhere, however, the military is becoming an ever more diverse fighting force.

More Muslims have joined the armed forces during the past decade, for instance. It was in 1996 that the military welcomed its first Muslim chaplain. Muslims now account for about one percent of the total force.

Strikingly, the percentage of enlisted Latinos has almost doubled since Desert Storm.

It's thanks in part to more aggressive recruiting, particularly by the Marine Corps, and a change in Army policy that allows enlistees to submit a high-school equivalency exam in lieu of a diploma.

The average new military recruit is still fresh out of high school and in their first full-time job.

Service members are better educated on average than ever before but still tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. About 40 percent come from the South and disproportionate numbers enlist from states such as Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico.

For many, the military offers longterm employment.

The average enlisted service member has served slightly more than seven years. About a third of enlisted personnel re-enlist, up from only 10 percent during the draft era. That ensures less turnover but drives up personnel costs, Mr. Moskos says.

The average post-drawdown soldier is older - about 27 years old for enlisted personnel and 34 for officers. That's still younger than the average Air Force B-52H bomber which is 42 years of age.

Some of the biggest demographic changes have occurred in soldiers' lives outside the military.

Unlike soldiers a quarter-century ago, soldiers are more likely to get married rather than stay single. While the population as a whole keeps getting married later, service members are marrying at a younger age. Today, a majority of enlisted personnel and 70 percent of officers are married. That could have ramifications at home if there are US casualties in war.

"It means there will be more widows," says professor Moskos. "Instead of the mother crying, it will be the young bride."

Often, soldiers marry each other. About 12 percent of married enlisted personnel have fellow service members for spouses and 47 percent of married female enlisted personnel are married to military husbands. Dual-military families who choose to have children must worry about who will care for the kids while they deploy overseas - or if they don't come back.

If any segment of the population is missing from today's military, it's the children of America's elites, says Professor Moskos, who, as a draftee, remembers Elvis Presley serving on a similar base 90 miles away. "Can you imagine Eminem joining today?" Moskos asks. "We're having our working class doing our fighting for us."

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