While many still look to the military as a source of financial
and professional development, the Iraq war has taken a toll on
enrollment, particularly in black communities.
When Eugene Puryear began high school, he considered the military
a good economic opportunity for young African-Americans like himself.
But then the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, and by
the time he reached 11th grade, Puryear was leading a school walk-out
in protest to the war.
think most people in the black community feel this war has been
so blatantly fought for corporate interests," Puryear said.
"To see that happen in your lifetime kind of spurred me to
see that the military is not just another option out there --
it serves a purpose for the government and the rich people in
this country. It's not some benign option."
Puryear, now a student at Howard University and a national student
organizer for A.N.S.W.E.R., Act Now to Stop War and End Racism,
is not alone in his sentiments.
Black enrollment in the military has dropped by more than a third
since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, according to data
compiled by the Associated Press. The drop was even more pronounced
in the Army, which has seen black enlistment drop from 23 percent
of recruits before the war to 12.4 percent in 2006.
The strong opposition to the war among black communities, the
availability of other job options, and the heavy toll of the war
particularly on the Army, the branch traditionally favored by
blacks, are all accelerating the drop, said David Bositis of the
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research and
public policy institute that focuses on issues of concern to people
Opposition to the war
Support for the war has been significantly lower in
black communities than the rest of the country from the start.
A Pew Research Center poll in April 2003, a month after the war
began, found that 44 percent of blacks supported the war in Iraq,
compared to 77 percent of whites.
Now, only 15 percent of blacks polled say that invading Iraq
was the right decision, according to a June 2007 Pew survey.
African-Americans have always been suspicious of the motives and
justification for the war, said Maya Rockeymoore, CEO of Global
Policy Solutions and former vice president for research at the
Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
And as the war continues, the idea that defense spending is edging
out important domestic spending has also taken hold.
African-Americans "don't support spending to the extent
that they see hospitals and schools-brand new facilities-being
built in Iraq yet at home schools are falling apart and there
are no hospitals for communities," Rockeymoore said.
Yvonne Latty, author of "In Conflict: Iraq War Veterans
Speak Out on Duty, Loss, and the Fight to Stay Alive," said
the response of African-Americans to the war is not surprising
given the community's history in the country and its distrust
of President Bush.
"We have a lot of problems in our own communities with education
and economics," Latty said. "Those are some of the issues
we would like to deal with before you start thinking 'Who are
we going to bomb next?'"
The impact on the military
The soldiers Latty spoke with talked of feeling trapped
and unclear about the mission in Iraq, she said. Most felt motivated
to stay alive for family and fellow soldiers, while the sense
of serving a noble cause was low.
"Every African-American I interviewed, not one of them said,
'I am proud and this is a great thing I'm doing in Iraq,'"
said she has been struck by the strength of the response from
"The best protesting you can do in the world is that you
just don't go. Our drop in enrollment has really made it difficult
and really made a statement," Latty said.
But there are still many blacks serving in the military, and
some, like Lt. Alfeia Goodwin, say the military is an important
place for growth and advancement.
Goodwin served in Iraq between 2003 and 2004, and is now breaking
ground as the only black female chaplain candidate for the Pennsylvania
National Guard. She enlisted in 2001, and said she is part of
an African-American tradition of supporting the military.
"I looked at it as an American experience and an experience
I thought I should have," Goodwin said. "We separate
the Army from the war, it is not the same institution, but at
the same time we understand as soldiers that we could receive
the call to go to war."
Retired Navy diving officer Gregory Black, who runs a Web site
called Black Military World, has been facilitating discussion
about the topic.
"There are a lot of African-Americans that will come out
and openly support the military, but when it comes to supporting
the war I haven't found a single one," Black said.
Many black veterans have told him they wouldn't let their own
children serve for this war.
"It's a response we've been hearing from the very beginning,"
Black said. "It is very discouraging. One of the things we
have not really come to realize is that this is going to have
a long term detrimental effect on African-American leadership
in the military."
The response of young blacks
While family members, coaches and teachers discouraging
young people from going into the military plays a part in the
drop, Black said a lot of young African-Americans are making their
own decisions and just "don't see it as a viable cause as
something to fight and die for."
Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, director of African-American and Diaspora
studies at Vanderbilt University, agreed and said young people
are looking for different options.
"This war is essentially being waged on the working people's
back," she said. "I think at one point people used to
think it was a good place to go, a way to pursue an education
and reap those benefits."
The young people leaving high school now have grown up watching
this war and see no end in sight, Sharpley-Whiting said.
Lt. Col. Bobbie Williams, commander of the Bison Battalion at
Howard University for the Army ROTC, recruits for several universities
in Washington, D.C. He said the slump in black enrollment in the
military is just part of the ups and downs of recruitment.
"There is a direct correlation between being an army in
a protracted war and recruiting and retention," said Williams.
Politics should not be a major issue for people who have joined
the military or ROTC, Williams said.
"The policy-makers make the policy, we execute because we
swore to defend. We can respectfully disagree, but our job is
not to question the leadership," he said.
Williams said he too is concerned about what this period will
do for black leadership in the military.
"Even if you don't support the current policy or have disdain
for the current administration ... at the end of that time you
don't want to create such a vacuum that when the politics are
no longer an issue, you are no longer present," he said.