Social Makeup of Forces



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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School.




Who do you think should serve in the military? Do you think there should be efforts to make the military a reflection of society in its makeup? Why or why not?

During the Korean War, 70% of draft-age men served in the military.  During the Vietnam War, that figure dropped to 40%, with only 10% of draft-age men serving in Vietnam—making military service a less universal experience and setting those who did serve farther apart from society at large. The US soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were different in many ways from those who had fought in earlier wars. The average age of a soldier in Vietnam was 19, and he was likely to be unmarried—a significant difference from, for example, the average age of 26 for a soldier in World War II (see slide 1, a group of young soldiers including Jan Scruggs, the founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.) The youth of the average soldier was in many ways related to the draft and the system of deferments for the draft—enrolling and staying in college became an incentive to many, as college enrollment was an allowed deferment. For those who could not afford to enroll in college, there were few ways to avoid the draft. Overall, 25% of those who served in Vietnam were draftees.

Partly as a consequence of the system of deferments, the Vietnam War was largely fought by men from working class backgrounds—76% of soldiers in Vietnam came from working or lower class backgrounds. This has led many to characterize Vietnam as a “working-class war,” which served as a reason for some to demonstrate against the “rich man’s war” (see slide 2). Some of those soldiers, and many within the working class subset, were racial minorities. Slide 3 shows Melvin Morris, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who was awarded the distinction for leading an advance across enemy lines to recover the body of a fallen sergeant.  African Americans made up about 10 % of all US soldiers in Vietnam, reflecting their numbers in the broader American population.  However, African-Americans comprised about 20% of combat deaths in the early years of the war because they tended to be assigned to front-line infantry units.

The youth of American servicemen in Vietnam prompted a civic debate on whether it was appropriate to send a person to war who could not vote for representatives making decisions about war and peace.  The voting age in the Vietnam era was 21 years old. Observe closely the poster included on slide 4, which seeks support for the lowering of the voting age. Do you agree with the Lincoln quote? Why or why not? How could someone make a case against the lowering of the voting age? In March 1971, the 26th Amendment was passed, making 18 the official voting age across America for federal elections. The voting age for state and local elections is determined by state and municipalities—some areas will allow those as young as 16 to vote in elections. What do you think an appropriate voting age would be? Why?

Compare the heat maps on slides 5 and 6, which compare the states of origin for casualties from Vietnam to casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you see any significant differences? What kind of conclusions can you make by comparing the two maps? In terms of casualties, the geographic distribution is largely unchanged: the greatest number of casualties come from the most populous states. However, in terms of total service, since the end of the draft in 1973, the makeup of the military has shifted south—percentages of service men and women from the Northeast and Midwest have dropped, while percentages from the West and South have risen. In 2000, 42% of all recruits came from the South. Observe the map of veteran populations on slide 7. What conclusions can you draw from this map? Do you think these maps give useful information about whether today’s military is representative of American society as a whole?

Regardless of the various backgrounds and circumstances that soldiers come from, it is important to recognize their service to the nation.