November 30, 2006

November 30, 2006 | Commentary on

Rangel's slurs

Anyone who has firsthand experience of the excellent young men and women who volunteer for military service and perform so admirably under very difficult circumstances in Iraq will have a hard time recognizing what Rep. Charlie Rangel, incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is going on about.

At a recent gathering at Shenandoah Springs farm in Etlan, Virginia, I was listening to a young local engineer serving with the National Guard in Iraq. He talked about his tremendous feelings of pride over serving with professional soldiers, of the interaction with the Iraqi people and of the phenomenal welcome he had received on returning home, a standing ovation from fellow diners at an airport restaurant, which refused to take his money as he was wearing his uniform. He was just the kind of ambassador the United States should want to send out into the world, solid, strong and decent. 

And he was very far from the stereotype of Mr. Rangel's disparaging statements about our troops as delivered in an interview with Fox News Channel's Chris Wallace on Sunday. His words have already been much quoted, but they are worth repeating in all their unsubstantiated outrageousness: 

"I want to make it abundantly clear, if there's anyone who believes that these youngsters want to fight, as the Pentagon and some generals have said, you can just forget it. No young, bright individual wants to fight just because of a bonus and just because of employment benefits. And most of all of them come from communities of very, very high unemployment. If a young fellow has an option of having a decent career or joining the Army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life that he would not be in Iraq." 

In Mr. Rangel's worldview clearly, no one volunteers for the military for reasons of patriotism. This chimes with the view of Sen. John Kerry expressed during the recent election campaign that disproportionately the underprivileged and the uneducated, those who have no other choice than enlisting, make up the bulk of our armed services, the cannon fodder we sent to Iraq. 

Mr. Kerry, of course ended up having to apologize for this view. Mr. Rangel has yet to do anything of the kind -- though he should -- and is in fact planning House Ways and Means Committee hearings on bringing back the draft as soon as he assumes the chairmanship. 

The problem is that Messrs. Rangel and Kerry have got the fact all wrong -- or would have if they had any facts at all to substantiate their claims. According to a study by the Heritage Foundation's Tim Kane, "Who Are the Recruits?", the demographic evidence based on a zip code by zip code analysis of enlistees points entirely the other way. And contrary to the assertion in a letter to the editor of The Washington Times on Monday that the study is based on 1999 data, the most recent update published on October 2006, looks at "the demographic characteristics of U.S. Military enlistment, 2003-2005." 

According to the study, "Like their peers in 1999 and 2003, recruits in 2004 and 2005 came primarily from middle-class areas. Poor areas are proportionately underrepresented in the wartime years (2003-2005)." Specifically, recruits from America's poorest neighborhoods, about one fifth of the U.S. population, declines from 14.61 percent in 2003 to 13.55 percent in 2005. By contrast, youth from the fifth wealthiest areas volunteered more during the Iraq wartime, rising from 22.17 percent in 22.85. The bulk of enlistees came from the income groups, making between $30,000-50,000, hardly qualifying as a poor underclass. 

In terms of education, recruits do much better than the national average, with 98 percent having a high-school diploma, as compared with 75 percent nationwide. In racial terms, in 2005, blacks were only slightly overrepresented, by a ratio of 1.07 as compared to the general population, and whites were only slightly underrepresented by a ratio of 0.97. Geographically, rural areas, particularly in the South, yielded more than their share of recruits, by a ratio of 1.51 as compared to the total population, while urban areas were represented by a ratio of 0.70. 

It appears that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows full well that the issue of the draft will be a losing one for Democrats, and has no intention of allowing Mr. Rangel to introduce his draft bill. She would be wise to stop it indeed. The U.S. volunteer force is a tremendous asset to the country -- both in times of peace and of war.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times