Immigration

Opinion: In 40 Years, Who Will Fight America’s Wars?

Kimberly Spencer Suarez and Fernando M. Torres Gil
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Kimberly Spencer-Suarez Fernando M. Torres-Gil
Sept. 18, 2012, 10:10 a.m.

As we de­bate the great is­sues fa­cing the United States, a single pro­voc­at­ive ques­tion stands out: “Who will fight Amer­ica’s wars?”

The na­tion is ex­per­i­en­cing dra­mat­ic demo­graph­ic changes that will sig­ni­fic­antly al­ter how it looks and acts in the com­ing years. There is a great deal of spec­u­la­tion about the aging of Amer­ica’s pop­u­la­tion, its grow­ing di­versity, and the so­cial, polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al im­plic­a­tions there­of.

But an­oth­er is­sue, the pro­ver­bi­al ele­phant in the room, awaits us: Who will fight Amer­ica’s wars dur­ing the demo­graph­ic trans­ition? Or, put less dra­mat­ic­ally, who will sat­is­fy the man­power needs of an all-vo­lun­teer mil­it­ary when the U.S. be­comes a ma­jor­ity-minor­ity na­tion and the (primar­ily white) eld­erly make up 20 to 25 per­cent of the over­all pop­u­la­tion?

We live in an age of on­go­ing con­flicts. The U.S. must main­tain a will­ing and qual­i­fied pool of young re­cruits for its armed forces. But who will make up that pool?

The ques­tion takes on ad­ded ur­gency in an aging so­ci­ety where whites be­come the minor­ity and fer­til­ity levels of non-His­pan­ic white fe­males fall be­low re­place­ment levels.

By 2050, minor­it­ies and im­mig­rants will form the ma­jor­ity demo­graph­ic and His­pan­ics will ac­count for a third of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. This pro­file mil­it­ates for in­creased en­list­ment of His­pan­ics, im­mig­rants, and oth­er minor­it­ies.

His­tory shows that blacks en­lis­ted at rates above their per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s. His­pan­ics have en­lis­ted at rates above their pro­por­tion re­cently. More re­cently, though, their num­bers ap­pear to have de­clined. Why? Per­haps per­ceived op­por­tun­it­ies in ci­vil­ian life, more strin­gent cri­ter­ia for en­list­ment, re­duced force size, or shift­ing pub­lic opin­ions about cur­rent con­flicts.

Re­gard­less, we can safely as­sume that as a ma­jor­ity-minor­ity na­tion, the U.S. will need to in­crease en­list­ments by His­pan­ics, blacks, Asi­ans, and im­mig­rant groups.

But will His­pan­ics, blacks, and im­mig­rants have suf­fi­cient edu­ca­tion, health status, and early-child­hood de­vel­op­ment sup­port to meet stand­ards re­quired by the mil­it­ary?

The evid­ence is troub­ling. The state of pub­lic edu­ca­tion, es­pe­cially in low-in­come areas, is dis­mal. Blacks and His­pan­ics have the highest rates of health prob­lems, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing rates of dia­betes and obesity (a lead­ing cause of en­list­ment re­jec­tion). We must also look at in­duce­ments that will en­cour­age these pop­u­la­tions to over­come obstacles and to vo­lun­teer in the na­tion’s mil­it­ary.

One sub­stant­ive step could be taken today: Passing the Dream Act and en­act­ing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form. The De­vel­op­ment, Re­lief, and Edu­ca­tion Act for Ali­en Minors would lay the path for eli­gible youth to be­come leg­al Amer­ic­an cit­izens if they pur­sue post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion or ser­vice in the U.S. mil­it­ary.

Done prop­erly, the act would cre­ate a grow­ing pool of mo­tiv­ated and qual­i­fied po­ten­tial re­cruits. Com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form would provide a path to cit­izen­ship and the po­ten­tial for mil­lions of young-tax­pay­er dol­lars (and rev­en­ues to sus­tain Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity).

As we de­bate the great is­sues fa­cing the next Amer­ica, the in­sist­ent ques­tion of “who will fight Amer­ica’s wars” goes to the heart of a vis­cer­al con­cern: At what point will an older and more di­verse Amer­ica re­cog­nize the need to in­vest in minor­it­ies, im­mig­rants, and His­pan­ics in or­der to sus­tain our na­tion­al se­cur­ity?

Fernando Torres-Gil is a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Los Angeles) and the dir­ect­or for the UCLA Cen­ter for Policy Re­search on Aging.

Kim­berly Suarez Spen­cer, MSW, is a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Columbia Uni­versity School of So­cial Work.

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