The American troops likeliest to fight and die in a war against Iraq are disproportionately white, not black, military statistics show — contradicting a belief widely held since the early days of the Vietnam War.
In a little-publicized trend, black recruits have gravitated toward non-combat jobs that provide marketable skills for post-military careers, while white soldiers are over-represented in front-line combat forces.
The tilt toward white combat troops is recognized by many senior commanders and a small group of scholars who study the military.
"If anybody should be complaining about battlefield deaths, it is poor, rural whites," says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Illinois.
When Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., called recently for the return of a military draft, he evoked images of inequality raised during the early years of the Vietnam War, when black soldiers died at rates much greater than their share of the U.S. population.
Though Rangel is right that blacks and lower-income Americans still serve in disproportionate numbers, that fact misses another significant trend. While blacks are 20% of the military — compared with 12% of the U.S. population — they make up a far smaller percentage of troops in combat jobs on the front line.
In a host of high-risk slots — from Army commandos to Navy and Air Force fighter pilots — blacks constitute less than 5% of the force, statistics show.
Blacks, especially in the enlisted ranks, tend to be disproportionately drawn to non-combat fields such as unit administration and communications. They are underrepresented in jobs shooting rifles or dropping bombs.
Of the Army's 45,586 enlisted combat infantryman, 10.6% are black.
Of the Air Force's 12,000 pilots, 245, or about 2%, are black.
In the Navy, 2.5% of the pilots are black.
Senior Air Force officials say they are troubled by the number of black pilots and plan to do better.
The Army's enlisted Green Berets are among the least diverse groups in the military. Only 196 of the Army's 4,278 enlisted Green Berets — fewer than 5% — are black.
The reasons for the racial divide are unclear, but several theories have emerged, including lingering racism in some quarters of the military and a tendency among black recruits to choose jobs that help them find work in the civilian sector.