We all know that many more Afghans and Iraqis have been injured and died in the wars than Americans or other allied forces. But we tend to forget about the casualty gap of the U.S. armed forces themselves: poorer and less-educated citizens (and yet-to-be citizens) are much more likely to serve and die than richer, better-educated Americans.
In his review of The Casualty Gap: The Causes and Consequences of American Wartime Inequalities, by Douglas L. Kriner and Francis X. Shen, Andrew J. Bacevich notes that, after World War II (when there was no casualty gap), things changed dramatically.
During the cold war, fairness vanished. With the US intervention in Korea, Kriner and Shen write, “the data show a dramatic change: strong, significant, socio-economic casualty gaps begin to emerge.” The evidence they amass strongly suggests that this gap widened further during Vietnam and became greater still when the Bush administration invaded Iraq.
In the cases of Korea and Vietnam, when there was conscription, the better-off were able to take advantage of deferments. Now, what the all-volunteer armed forces hide is that poor and less-educated are forced to have the freedom to serve—and to die.
Does knowing this lead to changes in the way wars are conducted?
Although Americans more generally might bemoan the casualty gap, they won’t exert themselves to close it. The reason seems quite clear. Casualties affect public perceptions of policy when they hit close to home, when the sense of loss is direct, immediate and palpable. Yet the communities on whom the burden of sacrifice falls most heavily are precisely those that wield the least clout. Not having much money, they are easily ignored. “Citizens from low-income, low-education communities,” Kriner and Shen write, “are disproportionately less engaged in politics than their fellow citizens from socio-economically advantaged communities.” “Less engaged” is, to put it mildly, an odd formulation. The plain fact is that in Washington the less affluent are less likely to get a hearing. “The populations with the most to lose in war become those communities with the least to say to their elected officials.” That’s one way to put it. Another is that these communities are most easily blown off.