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Latinos on the Frontlines, Again

by JORGE MARISCAL

Since the early years of the American war in Southeast Asia, Latino communities have argued that their youth have been disproportionately placed in harm’s way. When Dr. Ralph Guzm?n published his study in which he argued that between 1961 and 1967 19.4% of combat casualties in Viet Nam were Mexican American (only 10% of the population of the Southwest at the time), Chicano and Chicana activists used the study to mobilize against the draft and ultimately against the war.

While we cannot know with certainty the number of Chicanos and Latinos killed in the Viet Nam conflict because of Pentagon record-keeping practices during that period, we can point to the high percentage of Spanish surnames on the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and to ample anecdotal evidence in every Chicano and Latino barrio in the nation. The example of activist-scholar Lea Ybarra, author of an oral history of Chicano Viet Nam veterans titled Too Many Heroes, is not unique. During the Viet Nam war period, eighteen of Dr. Ybarra’s cousins served in the U.S. military.

Today, with the ever-increasing likelihood of a protracted American war in Iraq, Latino communities are once again sensing that their young men and women will be among those forced to pay the ultimate price. The names of the first killed and missing in action include Jose Gutierrez, Jose Garibay, Jorge Gonzales, Ruben Estrella-Soto, Johnny Villareal Mata, and Francisco Cervantes, Jr. Edgar Hernandez, age 21, from Mission, Texas, has been listed as a POW.

The Pentagon campaign targeting Latino youth began in the mid-1990s when former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera decided that the growing Latino population ought to be tracked towards military service. Counted at the time as a robust 11% of the general population, Latinos were the fastest growing sector and would have the highest number of military-age youth of any other minority group for well into the next century. According to an article in the Army Times, “Hispanics” constituted 22% of the military recruiting “market,” almost double their presence in the society. Recruiters depicted universities and vocational schools as rivals competing for the same “Hispanic” pool.

Using the carrot of money for college and technical training, Caldera appealed to the relatively uncritical patriotism of Latino immigrant families and relied on the reality of high Latino high-school drop out rates, low numbers of college degrees (only 5% of all college graduates), and limited career opportunities. Although the Pentagon opposed (and continues to oppose) a draft, the basic structures of economic conscription were in place. In a sleight of hand, Caldera concocted the myth that the core mission of the armed forces was education. The real mission-armed conflict-was easier to disguise during the Clinton years.

Iraq has certainly changed all that and Latinos and Latinas are once again on the frontlines. But what are the exact numbers? Military recruiters continue to focus on Latino communities because according to the Pentagon Latinos are underrepresented. Slightly over 13% of the 18-24 year old civilian population in 2001, Latinos made up only 9.5% of active enlisted personnel. Although numbers are probably somewhat higher now given the push to recruit more “Hispanics” in recent years, Latinos are probably still “underrepresented.” But more important than the number of Latinos and Latinas in uniform is an understanding of where in the military they can be found.

According to 2001 Department of Defense statistics, Latinos made up 17.7% of the “Infantry, Gun Crews, and Seamanship” occupations in all the service branches. Of those Latinos and Latinas in the Army, 24.7% occupy such jobs and in the Marine Corps, 19.7%. Remember that Latinos make up only 13% of the general population. (Although women do not serve in the “Infantry,” they can be found on gun crews and in other forms of hazardous duty). In other words, Latinos and Latinas are over-represented in combat positions.

But the story does not end there. Recent events in Iraq have shown that GIs in so-called non-combat military occupations are equally at risk. When fifteen soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company were killed or captured by Iraqi forces last week, we were reminded of one of the lessons of Viet Nam and previous wars-in any full-scale conflict, “frontlines” are never fixed and no one is ever far from harm’s way. The killed and captured in the ambush outside Nasiriyah were truck drivers, welders, cooks, and mechanics.

In the category of “Supply” occupations in the Army, Latinos and Latinas made up 10.3% and in the Marine Corps 15.6% during fiscal year 2001. Here African Americans were disproportionately represented with 16% in the Army’s “Supply” occupations and 19.9% in similar jobs in the Marines. (In 2001 African Americans made up approximately 12.7% of the 18-44 year old civilian population and 12.2% of overall combat occupations but 14.6% of combat-related jobs in the Army). The promised hi-tech training, transferable to civilian life, is simply not in the cards for these young women and men.

With the end of the Cold War, the size of the U.S. military diminished. From 1992 to 2001, the numbers of active duty personnel decreased by 23%. The number of Latinos in uniform, however, grew by 30%. Huge increases in the number of new immigrants from Latin America during the decade of the 1990s (over 4.5 million legal arrivals) mean recruiters will be busy in Latino communities for years to come.

Among the many aftershocks of the Bush administration’s reactionary agenda will be the further militarization of every aspect of U.S. society. The military’s presence in public school systems across the country is just one sign of the on-going incursion of militarism into the very fabric of our culture. Today after witnessing dozens of young Latinos and Latinas in Junior ROTC uniforms marching in a parade to honor the memory of Cesar Chavez, a disciple of Gandhian non-violence, I am haunted by the question, “When will Latino communities begin to refuse to carry their young to the red, white, and blue altar that has been prepared for their sacrifice?”

JORGE MARISCAL is a Viet Nam veteran who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. He is an active member of Project YANO. He can be reached at: gmariscal@ucsd.edu

 

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