Contradicting a long-held popular notion that blacks in the Vietnam War died far out of proportion to their numbers in the U.S. population, they constituted 12.4 percent of military deaths, accounting for 7,241 of the 58,198 total deaths. (Blacks accounted for 11.1 percent of the U.S. population in 1970.) In the Korean War, blacks totaled 8.4 percent of military deaths, accounting for 3,075 of 36,572 killed in action.
Blacks in the military: A long-standing relationship
Even though blacks have a history of participating in America's wars, that doesn't mean all blacks on the home front agree with the war in Iraq.
According to statistics cited by the New York Times in August, a CBS News telephone poll indicated that 83 percent of the blacks surveyed said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, while only 14 percent said military action was warranted. Whites, by contrast, were closely divided, with 48 percent indicating that military action was warranted, while 46 percent said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq.
Some political commentators credit the unpopularity of the war in the black community as a main reason why the military has seen a drop in black recruits in recent years. According to the Department of Defense statistics cited by the Boston Globe, the number of black recruits has dropped by 58 percent since 2000. That year, more than 42,000 blacks applied to enlist in the Army, compared to just over 17,000 in 2005.
While blacks, particularly those from poorer areas, have historically viewed the military as a vehicle to achieve opportunities and pay for higher education and other benefits, experts say the sudden drop in black enlistees is due to several factors.
Although the unpopularity of the war probably has affected recruitment numbers, Ron Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Center, said more blacks are taking advantage of jobs and opportunities outside the military. For example, since the Vietnam War, the number of blacks enrolled in college and universities has increased nearly five times, Walters said. "You had a draft going in (Vietnam) and this is an all-volunteer Army, which is a big difference. And the draft itself swept up a lot of these people," Walters said.
Still, recent events, such as the widely criticized U.S. government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left thousands of blacks homeless throughout the Gulf Coast region, hasn't helped change the negative view that some blacks hold toward the government.
Walters said the cynicism some blacks express about the war in Iraq also stems from the historic contradiction of black identity in America -- a feeling of being a second-class citizen because of race, yet being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield.
"The thought has always been that one of the ways that African-Americans could prove they were full citizens was to involve themselves in the country's wars, to defend the country -- and that would be the ultimate mark of citizenship," Walters said. "That has not turned out to be the case, and so you've had fairly significant opposition the the United States getting involved in any other wars. It has not lessened what black people feel about the existence of racism in American society."
Retired Navy Cmdr. Gregory Black, who served for 21 years as a Navy deep-sea diver, said fewer blacks may be enlisting because of misconceptions some harbor about the military, as well as being unaware of the opportunities the military can offer. While fewer blacks may be enlisting to serve in combat roles, he mentioned that more blacks today are serving in administrative, non-combat roles than before.