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Latinos and the Military in 2013

Jorge Mariscal -

Jorge MariscalWith the beginning of a new year and a second Obama term, it is time once again to take stock of the relationship between the Latino community and the U.S. military. As we outlined in Draft NOtices more than a decade ago, Latinos will continue to make up the largest military age cohort for many years to come. According to one Department of Defense study, Latinos, who made up 20% of the recruiting market in 2010, will comprise 38% by 2050. The Pentagon’s so-called Hispanic initiatives, begun in the late 1990s, were based on these projections and had the explicit goal of increasing dramatically the number of Latinos in all military branches.

At the beginning of 2013, it appears that recruiting efforts have not kept up with the growing Latino community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall Hispanic population in 2011 was 16.7% (or 18.6% of the civilian labor force). In 2011, the percentage of Latina and Latino active duty enlisted members in all branches stood at only 12.3%. In the wake of a 3.3% increase in Latino enlistments between 2000 and 2003 (arguably the consequence of Hispanic recruitment campaigns as well as increased pay and benefits), the American invasion and occupation of Iraq produced an abrupt drop-off in enlistees during the four-year period that followed.

What is now called the “Iraq effect” in recruiting studies drove down both Latino enlistment and propensity rates. Latino propensity, or the likelihood that an individual will enlist, fell from 27% before the invasion to 11% in 2007, the period when U.S. strategists implemented a “surge” of 20,000 troops amidst out-of-control violence. The decline took place despite the fact that the Pentagon had tripled the amount of first-time enlistment bonuses during this period to an average of $17,000.

In retrospect, it is clear that one of the unintended consequences of the Iraq adventure was to short-circuit the forward momentum of Hispanic recruiting initiatives begun during the Clinton administration. By mid-2009 as the war wound down, the financial crisis worsened, and unemployment rates soared, propensity rates for Latinos had rebounded slightly to 16%.

Nonetheless, as we begin 2013 Latinos continue to be underrepresented in the armed forces. Interestingly, the 2011 figures reveal one surprising change. Whereas in previous years Latinos were overrepresented only in the Marine Corps, today they are overrepresented only in the Navy (17.7%) and underrepresented in the Marines (14.8%). The standard explanation in previous years was that because one feature of the Marine brand is being the most hyper-masculine of all the branches, young Latino men found it the most attractive. As the old Marine saw has it, yes, Marines are part of the Navy but they’re the ones who use the men’s locker room.

The movement of Latinos towards the Navy was a trend first noted by RAND Corporation researchers in a 2009 study. According to the RAND analysts, Latino Navy “high quality” enlistments, i.e., high school graduates with above-average scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, have been rising steadily since 1998 with a 76% increase between 1999 and 2007. The surge of Latinos into the Navy indicates that Latinos may not be “natural-born warriors” after all, a stereotype kept alive by both Latinos and non-Latinos. Instead, Latino youth are inclined to be as pragmatic as every other group of young people. The Navy’s brand as understood within popular culture (whether true or not) is that it is less of a “macho” branch and therefore less likely to place individuals in life-threatening situations.

With regard to Latino motives for joining the military in general, recent studies corroborate what Project YANO and other counter-recruitment organizations pointed out more than a decade ago. The number one reason why young Latinos and Latinas enlist continues to be educational benefits. (By comparison, for African American youth, one-time enlistment bonuses produce more noticeable increases.) The refrain “They died trying to become students” applies to a large segment of the working-class youth who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. For the Latino community, where many of the fallen were not even U.S. citizens, the phrase encapsulates an especially bitter truth.

At least two additional issues related to education merit our attention. One of the most striking recent developments is the remarkable jump in the number of 17-year-old Latino recruits. Between 2009 and 2011, the Latino percentage rose from 8.9% to 14.3%. The existence of the 17-year-old “recruiting market” is not news to anyone who has visited a predominantly Latino high school in recent years. Although the under 18-year-old group makes up only a small percentage of overall force level, the presence of minors in the U.S. military was significant enough for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to lodge an inquiry last year with the Department of State.

Finally, counter-recruitment and anti-militarism activists must be attentive to the on-going debate around immigration reform, the shifting status of undocumented youth, the future of the DREAM Act, and the potential consequences of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). At the present moment, DACA-eligible youth may obtain a work permit but do not receive legal status and therefore may not enlist in the military. However, should the DREAM Act pass during Obama’s second term, either alone or as part of a comprehensive reform package, so-called dreamer youth, the vast majority of whom are Latinos for whom college may not be an option, will become prime recruiting targets.

It should be noted that enlistment rates for African Americans declined sharply during the American occupation of Iraq — a 45% drop from pre-invasion numbers (compare this to the 21% decline for whites and Latinos). Nevertheless, African Americans continue to be overrepresented among active-duty enlisted members of the armed forces at 18.4% (13% of the civilian labor market).

Asch, et. al. attribute the overall decline in Black enlistments since 2000 to recruiting successes in the Latino community: “The decline in black representation among Army high-quality enlistments is in part due to the success of the Army in increasing Hispanic high-quality enlistments.” If current recruitment trends continue and access to higher education grows further out of reach, Latino families in the future may find that their children have become part of a permanent military caste.

Information Sources:

Beth J. Asch, Paul Heaton, Bogdan Savych, Recruiting Minorities: What Explains Recent Trends in the Army and Navy. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009.

Barbara A. Bicksler and Lisa G. Nolan, Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force: The Need for Sustained Investment in Recruiting Resources -- An Update. Arlington, VA.: Strategic Analysis, Inc., 2009.

Department of Defense, Population Representation in the Military Services, 2011.

U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, written replies of the United States of America, December 3, 2012.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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