Trying to head off a proposal to reinstate the military draft, the Pentagon on Monday disputed charges that blacks and poorer Americans bear an unfair burden in fighting the country's wars.
"Contrary to myth, data show that the enlisted force is quite representative of the civilian population," the Defense Department said in an 11-page paper arguing the merits of the all-volunteer force that has been in place for nearly 30 years.
The position paper was in response to a proposal by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) to require military and other types of national service.
A veteran of the Korean War and opponent of military action in Iraq, Rangel says he believes members of Congress would be less likely to support war against Saddam Hussein if their children were the ones to be put in harm's way.
He said late last month that military service should be a "shared sacrifice" asked of all able young Americans and that minorities make up a "disproportionate number" of troops.
The Pentagon countered Monday that while blacks make up 20% of enlistees and only 12% to 14% of the general recruit-age population, there tend to be fewer in combat jobs. They make up 15% of the combat force, while accounting for 36% of support and administration and 27% of medical and dental positions, the Pentagon said, citing a 1999 report.
On social and economic status, the Pentagon said 22% of recruits have fathers with a college education, compared to 30% of the general population in their age group.
The paper was released at an hourlong briefing by a senior Defense official who appeared before reporters on the condition that he not be identified by name.
Saying America's armed forces today are more professional and efficient because they are composed of volunteers, the official said military leaders are "horrified by Mr. Rangel's proposal to return to the days when people were forced to serve."
Under the current system, young people are still required to register with the Selective Service System.