arts&sciences | Spring 2011

Uneven Sacrifice

America's poorest communities pay a disproportionate share of war's ultimate cost.

By Corinne Steinbrenner

In his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore approaches U.S. congressmen and asks if they will enlist their own kids in the army to fight in Iraq. It's one of the many ways Moore emphasizes his point that America's rich and powerful sit back while the poor and marginalized die in their wars. It's an argument often made by the political left, but when Assistant Professor of Political Science Douglas Kriner began looking for evidence to support the claim, he found only a small number of conflicting studies. So he and a colleague, MacArthur Foundation Research Fellow Francis Shen, decided to find and analyze wartime data themselves.

The result of their work appears in their 2010 book, The Casualty Gap: The Causes and Consequences of American Wartime Inequalities. By carefully comparing census data to military casualty data from World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the authors demonstrate that American communities with low income and education levels have long borne a greater portion of war deaths than have other communities. "It's not the case," says Kriner, "that wealthy areas of the country have no share of the sacrifice in these wars. That said, it is about a 50-percent-smaller share than what's been suffered by the poorest of America's communities."

Kriner's data show this casualty gap emerging during the Korean War and widening ever since. Contributing to the gap, he says, are the military's offers of education and good pay—offers that appeal most to the socioeconomically disadvantaged—and military placement practices that often put less-educated soldiers on the front lines.

After establishing the existence of a socioeconomic casualty gap, Kriner and Shen set out to understand its consequences. To explore how greater public knowledge of casualty inequality might affect popular support for war, the researchers conducted a series of experiments. In one phone survey, they told respondents how many casualties America suffered in each of its recent wars and then asked how many casualties the respondents would deem acceptable in a hypothetical future war with Iran. The average number of casualties acceptable to the control group in the experiment was 28,206. For a second group of respondents who were given additional information about the casualty gap, the average number of acceptable casualties was 16,923—a 40-percent reduction. From this and other experiments, the researchers conclude that "Americans are disturbed by casualty inequalities." Kriner further argues that more Americans need to know these inequalities exist: "American citizens are called upon to make some sort of cost-benefit calculation when we decide whether or not to send our fellow citizens into harm's way, and we need to be aware of the full cost of doing so. Inequality is part of that cost."

The final section of Kriner's book explores the impact of war casualties on the civic life of hard-hit communities. By comparing Vietnam casualty data with several years of National Election Survey data (and controlling for a host of factors), Kriner found that residents of communities with high casualty rates later reported lower levels of trust in the federal government, of political interest, and of voting participation than did other Americans. It's unclear if today's wars will produce similarly depressing effects on political engagement, but the possibility, says Kriner, is "incredibly troubling." Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities have less voice in politics to begin with, he says, so society should do more to ensure that wartime losses don't further limit their much-needed political influence.