The Casualty Gap is a commendable and in some ways impressive book; it is also an example of political science at its most frustrating. For those with the patience to wade through its jargon-laced and data-laden pages, the book reveals disturbing—although by no means surprising—truths about exactly who pays the price for this country’s ever-growing propensity for war. Yet the single-mindedness with which Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen pursue their subject ultimately limits the value of the enterprise. The analytical rigor that unearths small but important insights impedes recognition of vastly larger ones. A preoccupation with nuance begets myopia. Hewing to the standards of their discipline, Kriner and Shen seem oblivious to the larger implications of their findings.
In Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), his savage indictment of the global "war on terror," Michael Moore charged that the burden of wartime service and sacrifice was not exactly falling evenly across the spectrum of American society. George W. Bush marketed the campaigns launched in the wake of September 11 as democratic crusades. According to Moore, they actually conformed to the classic definition of "rich man’s war and poor man’s fight." When it came to fighting and dying, Moore argued, Americans near the bottom of the socioeconomic heap were doing more than their fair share. Meanwhile, those nearer the top—the offspring of the political class not least of all—were largely shielded from the wars’ effects. In an especially memorable segment, Moore showed that the military seemingly endorsed this arrangement: in search of warm bodies to ship to the combat zone, recruiters specifically targeted kids with few apparent prospects for making it back on the block.
Kriner and Shen possess little of Moore’s penchant for self-aggrandizing theatrics. Yet by cross-referencing official casualty records with Census data, they reach a conclusion that affirms Moore’s verdict: "when America goes to war, it is the poorer and less educated in society who are more likely to die in combat." Furthermore, this gap is by no means a recent development. Kriner and Shen survey the pattern of US military fatalities in four conflicts, beginning with World War II and proceeding to Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. (Regarding the distribution of casualties in earlier US history—during the Civil War, for example—the authors are silent.) Only in the case of the war against Germany and Japan did "the nation’s long-held norm of equal sacrifice in war" prevail. Given the reliance on conscription to raise the very large forces required for that conflict along with the military’s refusal to induct anyone who didn’t meet strict, if arbitrary, health and literacy standards, "the poorest and most undereducated counties actually suffered lower than average casualty rates." In 1941–45, there was no casualty gap. During the cold war, fairness vanished. With the US intervention in Korea, Kriner and Shen write, "the data show a dramatic change: strong, significant, socio-economic casualty gaps begin to emerge." The evidence they amass strongly suggests that this gap widened further during Vietnam and became greater still when the Bush administration invaded Iraq.
Between the early 1940s and 2003, the composition of US fighting forces—particularly those committed to ground combat—had changed considerably. During World War II, the vast majority of frontline troops were conscripts. By the time of Iraq, the Pentagon relied entirely on volunteers. In the interim, the Army had waged limited war with a mix of volunteers and draftees. The trend away from conscription benefited the haves more than the have-nots, according to Kriner and Shen. An "increasing reliance on volunteers," they write, "correlates strongly with the emergence of the casualty gap."