They have been variously described as ‘working class mercenaries’, ‘green card troops’, ‘non-citizen’ armies, or desperate recruits of the US Government’s ‘poverty draft’. They are the huge contingent of Hispanic personnel who - for personal and economic reasons - have been recruited into the ranks of the US military. According to US journalist Jim Ross, by February 2005 there were 110,000 of them. The biggest single contingent of such troops is made up of Mexicans and Mexican descendants. Many were in the marine units from Camp Pendleton in San Diego that participated in the initial stages of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and later fought ‘insurgents’ in Falluja.
Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans and Ecuadorians are also well represented. Since the start of the war about a third of the US forces stationed in Iraq - between 31,000 and 37,000 troops out of a total of about 130,000 - were non-US citizens serving in the navy, Marine Corps, army and air force.
Following the widespread insurgency in early 2004 the US Government has gone on a nationwide recruitment drive that has targeted young Hispanics with promises of green cards, scholarships, post-service employment, and various medical and pension benefits. The US Government’s interest in recruiting Latinos is hardly surprising since they make up about 12.5 per cent of the US population: one in seven 18-year-olds are of Hispanic origin. Invariably poor and jobless, they are prime candidates for US Military Occupational Specialists hungry for recruits.
This recruitment campaign is driven by an executive order signed in July 2002 by President Bush, which effectively allows recruits in active duty during the ‘war on terror’ to apply for citizenship once they join up rather than having to wait years for the granting of a green card. Since 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration has tightened immigration procedures and cut public spending in a number of areas such as housing and education. This has meant that many young Latinos feel they have little choice but to pursue the inducements offered by the US military.
These non-citizen members of the military have a limited number of Military Occupational Specialties to choose from when enlisting. As a consequence, noncitizens are over-represented in some of the most dangerous field operations. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic troops make up about 17.5 per cent of front-line forces.
Not surprisingly, such troops die or are injured in disproportionate numbers. US Department of Defense figures suggest a casualty rate for Latino military members of about 13 per cent - almost two-anda- half times the rate of other serving members and many times more than in previous conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Significantly, of the first 1,000 US deaths in Iraq, the overwhelming majority was among the lowest-ranked, poorest-paid, and worst-trained troops. Over 120 were Latinos - about 70 of them Mexican.
With few prospects of gaining US citizenship through the usual channels, and with little hope of employment, decent housing and education, the call to arms clearly holds some attraction. Yet as the advocacy organization Latinos against the Iraq War has pointed out, the various promises made by the Government frequently fail to materialize when Latino service personnel return home. Many of these troops - especially those who are injured - find they are in worse circumstances than when they left for Iraq; themselves victims of the very ‘war on terror’ they were recruited to vanquish.