Opinion: In 40 Years, Who Will Fight America's Wars?

As we debate the great issues facing the United States, a single provocative question stands out: "Who will fight America's wars?"

The nation is experiencing dramatic demographic changes that will significantly alter how it looks and acts in the coming years. There is a great deal of speculation about the aging of America's population, its growing diversity, and the social, political, economic, and cultural implications thereof.

But another issue, the proverbial elephant in the room, awaits us: Who will fight America's wars during the demographic transition? Or, put less dramatically, who will satisfy the manpower needs of an all-volunteer military when the U.S. becomes a majority-minority nation and the (primarily white) elderly make up 20 to 25 percent of the overall population?

We live in an age of ongoing conflicts. The U.S. must maintain a willing and qualified pool of young recruits for its armed forces. But who will make up that pool?

The question takes on added urgency in an aging society where whites become the minority and fertility levels of non-Hispanic white females fall below replacement levels.

By 2050, minorities and immigrants will form the majority demographic and Hispanics will account for a third of the U.S. population. This profile militates for increased enlistment of Hispanics, immigrants, and other minorities.

History shows that blacks enlisted at rates above their percentage of the population during the 1970s and 1980s. Hispanics have enlisted at rates above their proportion recently. More recently, though, their numbers appear to have declined. Why? Perhaps perceived opportunities in civilian life, more stringent criteria for enlistment, reduced force size, or shifting public opinions about current conflicts.

Regardless, we can safely assume that as a majority-minority nation, the U.S. will need to increase enlistments by Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and immigrant groups.

But will Hispanics, blacks, and immigrants have sufficient education, health status, and early-childhood development support to meet standards required by the military?

The evidence is troubling. The state of public education, especially in low-income areas, is dismal. Blacks and Hispanics have the highest rates of health problems, including increasing rates of diabetes and obesity (a leading cause of enlistment rejection). We must also look at inducements that will encourage these populations to overcome obstacles and to volunteer in the nation's military.

One substantive step could be taken today: Passing the Dream Act and enacting comprehensive immigration reform. The Development, Relief, and Education Act for Alien Minors would lay the path for eligible youth to become legal American citizens if they pursue postsecondary education or service in the U.S. military.

Done properly, the act would create a growing pool of motivated and qualified potential recruits. Comprehensive immigration reform would provide a path to citizenship and the potential for millions of young-taxpayer dollars (and revenues to sustain Medicare and Social Security).

As we debate the great issues facing the next America, the insistent question of "who will fight America's wars" goes to the heart of a visceral concern: At what point will an older and more diverse America recognize the need to invest in minorities, immigrants, and Hispanics in order to sustain our national security?

Fernando Torres-Gil is a professor at the University of California (Los Angeles) and the director for the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging.

Kimberly Suarez Spencer, MSW, is a doctoral student at the Columbia University School of Social Work.