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When Uncle Sam calls, it's usually the poor who serve

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It's not just the military record of its new vice-presidential nominee, but an old, old American skeleton that jumped out of the closet to startle an otherwise placid 1988 Republican National Convention. In the American Revolution, writes Robert Wright Jr. of the Army's Center of Military History, ``The long-term Continentals tended to come from the poorer, rootless elements of American society - a sizable minority were hired substitutes....''

The shunting of the poor into the most onerous and dangerous military tasks is traced further into our history by Lt. Col. Marvin A. Kreidberg and 1st Lt. Merton Henry of the Department of the Army Staff in their ``History of Military Mobilization in the United States Army, 1775-1945.''

In one form or another, as described by Colonel Kreidberg and Lieutenant Henry, economic incentives were the basis for American military recruitment until World War I. In its most direct form this was the payment of bonuses for voluntary enlistment, relatively small amounts of money that appealed only to the poorer elements of society.

By far the most insidious form of economic pressure was the hiring of substitutes. That is, someone subject to compulsory military service either through the state-run militia or a nationally mandated draft legally could hire a substitute.

Thus, from the Revolution through the Spanish-American War, Americans could buy their way out of military service if they chose to do so. Many, of course, did not and served with distinction.

But at least as many wealthy Americans chose to hire substitutes. Major fortunes and family dynasties were created by men who both escaped the physical hazards of war and were left free to devote their energies to educational and economic pursuits.


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