There is no doubt that many young black men from Washington joined the U.S. military to escape the scalpel of Dr. Gage Ochsner, the Washington Hospital Center emergency room surgeon who patched up bullet holes in at least 300 drug war casualties last year.
Enlisting in the armed forces was certainly one way out of the urban line of fire, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that black soldiers in peacetime had a better chance of dodging bullets than black civilians.
The homicide rate among black soldiers was nine per 100,000 compared with 100 per 100,000 for black civilians in the same age group, said Joseph M. Rothberg, the principal author of the study.
But with the specter of war in the Persian Gulf, those peacetime prospects have been overshadowed by concern that the black gold of the Middle East will be overpaid for in black blood, especially from the District.
"The District has proportionately more soldiers in the Persian Gulf than 47 states," said Jesse L. Jackson, who recently was elected shadow senator to lobby Congress for D.C. statehood. "Our boys may die in a war without us being allowed to participate in the debate over war and peace. Our blood may be used to win for Kuwait what we don't have ourselves."
Overall, black soldiers make up more than 30 percent of the estimated half-million troops destined for the Persian Gulf, while black Americans make up about 12 percent of the nation's population, said Edwin Dorn, a military analyst for the Brookings Institution.
"In peacetime, blacks and Hispanics find opportunities in the military not available to them in civilian society," Dorn said. "But with the advent of war, those benefits turn to heavy burdens as sacrifices fall so unevenly."
Much of the concern for the black soldiers in the Persian Gulf stems from memories of the Vietnam War, particularly the years 1965 and 1966, when an alarmingly high number of black troops returned home in body bags.
Until the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began his protest of the Vietnam War in 1967, black soldiers were routinely trained for jungle warfare, where their casualty rates reached 20 percent.
"A war in the Persian Gulf could produce anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 American casualities -- if not more," Dorn said. "When roughly one-third of them turn out to be black and Hispanic, Bush will be forced to confront a wrinkle in his policies: Why are those who bear the brunt of discrimination at home also bearing the brunt of the conflict abroad?"
This prospect comes in the wake of Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which prompted Jackson to say: "Bush is color-conscious when it comes to keeping blacks out of jobs, but colorblind when it comes to sending us to the front line."
At a community forum to discuss the impact of the Persian Gulf crisis on black Americans, held Thursday at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, speakers criticized America's "idolatry of Western arrogance" and examined what many felt had been a fraud perpetrated upon people of color.
"As the Reagan and Bush administrations began reducing financial aid for college, and as unemployment in black communities reached between 30 and 70 percent," said Gregg Moore, of the National Rainbow Coalition, "the military began seducing black and Latino youths with the prospect of 'being all you can be' with a job skill and a college education by joining the Army."
The United States now has 10 times more troops in the Persian Gulf than any other country. And there is not a Japanese solider among them, Jackson said, noting that when the Japanese minister of justice compared American blacks to prostitutes, he insulted the very people who are trying to save Japan from crumbling under the weight of its own oil dependency.
That Bush did not even ask for an apology only added to the serious reservations that many black Americans have about his military posture in the Persian Gulf.
For the District's black soldier in the sand, however, there is another irony that must seem especially cruel. Ochsner recently was transferred out of Washington Hospital Center. His urban combat, "MASH"-style experience qualified him for a new job: directing casualty operations aboard the USNS Comfort -- the mammoth medical ship stationed in the Persian Gulf.
It looks like Ochsner has caught up with those who thought they had escaped his scalpel after all.