With the casualty rate in Iraq growing by the day and President George Bush's worldwide "war on terrorism" showing no signs of abating, a stretched United States military is turning increasingly to Latinos - including tens of thousands of non-citizen immigrants - to do the fighting and dying on its behalf.
Senior Pentagon officials have identified Latinos as by far the most promising ethnic group for recruitment, because their numbers are growing rapidly in the US and they include a plentiful supply of low-income men of military age with few other job or educational prospects.
Recruitment efforts have also extended to non-citizens, who have been told by the Bush administration that they can apply for citizenship the day they join up, rather than waiting the standard five years after receiving their green card. More than 37,000 non-citizens, almost all Latino, are currently enlisted. Recruiters have even crossed the border into Mexico - to the fury of the Mexican authorities - to look for school-leavers who may have US residency papers.
The aim, according to Pentagon officials, is to boost the Latino numbers in the military from roughly 10 per cent to as much as 22 per cent. That was the figure cited recently by John McLaurin, a deputy assistant secretary of the army, as the size of the "Hispanic ... recruiting market", and it has also been bandied about in the pages of the Army Times.
But while officials praise the willingness of Mexican Americans and other Latinos, the strategy has been denounced by anti-war groups as a cynical exploitation of impoverished young men who are lined up to be little more than cannon fodder.
Rick Jahnkow, of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft, said: "They are vulnerable economically. That's why they are targeting them. [These people are] going to provide them with the means to carry out future wars."
Recent statistics from the Pew Hispanic Centre, a non-partisan think-tank, show that Latinos are already doing the most dangerous combat jobs in disproportionate numbers. While they are still under- represented in the armed forces as a whole - they made up 9.4 per cent of enlisted men in 2001, compared with 13.4 per cent of the general population - they are over-represented in jobs that involve handling weapons (17.7 per cent).
In Iraq, the first US casualty was a Latino non- citizen, a Guatemalan orphan raised in Los Angeles called Jose Gutierrez. Although a precise breakdown of ethnic numbers is not available, the Pentagon's list of dead and wounded has included dozens of Spanish names. At least 10 out of almost 300 dead have been non-citizens.
An ethnic group has never before been the target of such a recruitment drive.
In the Vietnam war, when the US military was still conscripting soldiers for compulsory service, the de facto characteristic of the men who did the fighting and dying was class. Poor people - whether black, white or Mexican - were much more likely to be drafted, and more likely to find themselves in the front lines.
Now the military operates what Mr Jahnkow calls a "poverty draft" - selling itself as an attractive career option or stepping stone to further education in communities that have few other options. In the poorer parts of the country, army recruiters talk to children as early as primary school. At a predominantly Latino high school in east Los Angeles, students became so exasperated by the presence of army recruiters at careers fairs that they began a campaign to get rid of them with the slogan "students not soldiers".
Such activities are apparently common even across the border. A recruiter in San Diego told an Army radio show: "It's more or less common practice that some recruiters go to Tijuana to distribute pamphlets, or in some cases they look for someone to help distribute the information on the Mexican side." A recruiter who visited a technical high school in Tijuana in May triggered a diplomatic incident after the headmaster threw him out and the Mexican government protested vehemently to Washington. The army subsequently sought to deny that this was standard practice.
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