Those (Poor?) Soldiers…

As a former recruiter for the Regular Army, I have some interest in the demographics of the service. I was one of the smartest guys I knew in high school. It was something of a rude shock to find just how dumb I was after entering the Army. Some folks were better educated. Some had poor education, but were as smart as a whip. Some just had tons of common sense, where I had little.

One of the themes of the Democratic National Convention has been to show their party’s support for the troops, but this has left something of a bitter taste in my mouth as they consistently portray soldiers as victims and as the disadvantaged, forced to serve in wartime by a shortage of other opportunities. That just ain’t so. There are several factors that keep it from being so, primarily that service is a  privilege, and not a right. The bottom third or so of the nation, intellectually, is automatically disqualified by law, for instance.

Now comes The Heritage Foundation with an in-depth look at just who is serving today.

Based on an understanding of the limitations of any objective definition of quality, this report com­pares military volunteers to the civilian population on four demographic characteristics: household income, education level, racial and ethnic back­ground, and regional origin. This report finds that:

  1. U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Her­itage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demon­strates that the same is true of the officer corps.
  2. Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 per­cent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) pro­gram, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods—a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.
  3. American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted per­sonnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18–24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree.
  4. Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of South­ern military tradition.

The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few other opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector. Those who argue that American soldiers risk their lives because they have no other opportunities belittle the personal sacrifices of those who serve out of love for their country.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing.

None of this is particularly surprising to me. As a recruiter, most of the folks I put in the Army came from lower middle class backgrounds. Why? Because the areas I was recruiting in were lower middle class. I did occasionally recruit from poor neighborhoods. I didn’t get a whole lot of folks from those areas, not because of any lack of desire to serve, but for other reasons. Many folks were products of a dysfunctional public education system. They were high school graduates or seniors, with decent grades who couldn’t generate a passing score on the ASVAB test. Others had brushes with the law that precluded them from serving, or had health problems. Asthma seemed to me, anectodally, to be more common in poor neighborhoods.

I often recruited in neighborhoods that were ethnically quite distinct from me. Some of the neighborhoods were virtually all African-American, while I am the quintessential WASP. I had fair success in these markets, not by adopting any affectations, but rather by just being myself. There was, however, a great deal of suspicion and misinformation among these communities that had to be overcome. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn’t. The best evidence I could provide was to bring the applicant and his or her family to my office. It didn’t take them long to notice that I was the junior guy in the office, and the four most senior folks were African-American.

Let me revisit the last line of the block-quote above. It references service to our country as one of the motivations for service. And it is. But the reasons why  people join are quite varied. We have previously discussed the motivations behind enlistment in this post. I would submit that report above shows some support for my arguments.