One of the biggest faux pas committed by Senator John Kerry was his infamous "Stuck in Iraq" remark, in which he insinuated that those who were in college were those with opportunities, whereas those in the military were those who couldn't make it into college, and thus, had few opportunities in life. It's a stereotypical viewpoint which most Americans can trace back to the Vietnam War and the draft system (although some researchers refute the "only the poor died" claim). It even popped up during the 2008 Presidential Debate at Columbia University, when one participant brought up the stereotypical demographic makeup.
Regardless of whether or not it actually is true, enough people believed it. Remember the movie Stripes? Bill Murray wound up in the Army after he lost his job, his apartment, and his girlfriend in the span of an hour.
The Heritage Foundation published some statistics that were quoted by Sic Semper Tyrannis recently. I'll be the first to caveat this by noting that the research methodology is not foolproof, so judge the data for yourself.
Assuming the data is accurate, the study by the Heriatage Foundation lays many of the myths to rest and notes that the US military is not manned primarily by minorities and the poor, but rather is more representative of the US population (save for in a few areas) in terms of race, coming from more affluent homes, and with higher education levels than the general US population. Keep in mind that this data comes from 2006 and 2007, when recruiting was supposedly at its nadir. Some highlights:
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.
While 3.4 percent of neighborhoods nationwide have median earnings above $100,000, 9.5 percent of ROTC commissions and 21.1 percent of USMA graduates come from these high-income neighborhoods. Most of the men and women who risk their lives serving as U.S. military officers probably could have earned high salaries if they had chosen civilian careers.
Contrary to popular perceptions, America’s enlisted troops are not poorly educated. Previous Heritage Foundation studies found that enlisted troops were significantly more likely to have a high school education than their peers. This is still the case. Only 1.4 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 had not graduated from high school or completed a high school equivalency degree, compared to 20.8 percent of men ages 18 to 24. America’s soldiers are less likely than civilians to be high school dropouts.
More evidence of the quality of America’s enlisted forces comes from the standardized Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) that the military administers to all recruits. Over two-thirds of enlisted recruits scored above the 50th percentile on the AFQT. The military tightly restricts how many recruits it accepts with scores below the 30th percentile, and only 2.3 percent of recruits in 2007 scored between the 21st and 30th percentiles.
The education and intelligence levels are a big one, particularly for the types of wars we now face. Soldiers are now expected to employ sophisticated computer systems, learn basic Arabic or Pashtu, and engage in conflicts far more tricky than stopping the Soviet Red Horde.
Some surprising results (I'll save you the cut-and-paste): The Heritage study found that Hispanics were under-represented. That was one that I didn't expect. But then again, I worked in a Latin American task force, where we had more Spanish speakers, so maybe my perception is somewhat skewed.
Still, we hear much of how troop quality declined in the past few years, with evidence of more recruits with felonies being the most oft-cited statistic. This is one of those cases where I'd love to have the time and look at the evidence in detail, but unfortunately, all the evidence I have is anecdotal. As a commander, I did have one Soldier who was an outright felon, and he rightly got kicked out of the military--then again, virtually every commander has had to do that, so I wouldn't chalk that up as a harbinger of things to come just yet.
One thing that I do recall as somewhat disturbing was the fact that I had to sign a number of waivers for privates to drive HMMWVs, as a few of them were coming out of basic training with suspended or revoked licences.
The only big thing that I see in terms of recruit quality is the lowering of standards in basic training for physical fitness--recruits are only expected to get a certain score on their physical fitness tests (below the minimums) before being sent to their units. With Soldiers arriving to units either about to deploy or already deployed, there's very little time to actually conduct physical training with them. Of course, walking around in 120F heat always does good things for a weight loss program.
Then again, let's not be too harsh on them. All of these recruits actively joined a military engaged in two wars. While some of them may be a few pounds overweight, Generation Y Soldiers have shown a distinct knack for computer skills, and bring a high degree of inginuity to the fight. Most that I've seen come from backgrounds where they could have done something else besides be in the Army--they actively gave up their youth to be in the military.
For all the complaining one might do about declining weight standards, don't forget that these Soldiers are volunteering to serve their country in war again and again.
Focus: Okay, without this turning into a "these kids these days" session, what have you noticed in terms of Soldier quality? Decreased in some areas, improved in other areas?