By Stephen J. Dubner
September 22, 2008
Three of the four candidates in the upcoming election have a son who
has either served in Iraq or soon will: Jimmy McCain, Beau Biden, and
Track Palin. (And the children of the fourth candidate, Barack Obama,
are a bit too young for military duty.)
Is this sheer happenstance?
I am guessing that when Obama was preparing to pick his running mate,
it was important to counter John McCain's military bona fides and
Joe Biden fit the bill at least in some small part because his son
Beau is a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard, soon to be
deployed to Iraq. When McCain chose his vice-presidential candidate,
Sarah Palin's chances certainly weren't hurt by having a son who's an
Army Pfc. about to be sent to Iraq.
If you randomly take any four American families, it would certainly
be anomalous if three of them had a son in Iraq. (The U.S. military
currently has about two million people in uniform.) But isn't it even
more anomalous that three of four families like these i.e.,
families of considerable means have sons in Iraq? Isn't the modern
military full of men and women from low-income backgrounds, with a
far higher minority representation than in the general population,
who join up only because they have no other viable career possibilities?
That is certainly a piece of conventional wisdom that I have heard
voiced; which is why a new report titled "Who Serves in the U.S.
Military? The Demographics of Enlisted Troops and Officers"
is so surprising. It was compiled by Shanea J. Watkins and James
Sherk at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. I
suspect that the Heritage Foundation's imprimatur will raise
skepticism among some readers, and I have several qualms myself with
what is said and not said in the report, but the facts are very compelling.
The report measures the demographics of military personnel against
the general U.S. population in four areas: household income,
education level, racial and ethnic background, and regional origin.
Here is the most surprising picture in the report:
[See chart at URL]
So 50 percent of the enlisted recruits (i.e., not including the
officers' corps) come from families in the top 40 percent of the
income distribution, while only 10 percent come from the bottom 20
percent. It is worth noting that the income information here is not
perfect: the data do not include actual family income for each
recruit, but rather use the median household income of the recruit's
home census tract. But still, one look at that graph tells you that
the conventional image of a military full of poor kids doesn't
reflect the reality.
"These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officers'
Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) program," reads the report, "in which 40
percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods a
number that has increased substantially over the past four years"
(i.e., since the September 11 attacks).
Here are some of the report's other claims:
1. "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 to 24 years old [in the general population]."
2. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not
overrepresented in the military service."
3. "The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers
volunteer because society offers them few opportunities. The average
enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career
opportunities in the private sector."
Point No. 1, while technically true, is also misleading. As the
report states elsewhere, "The military requires at least 90 percent
of enlisted recruits to have high-school diplomas" (not counting
GED's) and, furthermore, the Army itself requires a high-school
diploma or equivalent, with a 2.5 G.P.A.
So high-school dropouts are, for the most part, not getting into the
military. In fact, if you consider "low education" a proxy for "low
income," that would seem to explain most of the high-income effect we
see in the graph above. This doesn't make the graph any less true; it
just makes the report's language needlessly boastful.
Point No. 2 is particularly interesting, especially as you dig
further into the report's data. Whites and blacks make up almost
exactly the same percent of the enlisted personnel as they do in the
The recruit-to-population ratio for whites is 1.06, and for blacks it
is 1.08. Hispanics, meanwhile, are significantly underrepresented
among enlisted personnel, with a recruit-to-population ratio of just
0.65. (It should also be said that this entire report groups together
personnel from all four service branches, which means that the
aggregate numbers do not necessarily represent any one of the
It's also interesting to note that blacks are overrepresented in
R.O.T.C. commissions, with a 1.21 officer-to-population ratio,
compared to 1.02 for whites. United States Military Academy
graduates, however, are a different story entirely. Just over 80
percent of West Point graduates are white (a 1.12
officer-to-population ratio), while only 5.5 percent are black (a 0.5
ratio). Also, nearly 18 percent of West Point cadets come from a
family with a household income of more than $100,000. Granted, West
Point is an elite institution and is bound to attract elites.
There's a further important point that can't be found in this report
but can be found in another one, which compiles race-specific U.S.
military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of March 1, 2008,
there were 2,964 white fatalities in Iraq, representing 74.8 percent
of the total; in the general population, meanwhile, whites in that
age cohort make up about 62 percent of the population, so whites are
overrepresented among Iraqi fatalities. Blacks and Hispanics,
meanwhile, are both underrepresented; the same is true in Afghanistan.
Point No. 3 is almost an ideological argument rather than a factual
one. But still, this much is clear: when discussing the U.S. military
in the aggregate, the common notion that the military is a stop of
last resort, increasingly staffed by low-income desperadoes with slim
future prospects, cannot be right.
If the report has one significant ideological point to make, it's
that military participation has a huge patriotic/service component
that is commonly overlooked, especially in portions of the country
where military representation is far below average. (In the
Northeast, for instance, the recruit-to-population ratio is just
0.73, compared to 1.19 in the South.)
We obviously haven't heard the last word on patriotism or service in
the current campaign. And many of the words to come will certainly be
loaded. If nothing else, here's hoping that people no matter which
side they're arguing will take a look at some of the numbers in
this report before leaping to conclusions.
[Note: I recently discussed this topic on The Takeaway.]
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