Military / Politics · January 3, 2006

The problem with Military Enlistments

“If they have no jobs, then let them enlist!”

This statement (based upon the popular misconception that Marie Antoinette once said, “Let them eat cake”) signifies in a nutshell a prevalent, and erroneous, belief held by Liberals and Progressives that the American all-volunteer military is comprised of a disproportionate amount of minorities and underprivileged. This belief is not based in fact.

However, the current Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. Military is doing his best to vindicate this belief, proving that Bush is willing to go that extra mile for his (increasingly) liberal-leaning constituents.

The common liberal belief that the Military is made up of America’s underprivileged seems to have started with, or was reinforced by a 1988 report by the Democratic Leadership Council. This report stated:

“The military has become for many low-income Americans, and particularly minorities, an employer of last resort. That is not, in itself, objectionable: throughout our history military service has always been an honorable path to self-advancement. Yet no matter how well we pay them, we cannot ask the poor and underprivileged alone to defend us while our more fortunate sons and daughters take a free ride, forging ahead with their education and careers.”

This belief is disputed by the Department of Defense and by the conservatively backed group, “Accuracy in Media.” At the beginning of 2003, media at the Pentagon were briefed that:

… also refuted the oft-held notion that military recruits come from the “poor and uneducated” in American society. He said military recruits come from among the best-educated and most-intelligent segments in society. The vast majority of recruits are high school graduates. By the time they complete their first term of enlistment, many have at least some college.

“We demand a higher level of educational aptitude achievement for most of our recruits than is true of the population at large,” the official said. “So we are aiming to get an above-average population in terms of enlisted recruits.”

The information paper that was distributed states 90 percent of new military recruits have graduated high school, while only 75 percent of the general population has.

This jibes with my own experience in the Air Force. My recruiter loved the fact that I had some college before I joined – and he loved my ASVAB scores too. I had met a couple of recruits that were not allowed to join due to poor ASVAB scores.

But the groups I cited have conservative political agendas. What about more liberal sources? Well, the New York Times seems to agree but they may have been reporting from the same meeting. Tompaine.com does a pretty good job of reducing the spin; in late 2004 they also agreed that the military population seems to follow middle class America.

Lastly, I checked the numbers of American Military dead in Iraq. When I compared U.S. Deaths by Ethnicity against the U.S. Census, the percentages were very close. Of course, I’m not a statistician, so my findings are not in any way ‘official’. But this sort of back-of-the-envelope check did seem to confirm what everyone is saying. The U.S. Military comes from America’s middle class.

Perhaps the roots of this misconception can be found in the ethnicity of the Military. The military is thoroughly integrated. When I was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force it was clear to me that the military was (and still is) colorblind. The only thing that mattered was ability – if you had ability, you were promoted ahead of your peers, no matter your skin color. The belief of disproportionate representation may stem from this – Whites from predominantly White districts that enlisted into the military would frequently face, for the first time, Blacks (and other skin colors) who were in a position of authority over them. I think this lead to some stories being told ‘back home’ about the racial and class make up of the military.

So, the Right is right and the left is wrong in saying that minorities and underprivileged are disproportionately represented in the U.S. Military. It is important that Progressives not misrepresent the facts, especially when the truth is just as damning to the Right.

The truth is that the current conflict in Iraq, and current GOP policies are only now starting to change the composition of the military.

The Army is hurting for new recruits. Although the Army has met its retention goals for existing personnel, it is falling short of its target for new members.

October is the end of the fiscal year for the military. In October of 2005, Tom Bowman of the Baltimore Sun reported that according to Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, the U.S. Army relaxed test score requirements on the ASVAB test, which more than doubled the number of low scoring recruits accepted into the Army. Even with this, the Army was 7,000 short of its goal to recruit 80,000 troops in 2005. By November of 2005, 12 percent of new Army recruits scored between 16 and 30 points out of a possible 99 points on the ASVAB test, according to Former Army Secretary Thomas E. White. (Baltimore Sun – through Lexis: http://www.lexis.com/)

Why is Army recruitment suffering? The Army has been aggressively recruiting in high schools around America and has been fairly sly about what they tell the parents of the students that they recruit. They are also offering larger bonuses and benefits for new enlistees. Still students are saying ‘No’ in greater numbers.

The reason why they are saying ‘No’ is not just because of the Iraq War. It’s not because young people think the war is a lie, based on faulty intelligence, or because there is really no connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Young people are saying ‘No’ to military service because people that they trust are telling them NOT to join. These people are their friends and relatives who also happen to be Veterans. These Veterans don’t like how the Active Duty military is being treated in Iraq. They don’t like the way the current military leadership is acting.

From Raymond Perry at Military.com:

Declining Army enlistment rates today are a reflection of the lack of confidence that our young people have in service leadership (see SFTT Special Report by Nathaniel R. Helms, “Army Woes: Apathy, Hostility and a Healthy Economy,” DefenseWatch, Apr. 1, 2005). The Army has staked a lot of its reputation on using expanded veterans benefits for future educational opportunities to entice new recruits. But when the clear possibility of not cashing in on that offer is coupled with a loss of confidence in leaders, the Army now finds itself in serious trouble. Even the Marine Corps is beginning to see similar problems.

Rep. John Murtha’s recent speech calling for withdrawal from Iraq reflects the opinion of many of the Military’s top brass. Rep. Murtha said that the Army is expecting to lower its standards to allow 20% of all new recruits to be comprised of the lowest category of academic standards. The cuts in Defense budgets and rising health care costs (for wounded military members) have resulted in reduced health care and shortages of necessary equipment.

Army Times is reporting that the U.S. Air Force is being tapped to assume traditional Army roles in order to support the undermanned Army. Speaking as an Air Force Veteran, I can say that will have a definite impact on enlistment and retention of Air Force members! No one joins the Air Force in order to be a truck driver or prison guard!

All of this is combined with an increase of attacks on the U. S. military in Iraq over the last 12 months. It’s no wonder that Veterans are warning potential enlistees against joining.

Groups are forming to encourage students to ‘opt out’ of military recruitment in High Schools. Veterans have had a hand in these groups too. Young people are starting to realize that when they sign the DD Form 4/1; all their recruiter’s promises go out the window. They’re realizing that they can get killed for a war that trusted Veterans, people who are their friends or trusted family members, don’t believe in.

And young people see trends in Active Duty military. Traditionally conservative, Active Duty members usually back their commander in chief with few reservations, especially if he’s a conservative Republican – like Reagan or Bush senior. But this is changing. Support for Bush by military members is dropping, along with a drop in optimism for the war in Iraq.

Not only are Veterans telling young people to not join, Iraq veterans are entering congressional races across the country as Democrats, directly in opposition to the GOP. Young people are taking notice of this too!

So the Right was right – the U.S. Military is not made up of the underprivileged. Or at least it wasn’t. But that is obviously changing now. Aggressive recruiting in high schools is now targeted at those students whose families have not prepared them for recruiter tactics. Sign on bonuses, guaranteed college, and promises of adventure are being made not only to the cream of the crop in high schools, but to the bottom of the barrel.

It will be interesting to see what our military looks like in 10 years.