Last week, I wrote about common stereotypes of military personnel: Much of the time, the media and the general public seem to assume that those in the military are either heroes, villains, or victims. In the first narrative, servicemembers are courageous, selfless patriots to whom the rest of society owes eternal gratitude. In the second narrative, military personnel are rigid, brutal, imperialist thugs. In the third, those who join the military are hapless pawns, forced by economic hardship to fight the wars the rest of us wisely avoid, and condemned to a post-military life of substance abuse and PTSD.
The reality is far more complex than any of these distorting stereotypes. What follows is a quick snapshot of the U.S. military community.
The Basics: Age, Race, Gender, and Marital Status
Start with the basics, courtesy of DOD's most recent annual report on military demographics: There were roughly 1.4 million active-duty military personnel in 2011, along with about 1 million reservists. The Army is the largest service (with more than 560,000 active-duty personnel, it's almost as large as the Navy and Air Force put together), and the Marine Corps is the smallest DOD service, with just over 200,000 active-duty personnel. More than 14 percent of active-duty personnel are women, and 30 percent self-identify as members of minority populations.
Today's military is relative mature: The average age of active-duty personnel is 28.6 years. More than half of active-duty personnel are married, and 39 percent are married with children. (In contrast, only 48 percent of all U.S. households are made up of married couples, and only a fifth of U.S. households are married couples with children.) Altogether, there are roughly 3 million military dependents (mostly spouses and children). Roughly 30 percent of military personnel and their families live in military housing.
Today's military personnel are more likely than comparable age groups in the civilian population to have graduated from high school (after all, with rare exceptions, military recruits must have high school degrees or GEDs). Military officers, meanwhile, are substantially better educated than civilians: Only 30 percent of the overall population over age 25 have bachelor's degrees, compared to 82.5 percent of officers.
Commentators often complain that "elites" (however you choose to define them) are underrepresented within the military. In 2010, for instance, only about 1 percent of students commissioned through ROTC came from Ivy League schools. But since the eight Ivy League schools confer less than 1 percent of all bachelor's degrees granted in the United States, this isn't particularly telling.
Today's military is distinctly middle class. In part, this is because military requirements render many of the nation's poorest young people ineligible: The poorest Americans are the least likely to finish high school or gain a GED, for instance, and poverty also correlates with ill health, obesity, and the likelihood of serious run-ins with the criminal justice system, all of which are disqualifying factors for the military.
Individualized data on the economic backgrounds of military personnel aren't available, but several studies have looked at the income levels in the zip codes new military recruits give with their home addresses. A 2008 Heritage study found that a quarter of new recruits came from neighborhoods in the highest income quintile, with only 10 percent coming from neighborhoods in the lowest quintile. A 2010 study by the National Priorities Project examined slightly different data and found a less top-heavy distribution, but that the largest share of recruits came from the middle income quintile nonetheless, with numbers in the top and bottom quintiles roughly even.