Uncle Sam Wants Who?

The real reasons people join the military.

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.

Reasons for joining

People join the military for all sorts of reasons. Some people sign up because -- reared on old World War II movies, or maybe just on first-person shooter video games -- they want to "go to war." (It's an unrealistic aspiration for many military personnel: Even in the post-9/11 era, many military personnel never deploy, and even fewer see combat.) Others dislike the idea of going to war, but believe that a strong military will prevent war by deterring potential adversaries and want to be part of such a deterrent force. Others still join up for reasons that don't really have much to do with the nature of the military: They're attracted by the military's educational benefits and free heath care, they're looking for opportunities to travel and learn, or they simply view the military as a stable job with benefits during economic hard times.

A 2011 Pew survey asked post-9/11 military veterans to list the most important factors that had motivated them to join the military. Nearly 90 percent listed serving the country as an important reason for joining, and 77 percent listed educational benefits as important. Upwards of 60 percent said they wanted to "see more of the world," and 57 percent said that learning skills for civilian jobs was an important factor. In contrast, only 27 percent said that difficulty finding a civilian job had been an important factor in the decision to join the military.

After the military: Veterans

That said, the military remains an important source of upward mobility for many Americans, and particularly for women and minorities. Contrary to much popular mythology about dysfunctional vets, most veterans do pretty well economically -- better than comparable non-veterans. Overall, veterans are less likely than non-veterans to be unemployed, less likely than non-veterans to live below the poverty line, and veterans have higher median incomes than non-veterans.

This doesn't mean that specific subsets of the veteran population don't struggle. Veterans are over-represented among the homeless, for instance, and post-9/11 veterans have above-average unemployment rates -- though this may simply reflect transition issues. Transition issues are, unfortunately, common: 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans say the transition to civilian life was difficult for them.

Overall, however, post-9/11 veterans are a surprisingly contented group. Across the board, Pew found: "Veterans who served on active duty in the post-9/11 era are proud of their service (96%), and most (74%) say their military experience has helped them get ahead in life. The vast majority say their time in the military has helped them mature (93%), taught them how to work with others (90%) and helped to build self-confidence (90%). More than eight-in-ten (82%) say they would advise a young person close to them to join the military."


Most people consider the military a politically conservative institution. But although a majority of surveyed military personnel self-identify as "conservative" in the much-cited Military Times poll, the reality is more complex. As I wrote in a previous column:

[M]ost polls that purport to show "military opinions" suffer from various flaws. The Military Times poll, for instance, relies on voluntary responses to surveys sent by email to subscribers -- and, as the editors note, a disproportionate number of the respondents are white, male, and older than average. What's more, many polls fail to differentiate between career military personnel and short-timers, or between officers and enlisted personnel.

[P]erhaps the best recent study of military attitudes come from Jason Dempsey, an Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of West Point's social science faculty.... Overall, he found that social and political attitudes of Army personnel track fairly closely with the views of the civilian population. On certain issues, Army personnel are in fact decidedly more liberal the general population: in 2004 (the most recent year for which there is hard data), for instance, civilians were substantially more likely than Army personnel to oppose abortion under all circumstances, and large majorities of Army personnel supported increasing domestic government spending on education, health care, Social Security, and environmental protection....

Dempsey's most interesting finding, perhaps, is that self-selected political labels are extremely poor predictors of actual views on social, political and economic issues. On the whole, officers' views on specific issues ranging from abortion to government spending on social programs tended to be moderate to liberal, while the views of enlisted soldiers tended to skew liberal....

The perception that "the military is right wing" probably stems from studies that focus on senior officers. Although senior officers make up only about 6 percent of the Army, they are substantially more conservative (and more Republican) than junior officers, and dramatically more conservative than enlisted personnel, whose views tend to more closely track those of the general population.

Tellingly, post-9/11 veterans have only slightly more positive views of recent wars than the general population. In a 2011 survey, only 28 percent of civilians and only 34 percent of veterans said that both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq had been worth it. Asked whether "relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism," the attitudes of post-9/11 veterans and the public were virtually identical, with, respectively, 51 percent and 52 percent agreeing.


Many assume that military personnel are drawn disproportionately from stereotypically "red" states. I've written about this before as well, and it's true that the "red" South, the Southwest, and the mountain states are over-represented within the military, while the "blue" Northeastern states are under-represented, relative to their overall populations. In and of itself, this helps account for why the military might skew conservative. But as with other assumptions about the military and politics, there's a far more complicated picture lying beneath these broad-brush statements. To some extent, the demographics of military recruitment tell a story that's less about ideology than about economics, geography, and population density -- and the natural tendency of people to gravitate towards the familiar and away from the unfamiliar.

Consider this: The state of California, which is hardly known for its homogenous population or its right-wing politics, hosts the single largest concentration of active-duty military personnel in the nation. Meanwhile, the dark-blue state of Maine, which ranks 41st in population size, sends a higher percentage of its young people into the military than any other state. A simple red state/blue state model doesn't account for this.

The demographic makeup of today's military is probably best understood as a product of two somewhat related phenomena: population density and the location of large military installations, which create, in effect, self-replicating military clusters. Members of the military are disproportionately likely to come from non-urban areas, and if we break out recruitment by state, states with high population densities have, on average, lower per capita military recruitment than states with low population densities. (In 2010, the 10 most densely populated states produced 1.8 recruits per thousand 18-24 year olds, while the 10 least densely populated states produced 2.4 recruits per thousand.) To some degree, this is a story of economic and cultural opportunity: An 18-year-old from sparsely populated Maine or Wyoming just doesn't have as many options for employment or seeing the world as an 18-year-old from more densely populated regions.

That's not the only factor, of course. New military recruits are also likely to come from areas that already have large military populations, and for this reason, decisions about where to locate large military installations are a major driver of military demographics.

For complex historical reasons -- including the post-Civil War occupation of the American South by federal troops and the Mexican and Indian Wars of the 19th century -- the South and Southwest have long hosted a disproportionate share of America's major military bases. This pattern has been exacerbated by base closure and realignment policies, which in recent decades have consolidated military bases into a relatively small number of states. Of the roughly 1.2 million active-duty servicemembers stationed in the United States, almost half are stationed in only five states: California, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.

To a significant extent, base location decisions create self-fulfilling prophesies: Young people's career choices are profoundly influenced by the career choices of the adults around them, so it's not surprising that those who grow up in communities with high military populations end up joining the military in higher numbers than those who grow up far from large military bases, just as the children of military personnel are themselves more likely to join the military. (This is equally true for most professions: A disproportionate number of lawyers are the children of lawyers, for instance.)

When it comes to the military, the tendency for people to follow career paths familiar to them as a result of their communities is apparent. Look at the list of the 100 U.S. counties that produce the highest number of military recruits each year; to a great extent, it's a list of the locations of the largest military installations. We find, for instance, Cumberland County, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg; El Paso County, Texas, home to Fort Bliss; San Diego County, California, home to Naval Base Coronado and Naval Base San Diego; Montgomery County, Ohio, home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; Bell County, Texas, home to Fort Hood; El Paso County, Colorado, home to Fort Carson; Pierce County, Washington, home to Fort Lewis; Muscogee County, Georgia, home to Fort Benning, and so on.

You want a more geographically diverse military (and a military that would arguably become more ideologically diverse as a result)? There's a simple solution: Redistribute military installations with an eye to equalizing recruitment across the nation's major geographic regions. Want more liberals in the military? Put some more bases in Massachusetts, sit back, and let nature take its course.

Of course, it would be awfully expensive to move bases around to ensure a military population that's completely representative of the overall population. If you really want more liberals in the military, for instance, you'll want bases in the nation's major urban areas, which, regardless of state, tend to be more liberal than rural areas. But just try finding thousands of square miles of unoccupied land to train in the Boston metro area! To some degree, low regional population density correlates with the presence of large military bases: With the exception of some older bases, military installations tend to be located where land is plentiful and cheap.

But it's a useful thought experiment to imagine what the military would look like with a radically different base location pattern. It's common to hear people insist that only a draft would give us a truly representative military, but that's probably not so. The military pours money into ensuring a steady stream of high-caliber minority recruits for a simple reason: As a society, we've decided it's important to have a military that's as ethnically and racially diverse as the overall population -- and, by and large, we've succeeded in making the military a diverse and hospitable place for people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. If we're worried about urban-rural divides or ideological divides, tinkering with base location decisions is an obvious way to make the military more geographically and ideologically representative of American society.

Sure, it would cost money, just like many other important but difficult things -- but if Congress made it a priority, it could be done.

In many ways -- despite the end of the draft and the advent of the all-volunteer army -- the U.S. military remains extraordinarily diverse. As an institution, it has unique strengths, and some unique weaknesses, and it's far from homogeneous: The services vary substantially in their cultures, and the military experiences of different sub-groups (minorities, women, officers, etc.) can differ very significantly from the experiences of those in other sub-groups.

But most fundamentally, the U.S. military is a product of our culture and our collective decisions: Whatever it is, it's what we have made it.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Porch/DVIDS

National Security

Heroes, Villains, and Victims

Three myths about the military.

Americans don't know much about the military.

That's not surprising. In the era of the all-volunteer military, those who serve in the armed forces make up only a tiny fraction of the overall population (roughly one-half of one percent). There are far more veterans than active duty servicemembers, but veterans still make up only about 13 percent of the total population, and their numbers are shrinking as those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam grow older. The majority of living veterans served in wars that most Americans now consider part of our history, not part of our present: While Americans over 60 account for less than 20 percent of the general population, roughly half the U.S. veteran population is over 60.

Little wonder, then, that the average American knows little about the military and even less about those who serve.

This doesn't stop most of us from forming strong opinions, of course. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any concrete knowledge, many Americans -- and certainly many in the media -- fall back on comfortable but dangerously distorted myths about those who serve. Lacking examples of human complexity, we turn servicemembers into stock characters in well-worn narratives: the Hero, the Villain, the Victim.

Each stereotype draws on kernels of truth, but each is far more distorting than illuminating. Together, they make it remarkably difficult to have a nuanced or clear-headed national conversation about our military and its role in society.


The Hero

You know this one: It's a favorite trope of the political center and right, and since 9/11 it's become part of our official national narrative. Those who serve are "brave warriors who are risking their lives on behalf of the American people." A "grateful nation" is "inspired by [their] sacrifice." Those killed in America's wars are "heroes, each and every one," says President Obama.

The key terms in this narrative are "courage," "sacrifice," "selflessness," and "heroism" -- the characteristics said to inhere in every member of the armed forces -- along with "gratitude," the emotion the rest of us are officially dedicated to feeling. These terms are reshuffled endlessly in speech after speech, each apparently compiled by functionaries issued with the same short thesaurus. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminds us that "the peace and the liberty we enjoy each and every day were made possible by the devotion and sacrifice of a long line of brave men and women in uniform." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explains, "Our brave men and women in uniform continue to protect the freedoms declared by our founding fathers more than two centuries ago."

These have long been staple sentiments of Memorial Day and Veterans Day speeches, but since 9/11 they've also become standard rhetorical fare in virtually every corner of mainstream American culture. The American Red Cross urges Americans to send "holiday mail for heroes." Veterans' groups urge employers to participate in "hire a hero" job fairs, and injured servicemembers are referred to as "wounded warriors," regardless of whether their MOS involved combat operations or service in a marching band.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic displays of public gratitude have become de rigeur, from saccharine renditions of "thank you for your service" to the peculiar insistence of major airlines that "uniformed military personnel" must be permitted to board planes first, before the elderly, the disabled, and parents with infants and young children. (It's a practice that embarrasses many in the military, and enrages those who find it the apotheosis of mindless veneration of the military above all else. "Once upon a time, the strong and fit were supposed to defer to the weak," a retired civilian diplomat raged to me recently. "Remember ‘women and children first'? I'm surprised the airlines haven't asked those traveling with small children to carry the uniformed military personnel onto the plane." My diplomat friend wondered bitterly why airlines don't invite State Department officials to board early. But in a world in which every member of the military is, by definition, a self-sacrificing hero, other forms of service pale in comparison.)

The Villain

On the political left, there's far more skepticism about the "every man and woman in uniform is a hero" narrative. Many on the left fall back on an opposing stereotype: the soldier as villain. (In popular mythology, everyone in the military is a grunt; airmen and sailors are too complicated to fit into the picture.) In this narrative, those in the military aren't heroes at all -- instead, they're enthusiastic purveyors of brutality on behalf of a hegemonic hyper-power. They join the military not out of duty or selfless patriotism, but for the sheer sadistic fun of it: the desire to dominate "ragheads," urinate on the Quran, and engage in socially sanctioned acts of brutality. "Nobody has yet proven that abusive men ... seek out the military -- attracted by its violent culture -- but several scholars suspect that this is so," Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict suggests darkly.

Like the "soldier as hero" stereotype, the stereotype of the soldier as brutal killer has a long pedigree. In the United States, it reached its apotheosis during the Vietnam War, a conflict that came to be typified, in the popular imagination, by images of napalm and My Lai. It's gone underground to some extent -- displaced by the post-9/11 lionization of the military -- but it remains persistent in certain quarters on the left, fed by the intermittent scandals and crimes that have accompanied America's long war on terror.

Abu Ghraib reinvigorated this stereotype with images of naked Iraqis shivering with cold and fear before sneering young American soldiers. More recently, it's been fed by the murderous rampage of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who killed 16 Afghan villagers, and the 2010 revelations that some members of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade killed Afghan civilians "for sport."

Even the recent military sexual abuse scandal has fed into this stereotype about military personnel. Amu Baghwati, executive director of the Servicewoman's Action Center, describes the military as "a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography." Another critic links "the rise of a culture of extreme sexual abuse in the military" to the "brainwashing of American soldiers to become brutal killers." In this vision of the American military, there's nothing resembling heroism or sacrifice; instead, there's endless suspicion and boundless brutality.


The Victim

Others reject both the "soldier as hero" narrative and the "soldier as villain" narrative, preferring what may look like a tempting middle ground. In this final stereotype, individual servicemembers are viewed as ignorant pawns, duped into military service to their own eternal detriment.

This narrative also has deep roots. It's the narrative of the conscript army, in which recruits are hapless cannon fodder, killing and dying for someone else's greed. And as with the "soldier as hero" and "soldier as villain" myths, proponents of this narrative can find some evidence on which to draw. In the Vietnam era, the sons of the poor and the working class found themselves in humid, lethal jungles, drafted, while their middle- and upper-class peers received college deferments. Today, there's no longer a draft, but scholars still warn of an ongoing "poverty draft," and many Americans continue to believe that the military is made up disproportionately of the poor and uneducated (despite evidence to the contrary).

In this version of the story, military personnel may oppress others, but they do so because they've been involuntarily brutalized, tricked, or brainwashed themselves. War "dehumanizes soldiers," writes Henry Giroux in the Monthly Review. "It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness, and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand." Once "desensitized," soldiers may engage in "mind-numbing violence, war crimes, and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians," but "collateral damage has also come home with a vengeance as soldiers returning from combat are killing themselves at record rates and committing mayhem -- particularly sexual violence and spousal and child abuse."

It's a grim portrait of victimization and dysfunction. In this narrative, the young, the poor, and the ignorant join the military because they have no other options; after a brutalizing training period, they're shipped off to serve as unwitting agents of oppression. Then, conscience-stricken and tormented, they develop post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse comrades and families, become suicide-prone, and end up vulnerable to substance abuse, homelessness, and unemployment.


The Elusive Truth

Military personnel aren't all heroes: The military contains many men and women who demonstrate extraordinary courage and selflessness, but like any organization made up of human beings, it also contains its fair share of bureaucrats, jerks, slackers, and criminals. Military personnel aren't all villains, either: Some members of the military have committed terrible crimes, and some of these crimes have been enabled by those high up the chain of command, but most military personnel conduct themselves with decency and common sense, and many in the military have spoken out against brutality and corruption -- some risking their lives and careers to protect Iraqi and Afghan civilians or speak out against other forms of internal corruption and abuse. Finally, members of the military aren't all victims: While some join the military out of economic desperation or end up struggling with PTSD and substance abuse, the military is a far more diverse cross-section of the general population than most Americans assume, and on the whole, post-9/11veterans report extremely positive military experiences.

In the coming weeks, I'll highlight some of the extraordinary diversity and complexity of today's military population -- and discuss some concrete ways in which misleading stereotypes about those who serve distort public debates about the military and its role.

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Stephanie Carroll/DVIDS