Who is in the U.S. Military?
The enlisted ranks of the military have consistently been drawn from the “middle 50%” of people academically, predominantly male high school graduates, who are disproportionately Southern and/or rural. Very few enlisted soldiers ever go on to become officers. To crassly oversimply, this war is being fought mostly by men who are middle income rednecks and working to middle class blacks and Hispanics.
There are about 3,152,000 high school graduates each year.
About 85% of all active duty military troops are men. This Navy and Army are both close to this average, in the Marines 94% are men, in the Air Force about 80% are men. I use the 85% percentage below, although is somewhat overstates the number of enlisted women, while understating the number of women who are officers. In the Army, for example, 16.6% of officers are women, while 14.6% are enlisted; I don't know the percentages in the other services, but expect that they are similar. The officer rank boosts has a lot to do with medical and legal professionals who become military officers after obtaining their professional credentials.
About 103,000 men join the enlisted ranks of the military each year (based on double the number of E-1 ranked active duty military people, typically a 6 months stint time 85%). There are about 1,056,000 male high school graduates who aren’t in the top third of their graduating class each year (about a quarter of the cohort doesn't graduate, so the middle 50% is really the bottom two-thirds of high school graduates). Thus, the military successfully recruits about 10% of this demographic. It gets a much larger percentage of this demographic in the South (which has relatively low numbers of Asians and Hispanics, and relatively high numbers of blacks, compared to the national averages), around 20%, and a lower percentage elsewhere. Soldiers are also disproportionately rural in their origins.
Military recruitment, in other words, thrives in politically conservative areas, while it is relatively anemic in politically liberal areas. The officer's corp is overwhelmingly conservative with some estimates putting the percentage of commissioned officers who are Republicans at 90%. Enlisted soldiers are more politically balanced than the officers, but are still probably a little more conservative than the general public on most issues.
There are about 19,000 women who join the enlisted ranks each year, about 1.2% of female high school graduates. There is good reason, given the relatively recent history of women in military service and the much smaller percentage of female high school graduates who enlist, to believe that they may not be typical demographically of male enlistees, so bracketing them into the bottom two-thirds of the class may or may not be appropriate.
Declining African-American recruitment during the Iraq War has been significantly influenced by opposition to the war and active community efforts to discourage enlistment. Historically, African-Americans have been overrepresented in support specialties relative to their total numbers in the force, and have done so to further post-service careers, while whites have been overrepresentated relative to their total numbers in the force, in combat specialties.
These trends are consistent with the fact that recruiting pressure has been greatest during the Iraq War not in combat specialties, but in support specialties. People who signed up to shoot rifles aren’t discouraged by knowing that they may actually end up doing so. People who signed up to learn to be electricians and mechanics are more likely to be discouraged by the prospect of combat encounters in a war with no front lines.
Very low quotas on high school dropouts and poor performers on standardized tests were instituted after Vietnam, although these limits are being relaxed during the current war. These very low performers are usually not even allowed to choose military occupational specialties such as “Infantry” instead being shunted into becoming cooks and truck drivers. This keeps out about a quarter of people in the pertinent age group.
Those in the top quarter academically overwhelmingly choose college over military service. Even those who do choose military service, generally do so by becoming officers, mostly via ROTC, which helps pay their way through college. About 17,655 newly minted commissioned officers (grade O-1) join the military each year (two-thirds of the total number of people in that rank which the average person spends 18 months in). About 1.4 million people graduate from college with a four year degree each year. So, about 1.2% of college graduates have either done ROTC or attended a service academy, and among men this is close to 3% (men are less likely than women to graduate from college), while about 0.3% of female college gradates go onto military service as commissioned officers. This also has a strong regional bias.
Put another way, the future upper middle class is only about 11% as likely to serve in the military, as the future working and middle class. And, a good share of the future upper middle class that does enlist is made up of people with less affluent origins who are using the military as a tool for social advancement and a means of financing college, as are a signficiant minority of enlisted soldiers.
I agree that the socio-economic status and median income methodology used by the Heritage Foundation in a recent study discussed at Creative Destruction, while suggestive for further study, is ultimately worthless. Its suggestive findings, however, are consistent with the general conclusion that the military recruits largely from the middle 50% of the population. Its figure indicate “underrepresentation for both the high and low ends of the income distribution.”
This doesn't undermine the thrust of the claim that this is a war being fought by the poor for the economic benefit of the rich (although it doesn’t prove that either), although it does refine it.
The rich, comprised really of an “upper middle class” of college educated managers and professionals, and a monied class made up of wealthy individuals (people who make more money from investments than from labor) are both drastically underrepresented in the military, and have received the lion’s share of the rewards of the economic growth seen in the U.S. since the 1970s. The rest make up a mix of the poor, the working class, and the true middle class. The national median income is not where the real faultlines of the American class system are located.
While the poor and the rich, by and large, hasn’t been fighting this war, the working class and true middle class have been fighting it, and paying in blood, and any economic benefit from this war will likely accrue to the benefit of the upper middle class and the rich.