"The typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen is," claimed the authors of an oft-cited 2005 "comprehensive study" of the U.S. military commissioned by the Heritage Foundation.
Two years later, right-wingers trot out the Heritage troop survey as evidence that America is sending its best and brightest, rather than its down and out, to win Afghan and Iraqi hearts and minds. The GOP blog Newsbusters used it to rebut Rosie O'Donnell's statement that most recruits enlist in the army to get an education: "Of course, facts don't matter to Rosie O'Donnell." But are these "facts" true?
The key word here is "volunteers," which here means "new recruits." A new CBO study released this July states: "Because black personnel have been a larger share of recruits in the past and because they have relatively high retention rates, however, they account for a larger share of the active enlisted force as a whole: 19 percent, compared with 14 percent of the civilian population of 17- to 49- year-olds. Black service members make up a smaller percentage of the active officer corps: 9 percent."
You're more than 35 percent more likely to be in the military if you're black than if you're white. But you're 35 percent less likely to become an officer. Ignore the propaganda--the military is a reflection of, rather than a cure for, racism.
With Afghanistan joining Iraq as a war considered an unwinnable mistake in the minds of the public, military recruiters are being forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
In 2005 the Army promoted 97 percent of all eligible captains to major, an increase from the prewar norm of 70-to-80 percent. A Department official told The Los Angeles Times: "Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major."
It may be too much to assert that, as Asia Times did recently, that "U.S. ground forces are increasingly made up of a motley mix of under-age teens, old-timers, foreign fighters, gang-bangers, neo-Nazis, ex-cons, inferior officers and a host of near-mercenary troops, lured in or kept in uniform through big payouts and promises." Or is it?
"Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces, and commanders don't remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members," Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator told the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Citing the "toughest recruiting climate ever faced by the all-volunteer army," Major General Michael Rochelle, head of army recruitment promises: "If you have excessively prominent and vulgar tattoos they will not take you right now, but that is about to change."
"824 felons were allowed to sign up in 2004 as opposed to 1,605 in 2006 under the moral waivers scheme," reports the UK Guardian. "Almost 59,000 drug abusers entered the military in the same period."
There are, of course, intelligent, well-educated children of wealthy parents serving in the military. But they are the exception, not the rule. If Afghanistan and Iraq are, as the Bush Administration argues, central fronts in the war on terror, which is a war for hearts and minds, we ought to be sending our best-prepared, most presentable representatives of American society abroad as personal ambassadors. Our decision not to pay the higher salaries and benefits that would lure those men and women out of the civilian workforce belies those claims.