Since John Kerry "botched" a joke and implied that those without education "get stuck in Iraq," political leaders from both parties have been piously describing U.S. troops as valiant young Einsteins in desert camouflage.
But deep down, a lot of them probably think Kerry is right.
If those grunts were half as smart as members of Congress, they'd be on Capitol Hill getting sucked up to by lobbyists instead of sucking up dust in Baghdad's bloody alleys - right?
Many of our current political leaders didn't waste any time serving in the military. Like Vice President Dick Cheney, they had "other priorities."
As recently as 1994, 44 percent of members of Congress were veterans. Today, it's only 26 percent. And despite the mandatory "I adore our heroic troops" rhetoric, most on Capitol Hill aren't steering their own children toward military service. Only about 1 percent of U.S. representatives and senators have a son or daughter in uniform.
OK for someone else
For many in Congress, serving in the military is a fine thing to do - for all those poor schmoes who don't have any better options, that is.
During the Vietnam War, the controversial student deferments helped keep many affluent and educated young men out of the military, while those without college opportunities were far more likely to be drafted. Today, the military attracts many young men and women from less-affluent families by offering job training and scholarships.
But recent studies of military demographics suggest that today's military is neither uneducated nor poor. Statistically, the enlisted ranks of the military are drawn mainly from neighborhoods that are slightly more affluent than the norm. The very poor are actually underrepresented in the military, relative to the number of very poor people in the population.
That's mainly because the military won't accept the lowest academic achievers. The Army limits recruits without high school degrees to 3 1/2 percent of the pool, for instance, while the U.S. Marines won't accept recruits without high school degrees. Poverty correlates strongly with high school dropout rates, so these rules significantly limit the access of the very poor to military service.
At the same time, they ensure that enlisted members of the military are more likely than members of the general population to have high school degrees. The same pattern holds for commissioned officers. In 2004, only 4.2 percent of officers lacked college degrees, and a whopping 37 percent held an advanced degree of some sort, compared to 10 percent of adults nationwide.
The myth that the military is mainly the province of the poor and the uneducated is grossly misleading, and it's also dangerous. It obscures the far more worrisome gaps that have recently emerged between the military and civilian society.
Demographically, the military is profoundly different from civilian society. It's drawn disproportionately from households in rural areas, for one thing. For another, the South and Southwest are substantially overrepresented within the military, while the Northeast is dramatically underrepresented.
Compared to civilians, members of the military are significantly more religious, and they're also far more likely to be Republicans. A 2005 Military Times poll found that 56 percent of military personnel described themselves as Republicans, and 13 percent described themselves as Democrats. Nationwide, polls suggest that people who define themselves as Democrats outnumber those defining themselves as Republicans.
Though the average member of the military is neither poor nor uneducated, social and economic elites are dramatically underrepresented in the military.
Frank Schaeffer - coauthor with Kathy Roth-Douquet of "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service" and "Baby Jack," a novel about a father who loses his son in Iraq - notes that the percentage of enlisted military personnel from households with more than $60,000 in annual income is close to zero. Military recruiters don't even recruit in affluent neighborhoods: They know no one's going to sign up. At elite universities - Harvard, Stanford and Yale - the percentage of graduates who enter the military is minuscule.
All this should bother us - a lot. The United States needs a strong and adaptable military - and in this globalized world, the importance of the military both in U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics is likely to increase, not decrease, in the coming decades. But a democracy needs a military that's not radically out of step with the values and hopes of civilians; those who volunteer to risk their lives in our name deserve civilian leaders who understand something about the realities of service and combat. If we want an effective military that serves a healthy democracy, political and economic elites ought to shoulder more of the burden.
A telling study
If political elites don't like the thought of getting stuck in Iraq themselves, they should consider the results of a recent study.
Duke University researchers Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi analyzed data from the period between 1816 and 1992 and found that "as the percentage of veterans serving in the executive branch and the legislature increases, the probability that the United States will initiate militarized disputes declines by nearly 90 percent."
Want to make sure that the U.S. never again gets stuck in a pointless and aggressive war? Draft Congress!