By Other Means

Uncle Sam Wants Who?

The real reasons people join the military.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Porch/DVIDS
Staff Sgt. Aaron Porch/DVIDS

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.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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