It should no more be necessary to write this article than to prove that there were Jews killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. And yet the mythology refuses to die. Just last week, two well-educated and well-known writer acquaintances of mine remarked in passing on the “fact” that those who serve in the U.S. military typically have no other career options. America’s soldiers, they said, were poor and black.
They don’t mean this to denigrate their service—no, they mean it as a critique of American society, which turns its unemployed into cannon fodder. Especially today with high unemployment, the charge goes, hapless youths we fail to educate are embarking on a one-way trip to Afghanistan.
These allegations—most frequently leveled at the Army, the military’s biggest service and the one with the highest casualty rate—are false.
In 2008, using data provided by the Defense Department, the Heritage Foundation found that only 11% of enlisted military recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth, or quintile, of American neighborhoods (as of the 2000 Census), while 25% came from the wealthiest quintile. Heritage reported that “these trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40% of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods, a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.”
Indeed, the Heritage report showed that “low-income families are underrepresented in the military and high-income families are overrepresented. Individuals from the bottom household income quintile make up 20.0 percent of Americans who are age 18-24 years old but only 10.6 percent of the 2006 recruits and 10.7 percent of the 2007 recruits. Individuals in the top two quintiles make up 40.0 percent of the population, but 49.3 percent of the recruits in both years.”
What about the charge that our Army is disproportionately black? This too is false, as is clear from data for fiscal 2010 available on the Army’s website: Whereas blacks comprise 17% of Americans ages 18-39 with high school degrees, they represent only a slightly larger proportion of enlisted soldiers, at 21%.
Meanwhile, whites were significantly overrepresented among enlisted Army personnel in 2010. While 58% of Americans 18-39 years old are white, 64% of the Army’s enlisted men and women are. Whites are underrepresented to a minor degree in only one category, in which blacks are overrepresented: Army officers. While 74% of 25-54 year-olds with bachelor’s degrees are white, 72% of Army officers are white. While 8% of 25-54 year-olds with B.A.s are black, 13% of Army officers are.
Is it true that with a shaky economy, blacks have been driven to enlist in the Army in dramatically increased numbers? The 2010 numbers say otherwise. While 60% of 18-24 year-olds with a high school degree are white and 17% are black, 64% of new enlistees are white and 19% are black.
The missing bit of explanation for Army demographics is that Asians and Pacific Islanders, which make up the fastest-growing American demographic, are underrepresented in the Army, as are Hispanics. The explanation for the former is probably cultural, while for the latter it is a matter of difficulty speaking English. Only 12% of Army enlisted personnel are Hispanic, as opposed to 21% in the 18-39 year old population with a high school degree.
Why do myths persist despite all the evidence? One reason is lack of firsthand exposure to the military: Doing a journalistic embed with American troops or visiting a U.S. military base—or simply having some friends in the military—would disabuse my acquaintances of their beliefs.
This detachment is the result of a withdrawal of our urban elites from military service. And it suits the interests of many members of the urban elite to believe that the military they do not join is composed of poor, uneducated victims of an unfair society.
The hidden assumption in this myth is that an institution that is heavily black is an inferior institution. The myth of the ghetto Army is as nastily racist as it is false.