Ever since the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force, a preconception has existed among many Americans that those who choose to join the armed services do so because they have no other options.
That is the hypothethis of two studies released this year. Both debunk that stereotype, finding that the military is much more diverse ― and troops have much more varied reasons for signing up ― than some have assumed.
“...our analysis suggests that, despite the increasing economic inequality and the erosion of many low-skill occupational opportunities, the U.S. military has not become a refuge for the less fortunate,” write authors Andrea Asoni, Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli and Tino Sandanaji in “A mercenary army of the poor? Technological change and the demographic composition of the post-9/11 U.S. military,” a report published January in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
Another study, based on a 2018 survey of Americans, sought to analyze not only why Americans join the military, but why others think they join.
“We find that, despite the reality of market-based recruitment, many Americans continue to subscribe to an idealized image of service members as moved by self-sacrificing patriotism,” wrote Ronald Krebs and Robert Ralston in “Patriotism or Paychecks: Who Believes What About Why Soldiers Serve,” published in Armed Forces and Society.
“This belief is most heavily concentrated among conservative Americans,” they found. “Liberal Americans are more likely to believe that service members join primarily for economic reasons. Those furthest to the left are more inclined to aver that service members join chiefly to escape desperate circumstances.”
Further, within families with service members, there was a disconnect between the members’ motivations and their families’ assumptions.
“Perhaps most surprising, we discover a disconnect between respondents with military experience and their families: The former are more likely to acknowledge that pay and benefits are a primary motivation for service, whereas their families are more likely to embrace a patriotic service narrative,” according to the study.
The findings dovetail somewhat with public statements by some of the military’s most senior leaders.
In recent years, the services have had to compete with a strong economy for in recruiting, trying to convince young Americans with options that serving can provide the opportunities and compensation that will get them where they want to go.
Research has also shown that the U.S. military is becoming more and more of a family business, with the majority of recruits following in a close relative’s footsteps.
At the same time, the Army has pushed back hard against the stereotype of aptitude and behavioral waivers that plagued its recruiting efforts between 2005 and 2010, which have been attributed to a host of behavioral and misconduct issues following that period.
Two years ago, then-Army Secretary Mark Esper changed Army accessions policy to increase the recruiting of high-scoring and more educated young Americans. At the same time, the Army unveiled a new recruiting campaign, paying special attention to highlighting science, technology, engineering and mechanical specialties, hoping to attract more skilled, educated recruits.
Who serves, and why?
Asoni and his co-authors looked at two conclusions commonly drawn by decades of existing studies: 1) That Americans from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to pursue the military, and 2) That the military has low standards that appeal to the less skilled and less educated.
“While we do not deny that the incentives to join the military exist, we argue that the requirements of the modern, capital-intensive, information-dominant, expeditionary American military have increased, and that the less affluent are less likely to meet such requirements,” the authors wrote.
Further, they hypothesized that some of this possible misconception about poorer Americans joining the military was a geographical issue. While the Defense Department tracks the zip codes of recruits ― and historically, many of them come from more rural areas in the southeast ― it doesn’t track their incomes or their parents’ incomes, which leads to assumptions that the poorer their communities, the poorer the recruits.
“The widespread belief among academics, the American public and lawmakers that those fighting America’s wars come mostly from the poorest groups is probably a product of trends from the past,” they wrote. “With regard to the present, however, studies looking at the socioeconomic representativeness of the military have led to conflicting results, in part because of the imperfect nature of using geographic data to answer individual-level questions.”
Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 1997 to 2008, they found that the services have recruited primarily from the middle class, America’s largest socio-economic demographic.
“We show that recent recruits tend to have higher than average socioeconomic background: they disproportionally come from the middle of the family income, family wealth, and cognitive skill distributions, with both tails under-represented,” they found. “We also show that higher scores in cognitive skill tests increase the probability of joining the military for lower- and middle-class individuals, but decrease the enlistment likelihood of young men and women coming from the right tail of the income distribution” ― meaning that more affluent prospects tended to pick another path.
Meanwhile, Krebs and Ralston used survey responses to paint a picture of why those recruits chose military service over heading directly to higher education or the civilian job market.
Analyzing feedback from 2,451 respondents, using a survey program that reached out to U.S. subjects from different genders, age, education, race, ethnicity, state and region for a sample that closely mirrored the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey.
They were asked what percentage of each of four categories ― sense of duty (good citizenship), love of country (patriotism), pay and benefits (employment) or no other options (desperation) ― they believed motivated troops to join up. They also disclosed their political leanings and their demographic data.
Of those answers, 47 percent believed that troops service either out of patriotism or sense of duty 43 percent believed they joined for employment and the remaining 10 percent selected desperation.
“...a majority of self-identified conservatives endorse a patriotic account of military service, and still stronger majorities of ‘very conservative’ respondents hold that view,” Krebs and Ralston wrote. “However, there is unexpectedly little variation across the ideological spectrum regarding the belief that people join the military primarily out of a sense of duty.”
But survey respondents who had served in the military were less likely to to cite patriotism and citizenship and more likely to cite the pay and benefits ― 40 percent, compared to 47 percent of those who responded but didn’t have military experience.
While conservatives were more likely to respond that troops join for duty and patriotism, while liberals cited economic reasons, there was a common belief among those groups.
“Belief in the service member as, first and forement, an exemplary patriot and citizen can be found across the U.S. political spectrum, and all significant demographic groups,” they wrote.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT