Here's the interesting part: it doesn't matter, that line has already become an infamous slur on the military. Three reasons for that--two you already know, one will be my little contribution to the story. The first is that the Republicans are selling the hell out of it as an insult to the troops. The second is that Kerry, despite his service, just doesn't have any credibility when it comes to supporting the troops. As you all well know, he burned up the good will earned with his service when he went before Congress and called American soldiers rapists and murderers. Then he followed that up with his comments about our troops terrorizing women and children in Iraq. He's got a long antimilitary record, so it is awfully hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The third point is most interesting and most important. Kerry's silly joke as a slur on the military was, to use the silly phrase, fake but accurate. He may not have been making a crack about the intelligence and education of our servicemen, but it is pretty clear that he and his ilk believe that the enlisted men and women in the U.S. military joined because they are poor, uneducated, underprivileged, and out of options.
It's been the same story throughout American history--the military as a profession has been looked down upon by large sections of American society, even as Americans have respected and rewarded military valor. Congress cut funding for the professional military every chance it has gotten. In the 1840s, Ulysses S. Grant had a street urchin make fun of him in his uniform after he graduated from West Point. By the late nineteenth century, new immigrants were overrepresented in the military because native Americans eschewed soldier work. World War I was supposedly a rich man's war but poor man's fight, and World War II was simply a job to do until the war ended and everyone could get out of the service. Vietnam became in popular imagination yet another poor (and black) man's fight, even though it wasn't.
For a short time, the post-Vietnam, post-draft military had all kinds of problems with recruiting and testing and criminals and all that. The idea had become embedded in some circles that people only joined the military because they are victims with no other choice, and no amount of evidence to the contrary seems to change minds (see below).
Kerry's gaffe will have legs not because of the Republicans or his own shady record with dealing with the military, but because some vocal Democrats are already saying that even if the senator didn't say what we think he said, if he had said it, he would be right. Got that?
For the record II. (In regard to the educational attainment of American soldiers.) I put these links, comments, and numbers in the discussion at Big Tent, but I'm afraid they might be buried, so they are reproduced here for easy reference.
According to a report by the Heritage Foundation:
"The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005."College graduates are not underrepresented among enlistees who become enlisted men and women, because the overwhelming majority of those people are 18-21. Almost no one in that age range is a college graduate, so they are exactly proportionate to the general population. But in that age range, roughly 75% of the general population are high school grads, while 98-99% of those in the military have high school diplomas--meaning they are on average smarter and better educated than the general population.
"By assigning each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code as determined from Census 2000, the mean income for 2004 recruits was $43,122 (in 1999 dollars). For 2005 recruits, it was $43,238 (in 1999 dollars). These are increases over the mean incomes for the 1999 cohort ($41,141) and 2003 cohort ($42,822). The national median published in Census 2000 was $41,994. This indicates that, on average, the 2004 and 2005 recruit populations come from even wealthier areas than their peers who enlisted in 1999 and 2003.
When comparing these wartime recruits (2003-2005) to the resident population ages 18-24 (as recorded in Census 2000), areas with median household income levels between $35,000 and $79,999 were overrepresented, along with income categories between $85,000 and $94,999."
"Additionally, in the most recent edition of Population Representation in the Military Services, the Department of Defense reported that the mean reading level of 2004 recruits is a full grade level higher than that of the comparable youth population."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, 25.3% of veterans 25 years and older have at least a bachelor's degree, as opposed to 27.2% of the general population.
Over 33% of veterans over 25 have some college or associate degrees, while 26.6% of the general population does. And the number of veterans enrolled in programs towards college degrees is increasing.
Even accounting for no other factors like career choice, the proportion of veterans with at least bachelor's degrees is almost exactly the same as the proportion of the general population. So in no way are college graduates underrepresented in our military--many of them have just put off their education until later.
Oh, and individual veterans make a median income of $33,973 a year, a full $10,000 more than the average nonveteran.
Someone page John Kerry, Michael Moore, Daily Kos, and all the other people I linked above who want to paint our servicemen and women as poor unwitting victims of a distant elite.
They've got it all wrong. Our servicemen and women are the elite.