John Kerry’s right. “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well,” he told students at California’s Pasadena City College on Monday. “If you don’t you get stuck in Iraq.” After pointing out an obvious truism about the educational and socioeconomic disparity between military recruits and the rest of the population, he has come under a blistering assault — not only from Republicans, but members of his own party as well.
“Sen. Kerry’s remarks were poorly worded and just plain stupid,” Jon Tester, the Montana democrat who is running against Senator Conrad Burns, chimed in yesterday. “He owes our troops and their families an apology.”
Ever since the country gave up on a universal draft, converting to an all volunteer army, the military has turned into a catch-all for many people who live on the margins of society. It is where you go if you can’t afford college, can’t get a job, if you are poor, or if you are a new immigrant discovering that the price for access to the so-called American Dream now has to be paid in blood. Under the absurd guise of a free labor market, the Republican right pushes the army as a place of opportunity — a place to learn a trade, to earn your way through college, even to get your green card. It has become an excuse for not supporting decent education for everyone, for not providing jobs or health care or a humane social safety net, even for not coming up with a fair immigration policy.
Why not say it? The volunteer army is a fraud on the public. After all, the Pentagon’s own figures reflect the socioeconomic divide. “Many of today’s recruits are financially strapped, with nearly half coming from lower-middle-class to poor households, according to new Pentagon data based on zip codes and census estimates of mean household income,” the Washington Post reported in November 2005. “Nearly two-thirds of Army recruits in 2004 came from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median.”
“Recent attempts to tap the market of college-bound youth have met with limited success, and the percentage of enlistments that enter the military after college has historically been low,” the DOD’s own population study reported in May.
But when Kerry speaks out, the Dems run for cover. (Kerry has said he didn’t intend to insult the troops but flubbed a line that was meant to be critical of President Bush.)
It’s a measure of how gutsy the Dems really are in standing up to the Bush administration, and how successful they’ve been at taking the reins in the public debate on Iraq: not very, even with 64 percent of Americans saying they now oppose the war, according to an October 15 CNN poll.
Otherwise, they’d have made a real attempt to initiate impeachment proceedings against Donald Rumsfeld, whose prosecution of the Iraq war has been nothing short of disastrous. The Secretary of Defense continues to insist that, after all, it’s a free country, and the men and women who joined the army did so of their own free will. So what’s the problem? No problem for him, certainly: He’s not one of the young Americans with no other options but being sent to a senseless death. Maybe a majority win in the midterm elections will give the Dems the moxie they need to impeach — but don’t count on it.