First of all, I have read some of the literature–from the services themselves–on the backgrounds of recruits (active duty, versus Reserves/Guard) and some of their own stated reasons for going in. On active duty, the poorest of the poor, the ones who may “THINK” there is no way out of poverty except through the military, are found generally in the MOS categories having to do with combat arms–particularly at the “grunt” level. They can also be found as cooks, logistics, truck drivers, etc. Actually, these days, with the squeeze on the middle class and many young people unable to qualify for certain financial assistance because their parents make too much (even though they may not be living with their parents) many of the new recruits are not from strictly working class–or at least ultra-poor working class–or lumpenproletariat as was once the case; many are from families hardly on the verge of starvation and outright poverty. Although money for college and specialized training are the top reasons given among recruits in interviews (not “killing commies/muslims for Jesus, patriotism, making a difference, defending the country, etc) there are additional reasons as well: the Audie Murphy Syndrome (nothing like a war to turn a nobody into a somebody), low self-esteem (become a Ranger or Airborne or Special Forces and come back home and show that bitch who dumped you in high school for the quarterback on the football team that you are now a somebody and now how does she feel about dumping you?), travel (get out and see the world beyond that in-bred podunk town you were raised in), adventure (watching too much JAG, war movies etc), a career (retire at 40 years old with a pension, medical benefits–less and less–), and of course the standard–can’t make it on the outside at anything interesting and that pays more than minimum wage.
Once in, then you get the full dose of ideology designed to help you rationalize why you went in in the first place. Although you went in for strictly mercenary reasons like help with college tuition, and didn’t give a fuck or thought about what and whom you might be really serving or whom you might really be hurting–and in whose interest–now comes the icing on the cake to ease your cognitive dissonance problems–if you are not some kind of sociopath and actually have such problems. No you are among the elite. You are fighting for freedom. You are the cutting edge of the most powerful military machine ever known and you are sacrificing–perhaps life and limbs–so that those at home can live in “freedom.” And you also get a full dose of what it takes to get anywhere significant promotion-wise. In Army terms, you need a patch on your right shoulder (unit in a combat area), you need horizontal bars on the right sleeve (each is six months in combat zone), you need a CIB (combat infantryman’s badge) or combat medic badge, a purple heart is excellent (particularly if you can get one without too-damaging wounds), a Bronze Star with V-cluster or Silver Star will take you far coupled with theater and combat campaign ribbons. And then there is further specialized training, networking, good performance reviews and most of all, demonstrating unquestioning loyalty to and being on the same page with the ideology, mission, goals, objectives and dominant values of your superiors. All of this is understood and the best evidence is to look at the ribbons of those at the top and/or look at what the likes of Haig et al did to get combat decorations they clearly did not deserve–why did they go after them and engage in all sorts of phony and desecrating stuff (to those who might have deserved some special award) to get them?
I know not only from the research, but I was one of them once. And no amount of liberal hand-wringing and solicitous “these-poor-souls-with-nowhere-else-to-go-to-escape-poverty” will ever rationalize or let me off the hook for my having once been a willing tool, dupe and instrument of U.S. imperialism like so many other willing accomplices. I am responsible for what I did, whom and what I served and what victims were created by my own complicity with U.S. imperialism.