The most interesting aspect of the Kerry flap has been the outrage, some of it presumably authentic, some dismally fake. But the notion that armies draw disproportionately from the ranks of the poor and uneducated is hardly a novel assertion, least of all among soldiers themselves.
An old Chinese proverb said, "Just as one does not use good metal to make nails, one does not use good men to make soldiers." When I was a soldier in 1970, I kept that slogan on the wall of my room in the barracks in Monterey, Calif. If anyone ever took offense, I never heard about it. I remember riding in a car full of soldiers as it drove by a hitchhiking soldier thumbing for a ride. "Suck out, GI," the driver said as we roared past.
The notion that most of us were serving because we were too poor, too dumb or too politically naive to manage to stay out was such a given that suggesting otherwise rarely raised an eyebrow, much less anyone's ire. And the notion persisted despite the obvious fact that it simply wasn't true for lots of soldiers. It was more of a grim, ongoing joke than a statement of reality.
Those were draftee days, of course, and I have no doubt that the Army has changed. It already was changing by the time I was discharged in 1973. But things haven't changed entirely. I heard a soldier on NPR talk about seeing "Forrest Gump" at a military base with an audience full of soldiers. In the scene where Gump met the military recruiter, someone in the audience shouted out, "Run, Forrest, run."
And there's this, which suggests that the old tradition still hasn't died. Some have seen this as an angry attack on Kerry; others have suggested that it actually defends Kerry. I can't know the soldiers' motives, but I suspect that it may not really convey any particular political message at all. It may just be new soldiers picking up on an old riff and turning it into a laugh, the way soldiers have done for centuries. Too bad Kerry couldn't have told his joke this well.