The Kerry Joke

John Kerry this week has been abjectly apologizing for his statements on Iraq and education.  According to Kerry he intended to critique President Bush:

Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart,
if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in

But what he said was:

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. If
you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.

The irony is that the joke he intended to make is a lie but what he actually said may be the truth.  The disaster in Iraq was created by a bunch of highly educated intellectuals but the soldiers fighting in Iraq do have less education than the young men and women who have stayed home.  According to historian David Kennedy, quoted in the October issue of the Atlantic, 50 percent of 18-24 year olds in the general population have some college education compared to only 6.5 percent of the same age group in the U.S. military.  (Kennedy’s figures are contested by others.)

American political correctness extends to more than women and minorities and as in those areas it prevents discussion of important but uncomfortable truths.


I wouldn't be too surprised if your general conclusion were true, but the statistic you choose is not a very convincing way to show it.

Consider that being in the military that early in life tends to leave little time for college, and also has in various ways since the GI Bill been part of people's college plans.

And especially for the soldiers under age 21, what would it mean if the proportion of soldiers with some college education were high? They didn't have time for a four-year degree before entering the armed services; would it not be spun as a high proportion of college dropouts?

It would be much more convincing if you could show, e.g., that the people weren't college material by some measure, but I'm not sure what measure is available. Or if you could show that despite the advertising the connection to college education, people 5 years and 10 years after leaving the service still have less college education and/or lower incomes than average.

Ah, I see Bill beat me to the punch with a better version of what I was trying to say.

For that age group, the stat may well be true. But soldiers who stay in the Army tend to get a lot of education, both military and civilian. The old canard about dimwitted soldiers isn't wholly without merit, but it is greatly exaggerated. I have worked with quite a few soldiers with as much or more education than I possess, and they often have gotten their education while serving full time.

I'd bet that statistic is even bull. I'd like to see actual data instead of a second-hand quote from the Atlantic. Moreover, even if the Atlantic's data is true, Kerry's statement is false under its own terms, at the very least implying that one cannot both do well and serve in Iraq. It also implies that those who chose to serve in Iraq did not "make an effort to be smart." Sorry Alex, but this dog won't hunt.

Some other article pointed out how the mistake suggested Kerry wasn't quick-witted enough to realize the joke his handlers had created for him, and lamented that our leaders are no longer in any way responsible for the witticisms and opinions they spout. Is there any politician out there that can talk policy off-the-cuff?

Actually, I have been impressed whenever I saw Tony Blair taking questions in the House of Lords--some dodging and empty promises, but mostly relevant. Does the British system cause this, or is it an anomaly? How often does Tony Blair retire to his vacation home?

That's just poor thinking. I expect better. If you compare those entering service they have a higher percentage of high school completion than the population at large. The also are much healthier, fitter, etc than the population at large - which tends to the obese side of things.

Comparing college stats for enlisted 19 year olds is silly -- they have entered the military before college by definition.

Face it, this was just an emotion-laden anti-Bush post. It's ok, everybody is overtaken by their emotions at times. But you guys are supposed to be the cool headed rationalists.


As for Tony Blair and parliament. My understanding is that the main questions are submitted beforehand -- that is why he can jump up immediately with such quick facts and counterarguments.

Assuming that Alex's statistics on education levels are true (I have no idea) , isn't our politically correct attitude toward soldiers (they're "professionals," they're smarter than average, etc.) part of what we "pay" them for their service?

I agree it's hugely impressive watching PM question hour, even if he does know the topics ahead of time. I think the British systems produces better debaters for a few reasons.

Parliamentary systems tend to be even more dominated by elites than our systems. There is a stronger tradition of debating societies in British elite universities and boarding schools. American debate teams produce the same type of person, but most Americans don't like that style of speech.

Britain is much, much smaller, so the culture of a few universities has a more powerful impact. Yes, we have Harvard and Yale, which produce an inordinate amount of political leaders, but their effect is diluted by the size of the country.

There is also more distrust of slick talkers in American society. Perhaps this started off as antagonism towards Britain?

Lastly, I'd say that the British simply talk faster than Americans. Americans interpret fast talk as both a sign of intelligence and a sign of deception. Standard tv technique for portraying a smart character, just double the rate of speech.

"American political correctness extends to more than women and minorities and as in those areas it prevents discussion of important but uncomfortable truths."

Ironic statement. Obviously people in the military have less years of college education because it's something people do BEFORE college (or INSTEAD of college). Of course this has already been pointed out.

But there is a truth--the elites look down on the military as something that they not would want their kids to do. The enlisted come from the working class and the officers come from the middle class. The upper middle class don't join the military.

I pretty much share Kerry's view that joining the army is something you do if you're not Harvard material.

Steve Sailer has estimated that in 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available, the average IQ score of male armed forces enlistees was 105. That is about five points higher than the national average.

Right. There are two ways to think of the Kerry quote:

a. The claimed original joke: Bush didn't study in college, so he made dumb decisions about invading Iraq.

b. The widely-trumpeted joke as stated: People who don't study in college or maybe high school end up going into the Army and getting shipped off to Iraq.

Both of these are empirical statements at some level, but are evaluated as moral statements, which almost always leads to people saying mind-numbingly dumb things.

As far as (a) goes, it's hard to say whether Bush having been a better student would have changed his decision to invade Iraq, but highly-educated people sure seem capable of making stupid foreign policy decisions, and Bush had plenty of advisors with PhDs from ivy league colleges agreeing with him.

As far as (b) goes, it's an empirical question, not one that can be answered by moral outrage about not speaking ill of the troops. The military screens recruits for both IQ and high school graduation (I'm not sure how many exceptions, if any, are made), so they get a reasonably competent set of soldiers. But there presumably are people who went into the Army because they saw few good alternatives, having screwed around in high school enough to not have much chance of doing anything worthwhile in college, or having flunked out of college their freshman year. I have no idea how common that is, though.

It seems like (b) was much closer to the truth when we had a draft, and flunking out of college made you a prime target for being shipped off to Vietnam.

Political correctness isn't about left or right, it's about crimethink. Some ideas are too offensive to be said or thought, and anyone who says them must be shouted down. In the Rumsfeld pentagon, talking about postwar planning in Iraq or the need for massively more soldiers was politically incorrect, with the same kind of impact on intelligent decisions as you get when you try to address urban crime but aren't allowed to mention or think about racial differences in crime rate.

The disaster in Iraq was created by a bunch of highly educated intellectuals but the soldiers fighting in Iraq do have less education than the young men and women who have stayed home.

You know, the feel I got early in this administration was that it was a "revenge of the D students." In other words, a strongly anti-intellectual vibe coming from folks (kids of the elite?) who went through all the good schools.


Is there any one in America that is not aware the what the Miltary offers is, to some an alternative to college, and to others a way to pay for collage. You only had to see their TV ads for the last 20 years. The debate about this took place when we decided to end the draft and have an all volunteer army over 30 years ago. The American public is not interested in revisiting the decision so "discussion of important but uncomfortable truths" will serve no positive purpose, but will just make people uncomfortable. I noticed that over the period the rebublicans were making an issue of the Kerry remark, they lost ground in the polls and on tradesports. Politicians are punished for making people uncomfortable.

Anecdotally the military men I know possess on the average less intellectual curiosity, but more of whatever you would call the intellectual property that leads to capability and common sense. Or just what you'd expect of course.

I know guy who's IQ is in the 130-160 range, who dropped out of college and joined the army to get discipline and order in his life, since he was unable to create his own. He decided that what he really needed in life was for someone really mean to yell at him all the time for 8 weeks. It worked out very well.

My anecdotal evidence would be useless, but fortunately as the Sailer link points out, we don't need it.

the following offers a differing viewpoint

Many soldiers join the military as a way to get money to pay for college. So, obviously young soldiers haven't yet actually gone to college yet. Also, the military sends many people to college after a few years of service while staying in the military.

Choosing 18-24 as the age range will catch younger soldiers who are still putting in their enlistments, and will typically miss many soldiers who are going through ROTC and starting military careers after finishing.

Half Sigma makes an interesting point that's I'd like to expand. Why is it that the elite's kids aren't in the military (specifically the officer corps). From the earliest of tribes until sometime after WWII it was normal that the elites would serve in the military (sometimes as the core of the military). Knights were after all royalty or landowners. Most of last generation of leaders has some military experience (George H. W. Bush and John Kennedy were both born into elite families and it was simply a given that they would serve). However, today elite kids do seem far less likely to serve. I wonder why this change occured and if it is responsible for less prudence in entering a foreign war (how many senators would not consider their own progeny at least a little when weighing the decision).

Re: elites and military service - Didn't it take a recent court case to allow the military to recruit on some of America's finest college campuses again?

I have yet to see anyone point out the logical flaw in the reactions to Kerry's statement.

Let's say that Kerry instead said, "People who jump off roofs will die." Would the interpretation be, "Kerry said that everyone who dies did so by jumping off a roof!"

No, and it is just as illogical to say that any tendency of uneducated people to join the military has anything to do with the overall composition of the military.

Facts aside, his specific statement does not support the popular conclusion. I am surprised that no one caught that flawed reasoning here.

Half Sigma, I believe Harvard attually has a good relationship with soldiers.

While I find many military people dumb, that's because I'm comparing them to the people I would choose for friends. A more accurate stereo-type would be that they're very "average". They are also very procedure/policy driven and bureaucratic, exactly what you should expect of a government institution.

Bush is not well read and was not a good student. It shows. He made the decision to go to war.


I don't know if there's really a trend there (elites not sending their kids off to war), but if there is, wouldn't smaller family sizes be a big part of it? At some level, you're talking about risking losing a kid, and the obvious assumption is that one kid of six in the Army during wartime, though stressful, is probably less stressful than one kid out of one in the Army during wartime.


I respect your son’s service.

The ‘pencil-and-paper test’ you mention says more about the quality of our public schools than it does about the military’s standards.

Yes, the Navy and Air Force can exercise more discretion in recruitment but overall the standards for getting into the services are LOW. Among a few good men are many bad apples†¦people carrying automatic weapons abroad who would otherwise be incarcerated if they were living a civilian life in the States.


Please say how you really feel.

A tragic example of where low standards can lead is the case of Steven Green, the Army private accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her and her family in March. The Army had given him a waiver in 2005 so he could sign up despite earlier criminal convictions, the New York Times reported.

5: Number of years since the U.S. Army last failed to fill its monthly quota of volunteers sent to boot camp, which it did this month.

10: Number of years since the U.S. Marine Corps last missed its monthly recruitment goal, which it has done twice already this year.

11: Number of years since the U.S. National Guard last missed its annual recruitment goal, which it did in 2004.

27: Percent by which the U.S. Army missed its recruitment targets this month.

30: Percent by which the U.S. National Guard missed its recruitment targets in November and December 2004.

41: Drop in African American enlistments over the last four years, by percent.

1: Number of military reserve components that actually met their recruiting goals for the first four months of the current fiscal year; the other five reserve components did not.

3,900: Number of former soldiers belonging to a pool that can be mobilized only in a national emergency recently called up by the U.S. Army.

25: Increase, by percent, in the number of high school dropouts allowed to enlist in the Army thanks to newly lowered recruitment standards.

33: Increase, by percent, in the number of applicants who received the lowest acceptable scores on a service aptitude test now allowed to enlist in the Army thanks to newly lowered recruitment standards, by percent.


No comment on the blog itself but the sources it cites are mainstream.

All applicants to enlist must take the heavily g-loaded Armed Forces Qualification Test, the IQ test that provided much of the data for "The Bell Curve." Beginning with the 1992 post-Cold War downsizing of the military up until recruiting became a struggle in late 2004 due to Iraq, only 1% of new enlistees scored below the 30th percentile in IQ. In other words, about 90 million residents of American were virtually ineligible to enlist due to low IQ.

I estimate that the average IQ of new enlistees during that period was about 105, or above the 60th percentile.

Yes, I know that the politically correct thing is to say that IQ testing is discredited, but go tell it to the Marines. And to the Air Force, Army, and Navy, all of whom rely on the AFQT because they have vast amounts of data showing that IQ is a valid predictor of performance.

Has no one mentioned the hierarchical structure of the military and its impact on educational levels upon entering the military? The military needs a relatively small officer class because of the different duties officers and the enlisted perform. It is kind of a pyramid scheme. Choosing who should be in these distinctly different roles (officer or enlisted) may be difficult. No longer can buying the position, family connections, or social prestige elevate an individual to officer status. Thus having/not having a college degree is used as a form of merit or proxy for leadership skill and education. Thus most of those who join can't have graduated from college. So looking at education of soldiers versus civilians at a young age is unrealistic because of the nature of the military hierarchy. In fact, it would also be dubious to compare the two populations decades down the road because the military group is starting with a less educated population due to its structure. So, perhaps the military is not insidious in attracting a population with less formal education, perhaps the demands of the military's structure demand this situation. If this is correct then as the population gains more formal education, we can expect the gap to widen.

I think that yet again Kerry is making a mockery of himself, but on a side note. The mere statement that those in the war in Iraq are less educated is obvious where most kids between the ages of 19-24 do one of three things they attend college, or they join the military, or the workforce, this is a given. The importance of this statement is that those fighting the war in Iraq are gaining knowledge of life and also protecting there country The United States of America in which everyone of us lives and breathes as a result of our army protecting us.

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