Many people who lived through the 1970s recall a pervasive sense of national cruddiness. American cars were lousy, our greatest city, New York, seemed to be falling apart when not being actively torched for the fire insurance money, and perhaps most alarmingly, our military didn't seem up to the job as the Soviets became increasingly bold. Perhaps the nadir was the failure of Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage rescue mission in April 1980.
And you didn't get much reassurance from scuttlebutt passed along from within the military. Incompetence seemed rife and soldiers were increasingly seen during the later 1970s as oafs.
Then Ronald Reagan was elected and the military's reputation began rising. The superb execution of the 1991 Gulf War sealed the American military's reputation, which remains, to this day, skyhigh compared to the 1970s, despite the frustrations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, there are many plausible theories to explain this turn of events. But one factor is almost utterly unknown to Americans: one reason that military personnel seemed stupider under Carter than under Reagan was because they were.
A 1993 study reported:
Joshua D. Angrist
... In 1979, only 64 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates, and 46 percent had Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) test scores between the 10th and 30th percentiles of the national youth AFQT score distribution.
Beginning in 1980, however, test scores and schooling levels of newly enlisted soldiers improved steadily. This improvement was partly attributable to the correction of incorrect ASVAB scoring procedures in the late 1970s (described more fully below) and to legislative limits on the number of low-scoring enlistments;
In a classic example of Seventies shoddiness, the Pentagon's enlistment exam was revised in January 1976, but the military botched the scoring system, which allowed in all sorts of dumbos the Pentagon had intended to keep out. This was finally fixed in October 1980, a month before the election. (The biggest chuck of data in The Bell Curve is from the renorming of the ASVAB-AFQT on the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1980.)
it was also due to poor civilian labor market conditions and new packages of veterans benefits that made military service relatively attractive for many young people.
By 1987, 93 percent of all new recruits had a high school diploma, and 95 percent had scores in the top 70 percent of the AFQT score distribution (Categories I–III). At the same time, the fraction of minority enlistments fell from an all time high of 35.5 percent in 1980 to 24.2 percent in 1983, rising again to 28.1 percent in 1987 (Defense Department 1988, p. II-33).
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the victory in the Gulf War, typically only about 1% of enlistees are from the 30th percentile or below of the AFQT (which is more or less of an IQ test). So, if you want to know why the military seems to function better than the public schools, well the military just doesn't deal with the bottom 100 million people in the country. (This is a little bit of an exaggeration because people who want to enlist in the military study up for the test, while it's normed on the NLSY-97 nationally representative sample who presumably didn't have any reason other than pride and cooperativeness to work hard on the test. But, still ...)