Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Small towns, rural areas, and war

An AP article in the Gazette today is entitled Small-town America pays high cost for war. In the course of the article, one gets the impression that there is some purposeful strategy behind this, as illustrated by this quotation.

There's a "basic unfairness" about the number of troops dying in Iraq who are from rural areas, said William O'Hare, senior visiting fellow at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute, which examines rural issues.

One wonders if O'Hare is in favor of devising some sort of quota system whereby the country is divided up into various urban, rural, racial, geographical, economic, and educational groups -- and then constructing a draft designed to make sure that all are put in harm's way proportionately.

The article does mention the real reasons that this happens: rural areas and small towns are populated by people who tend not to be ashamed to be patriotic, having not yet learned that educated and sophisticated people think it rather gauche to have one's eyes tear up when one hears or sings "American the Beautiful," and that this patriotic bent leads to a willingness to overcome fears of the rigors and danger of military service.

The recently elected Sen. James Webb, in his excellent 2004 book Born Fighting, details at length the disproportionate numbers of Scots-Irish -- and specifically Scots-Irish from heavily rural Southern and border states -- who have served, fought, and died in the service of this country. The story of his people's military service is perhaps the most dramatic in our history, and had gone untold until Webb wrote his book. But it could be told, to one degree or another, by Americans of a variety of ethnic backgrounds from all over small-town and rural America.

Both parties today have members who have fought and served -- in fact, there are few ways to have a brighter political future than to be a combat veteran willing to run on the Democratic ticket as an anti-war candidate. As far as rank-and-file voters and party activists go, however, one suspects that Republicans are disproportionately populated by veterans and families of soldiers. The military certainly has traditionally voted heavily Republican -- roughly 90% in the officer core and 80% in the enlisted ranks during presidential elections since George McGovern's 1972 run.

The Republican party's dirty secret, though, is represented by what the left derisively calls our "chickenhawks." There probably has never been a time when the right's pundits and pontificators were so overwhelmingly filled with those who have never worn the uniform. Montana Headlines recently mentioned Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but he is just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps the most significant part of the article is where it points out that support for the current war in rural areas has dropped from 73% in early 2004 to 39% now -- whereas the (more moderate) support for the war in urban areas has dropped considerably less -- 43% to 30%. The reason in the article is probably correct: they know more about war and the costs of war.

The generation that experienced World War II knew the cost of war, and both parties were generally filled with politicians who had served. They strenuously wanted to avoid war -- the argument was over how to avoid it: Peace through military strength and tough stances (think President Reagan or Sen. "Scoop" Jackson, D-Washington) or peace through more dovish approaches (think Sens. George McGovern or Frank Church.)

That generation of Republican "hawks" followed the long-standing tradition of being pro-defense but anti-war.

When Bob Dole was in the Vice-Presidential debates in 1976 against Walter Mondale, he (showing the penchant for quick-thinking barbed retorts that so often got him into trouble) pointed out the obvious when responding to charges that Republicans were war-mongers:

"I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans-enough to fill the city of Detroit."

National Review called that "one of the great blunders of recent political history," and perhaps it was, but in retrospect it is also one of the more instructive episodes in recent American political history. While everyone at Montana Headlines voted for the Presidents Bush (and given the choices available would probably do so again, even knowing what we know now), it is interesting to note that since since their Presidencies, no Republican will be able to say anything of the sort for a very long time.

And it is remarkable to think that the Republican party is now full of members who would have no idea of what Dole was even talking about.

All of this is a long way of saying that rural America is probably going to remain more patriotic than their urban cousins and more eager to serve their country in uniform, but it will also probably return to being very suspicious of foreign wars and expeditions, as they once were.

This is a good thing, and if the Republican party returns to its roots, it will be able to keep their rural base. If not, look for more candidates like James Webb to be quietly knocking off Republicans throughout red country.


mtliberty said...

MtH, I saw this hit piece too. I decided to refute the conclusions drawn in the article using this report:


You may find it usefull in the future when you see a "screed" that is "reality based" (basic fact true conclusions all wrong).

Montana Headlines said...

A fantastic link. It is interesting that the only two groups underrepresented in the military are the very poorest and the very richest. This is exactly the Democratic party's demographic.

From your link: "...wartime U.S. mil­itary enlistees are better educated, wealthier, and more rural on aver­age than their civilian peers." My emphasis on "rural" is to point out that the rural/small town military members are not perhaps as driven by economics as the AP article would suggest.

It is also interesting that Montana and Alaska earn mention in the Heritage Foundation report as the two states outside the South that are disproportionately represented in the military.

These two states have, at least in common perception, some of the most independent-minded and libertarian citizens in the country. It might at first glance seem counterintuitive that such people would join the military. Could it be that there is we (along with the South) have an acute awareness of the fact that liberty often has a price?

Nick Stump said...

Check out ruralstrategies.org for more information on this story. I think you'll see this high rural death rate has some economic underpinnings. We've lost a lot of jobs in rural America, and though we're plenty patriotic the sad state of rural economics can't be ignored.

liberal_dem said...

My location is urban northern Ohio and for many many months I have been trying to figure out why rural America is so disproportionately represented in the military members serving in Iraq.

I knew that the economic conditions often drew the underemployed, as it does in urban areas. It also suckered those who could not pay for college, thus snookering the middle class's children.

Yet, my thesis is that rural America is not well served by honest media. When I travel outside of an urban area, the country music stations dominate the airways and with that comes FoxNews or Clear Channel News or other feeds from conservative news sites.

If a young man is continually fed this selective news with a conservative spin and patriotic flavor [especially back in late 2002 and 2003] surely the younger, rural generation will be more thoroughly 'brainwashed' into believing those half-truths wrapped up in the flag than urban youth who are exposed to mostly unfiltered news sans the flag.

Am I on the right track here?

Montana Headlines said...

Nick, you are certainly correct that the economic state of rural America is sad. But then, it has always been sad. The population in rural counties up in this part of the country have been dropping steadily for 100 years, and it has yet to be seen if it will bottom out.

One of the bedrock principles that underlies Montana Headlines is a commitment to rural Montana's interests. We still believe that overall, the Republican party best represents rural America.

But we also believe that that will only remain true if Republican rural expatriates remember where they came from, and remind the GOP that not only should they not take rural America for granted (a losing political strategy), but that they should be taking the lead in understanding and protecting the interests of their most loyal constituents.

We would note that if it were only economics, economically depressed urban areas would be just as disproportionately represented in the military as are rural Americans, and that's just not the case. They are represented more heavily than rich urbanites, but it should be remembered that there is nothing new about using the military as a "way out" -- or more accurately, a "way up" for the less economically privileged, rural and urban alike.

Liberal Dem, you have a good point, but we wouldn't go so far as to say that you are on the right track.

During our own sojourns in urban America, our own experiences would hardly lead us to characterize the urban media as "unfiltered." We are also old enough around here to remember the days before talk radio and cable TV -- let alone things like XM radio.

We in rural America watched the same major media national news and our radio stations carried the same major network feeds that our urban counterparts listened to.

One of the fixtures of rural and small town America are the little restaurants and gas stations where local men sit around in the morning drinking coffee and solving the world's problems.

Believe me, they largely believed that the major networks and wire services were biased liars back then just as much as they believe it now. Chalk it up to well-honed skills of spotting slick snake-oil salesmen of one sort or another.

There is one sense in which you are right, though. We suspect that the presence of an alternative media on the right that gave voice to the "this war will be a cakewalk" pundits made this war possible. Without media support, no war is possible, which is why authoritarian governments like to seize control of such outlets.

The media freely and enthusiastically supported all the Democratic wars -- Wilson's, FDR's, Truman's, and Kennedy/Johnson's. Without that support, American history in the 20th c. would have been very different.

Then and now, there is everywhere an absence of the "let's mind our own business but have plenty of dry powder" attitudes that rural Americans would have been more inclined to identify with.

We doubt, however, that the presence or absence of war (and thus the treatment of it by any segment of the media) would affect rural America's fundamental support of the military or our disproportionate proclivity to don the uniform.

Thanks for the excellent comments.