Why you should care
Because in some parts of America, the call to duty is heard more clearly than in others.
Much has been written in recent years about the growing gulf between the worlds inhabited by America’s civilians and the members of its military, whose 1.34 million active-duty personnel, as of May 2016, account for just 0.4 percent of the population. One of the more remarkable, but less noticed, aspects of this divide is its geographical bent.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent Population Representation in the Military Services report:
Almost 44 percent of all military recruits came from the South.
That’s despite the region having only about 36 percent of the nation’s relevant population. And Southerners have been similarly overrepresented in military recruiting classes for decades now — since 1990, they have consistently made up more than two-fifths of America’s enlistees.
Are the young Americans inhabiting the 16 states and the District of Columbia that make up the U.S. Census’ South Region somehow more patriotic than their counterparts in the other 34 states? Why — now that we are more than 150 years removed from the Civil War — is the Union’s army so disproportionately Southern?
Many throughout history have observed the martial qualities of the Southerner. As he camped in Mississippi in September 1863, Union General William T. Sherman observed in a letter of the “young bloods of the South” he had been fighting:
War suits them, and the rascals are brave, fine riders, bold to rashness … and they are the most dangerous set of men that this war has turned loose upon the world. They … must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.
More recently, in a 1997 interview, former Senator and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb observed of his own Southern, Scotch-Irish heritage, that “we have been soldiers for 2,000 years. The military virtues have been passed down at the dinner table.” Research suggests, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the South has a distinct history of violence and a culture of honor that can be traced back to the Scotch-Irish herders who settled there — more belligerent than farming communities because they must protect their flocks — and that still persists today. Could this culture of honor and military tradition help explain the Southerners’ disproportionate numbers in the U.S. armed forces?
While there may be some regional difference in the propensity to serve, says Anita Hattiangadi, a research team leader at the Center for Naval Analyses, which prepares the PopRep report for the DOD, the higher military recruitment numbers in the South can likely be attributed to a number of other factors as well, including regional differences in “veteran populations, school accessibility, recruiter distribution and goaling, and the location of military bases.”
Indeed, it is important to remember that the South is not only where many members of the military are from but also where they live and work. Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas are home to a number of military bases, and if you add in California, then almost half of the nation’s active-duty service members reside in those five states alone. Given that roughly 80 percent of those who serve have, like Webb, a parent or sibling in the military, it makes sense that the children growing up around these bases where their parents work will be more likely to enlist.
This factor is supported by the historical data. In the first decade and a half that the DOD did its PopRep report (1973–87), the South’s representation among enlistees was closer to its share of the population (33 to 36 percent), but after military base closures and realignment during the late 1980s and early 1990s moved forces away from the West and Northeast, and concentrated them more heavily in the Southern and coastal “Gun Belt” states, then the Southern enlistee numbers followed suit.
The result today, in many ways, is a separate warrior class, concentrated in the South and living in isolated military communities and installations like Fayetteville, North Carolina. The families making up these communities may have a proud tradition of service, but it can be a double-edged saber they carry. “When you see other cultures having strengths that don’t require you to go out and get your butt shot off,” observes Webb, “this particular cultural strength seems thankless and kind of a curse, but it’s there.”