SOUTHERN VIEW: PART II - THE MILITARY By Jim Elliott (Article)
Jim Elliott and Joan Ann
Canadians temporarily resident in the American South usually look on their surroundings, and neighbours, with great affection and recognize many similarities. They cannot however, avoid being struck by many marked differences.
Among these is the vastly larger role played by the military both as it is, and through the influence of past service by the more numerous veterans. There are a lot of explanations for these differences. The United States has five armed services, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Each has an active and a reserve component, additionally there are land and air (but not navy) National Guards, a form of state-based troops available to be summoned for national service or to be used on the orders of the state governor in case of natural or other disasters.
In strictly macro-economic terms, the USA spends about 3.8% of GDP on defense while we spend about 1.2% of a GDP barely one-tenth the size of America’s. This means that America’s current defense spending is almost forty times our own. This difference is even more obvious in the South where, for a variety of reasons, the US military seems to be disproportionately based. The reasons for this concentration in the South have included; the weather which makes all-year training possible, historically cheaper land prices, and the Southern tendency to keep elected representatives in office even longer than other areas. These long-in-the-tooth representatives acquired great influence due to their seniority, became chairmen of important committees, and were able to deliver military bases to bolster their constituencies’ economic base. “Pork” has acquired a pejorative meaning, but “bringing home the bacon” is still expected of a State’s representatives.
It seems that each major southern city, and many a minor one, has one or more military bases in its hinterland. Georgia with thirteen military bases, has done particularly well, supported by political leaders such as Sam Nunn and Newt Gingrich: Atlanta has Fort MacPherson, and an air base, Macon has Robins AFB, Columbus has Fort Benning, Augusta; Fort Gordon, Savannah; Hunter Army Airfield, Albany; a Marine logistical unit, Brunswick; King’s Bay Naval Base, well, you get the picture. Alabama, Florida and the other states have done almost as well. Even Beaufort, SC (pop. About 12,000) where I spend my winters has three military bases in the immediate vicinity: Parris Island, the Marine Corps basic training camp for all recruits from east of the Mississippi, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (which probably has more F-18s assigned to it than Canada owns) and a naval hospital.
The economic impact of these bases is enormous, particularly in the smaller communities. Parris Island graduates some 20,000 newly-minted Marines each year and each one averages four friends and relatives to watch him or her graduate. The effect of 80,000 visitors on a small city can well be imagined. Some of the local hotels rely on Parris Island graduations for thirty-five or forty percent of their business on a winter week-end. Understandably Southern cities live in some fear of losing “their” military base, although those, like Charleston or Jacksonville, which have lost a base due to past base closure operations seem to have recovered pretty well. It remains to be seen whether places afflicted by future closings will fare as well in the changed economic climate. In any case, each state and region has mobilized all its community resources to ensure the survival of “its” bases.
It should not be surprising that this very much larger military, assisted by the imposition of compulsory military service (something unknown in Canada since the second World War) in both the Korean and Viet-Nam wars, has resulted in a much larger, and politically more influential, number of veterans. These veterans, like the active military, seem somewhat concentrated in the South, drawn by the weather (like all retirees) and the accessibility of support facilities ranging from PX’s to Veterans’ and military medical facilities. These numbers were forcibly brought home last week when, at the end of its concert program, the touring U.S. Air Force “American Heritage Band.” played a medley of the songs of each of the five US armed services and the veterans of each service stood to attention for their song. Nearly every male, and many of the females in the audience stood as the songs of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard were played. All were represented even if the Coast Guard, the smallest service, had only two veterans in the hall. (They got an especially strong round of applause.)
I cannot recall a Canadian politician’s military experience, or lack thereof, being used to any effect in a political campaign. Such references are common and often even crucial in American campaigns where either party is keen to exploit some perceived weakness or exaggeration in an opponent’s military career while stressing the exemplary service of its own candidate.
The on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prospect of further conflict elsewhere seem to guarantee that this influence of the military, past and present, will continue for quite some time to come. It is sobering to remember that, even as Canadians quite rightly mourn our casualties in Afghanistan, the forty-to-one ratio I referred to above is being maintained when American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are included.
The military influence is not limited to active and reserve service members and veterans. Nearly every high school and even some middle schools have a junior ROTC contingent. Numerous private military schools are found throughout the States but seem especially popular in the South. Most universities have ROTC programs for one or more of the armed services, and several of the States (Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina come to mind) have tax-supported, university level military colleges as part of the State’s university system
This greatly larger military, past and present, has led to some very obvious differences in Canadians’ and Americans’ views of the military and even expressions of patriotism. I have no doubt that we are each equally attached to our respective country, but our methods of expressing it vary somewhat. Anyone who can remember the days, or nights, when TV stations actually went off the air, can recall the differences in sign-off pictures used to accompany the national anthem of each country. Even today, the respective celebrations of National Days on July first and fourth differ, although there seems to be some convergence as we move toward the American model. Indeed the pervasive influence of the American military can readily be felt in Canada through the readily available military based movies and television shows including NCIS and “The Unit.” Canadians might be surprised to learn that the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) actually exists and has small detachments at both Parris Island and Beaufort’s Marine Corps Air Station.
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