Connecting the Army recruiting dots

gc125 arI’m curious. I wonder if the trend covered in this story — “Youths in Rural U.S. Are Drawn To Military” — has anything to do with two other stories that I have tried to follow closely for this blog. I refer to the growing tensions among military chaplains and the growing tensions about religious expression at military academies.

Here’s the lead from reporter Ann Scott Tyson at The Washington Post:

As sustained combat in Iraq makes it harder than ever to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer force, newly released Pentagon demographic data show that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed, rural areas where youths’ need for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war.

More than 44 percent of U.S. military recruits come from rural areas, Pentagon figures show. In contrast, 14 percent come from major cities. Youths living in the most sparsely populated Zip codes are 22 percent more likely to join the Army, with an opposite trend in cities. Regionally, most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and West (24 percent).

I wonder if there are similar patterns among the men and women stepping forward to be chaplains? To apply for acceptance at the military academies? There are more Southern Baptists and Pentecostal believers in small towns than there are Episcopalians and Unitarian Universalists.

This story focuses on the role that hard times play in smaller rural communities, pushing many young people to enlist in the military for economic reasons. I have no doubt that this plays a major role in this trend. However, it does not take a degree in demographics — after recent years of red-blue and “pew gap” studies — to wonder if this Pentagon study doesn’t raise religious questions, as well. (Personal note: Yes, it is hard for this commentator to avoid use of the unpopular “ghost” metaphor at this point.)

In other words, we can probably expect more tensions between military personnel from red zip codes and lawyers working for elites in blue zip codes.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Harris

    The real split seems to be the rural/urban split. That it seems is less religious one, although admittedly correlated with faith, than a class issue. This class line has been a standard feature of armed services, generally, so it is difficult to infuse it with any special religious meaning.

    A more interesting question to unravel is the role of chaplains: as the Evangelicals move to a middle class status, does this open up the same class gap between enlisted and officers? does the Evangelical from Colorado Springs start thinking different from the Evangelical from Paw Paw, MI? We could still be faced with the same rural-elite, class-denominated split, even while sharing the same faith.

  • Vanna

    >>The war is also attracting youths driven by patriotism, including a growing fringe of the upper class and wealthy, but military sociologists believe that greater numbers of young people who would have joined for economic reasons are being discouraged by the prolonged combat.

  • Vanna

    Supporting the Bush Administration is either unbelievably stupid or incredibly corrupt. It’s not “Christian.”

  • Vanna

    So it would seem that children of the “elites” (buzzword for “bad liberals”) are motivated by . . . PATRIOTISM, while the good-conservative-Christian soldiers are motivated by money.

  • Vanna

    Among the elites (buzzword for “wicked evil anti-Jesus liberals”) you would have to include Pat Robertson (gold from Africa), Ralph Reed (casino money), and Jerry Falwell (don’t even go there).

    Think Pat Robertson doesn’t enjoy fine food and clothes? Think Ralph Reed drinks Bud and lives in a $38K cottage?

  • R Hargrave

    “ghosts” is a good metaphor, and by now a well-known tmattism. Nothing wrong with it.

  • Avram

    Terry, is “elite” a euphemism for “rich” (or at least “not poor”) in this post? Or is there something else there?

    I’ve been hearing GOP propagandists use “elite” for years (maybe decades now) when referring to people they don’t like, generally northeasterners. It seems to connote some sort of combination of wealthy, educated, and powerful in either politics or business, but generally falls apart on closer examination.

  • tmatt


    My friend, there are elites both left and right. In the blue zip codes, the elites tend to be liberal. In the red zones, they are more mixed. Think Austin vs. Dallas. You do have some places where there is a true elite of cultural conservatism, but not many places. Perhaps Colorado Springs. ;-)

  • Chas S. Clifton

    The religious angle is intriguing, but living in a county with fewer than 3,000 people and no large towns, I can tell you that in rural and small-town America, military=job first and foremost.

    It’s tougher to be poor in the country than in the city: fewer social services, no public transportation, and so on. Lots of areas are really hurting, even in so-called blue sttes.

  • Avram

    But elite in what respect, Terry?

    I know people with PhDs who are earning below-average salaries and have no political power other than the right to vote and write to politicians. Are they elites?

    Take Peggy Noonan, for example. I’ve heard her describe liberals like myself as “elites”. And yet: She and I have equivalent education backgrounds (bacehlor’s degrees in the arts), and she is wealthier and more politically connected than I am. In what rational way am I an elite and she not?

    In short, two questions: (1) Exactly what of you mean by “elite”, and (2) Are you sure this is the best descriptive term for whatever it is you mean by it?

  • holmegm

    The ghost metaphor is fine (and effective) by me.

  • Matt

    One danger the reporter seemed not to think of is the lack of liberals and Democrats in the military. When I was a soldier in the 1980s the dominence of conservatives was noticiable (Several NCOs and officers in my battalin were members of the Freedmen but none were members of the ACLU. I know because I was the mail clerk.) If most military recruits are coming from “red states”, as Tyson reports, I can only imagine that the military is now more conservative and Republican than ever before. While I don’t think there is any danger of a coups, it doesn’t seem like a good thing for the people with the guns to be solidly on one side of the political spectrum.

  • ECJ

    “It doesn’t seem like a good thing for the people with the guns to be solidly on one side of the political spectrum.”

    And it isn’t going to get better anytime soon, because there really isn’t any internally coherent argument in a liberal world view for joining up. Authority. Regimentation. Submersion of autonomy. Sacrifice of personal liberty. These things all come with the Uniform, but none mix well with a Liberal perspective.


  • Michael

    These things all come with the Uniform, but none mix well with a Liberal perspective.

    Except it’s poverty, not patriotism, that is motivating recruitment. African Americans–the most politically liberal sector of our society–join the military in disproportionately higher numbers. Same goes for Latinos.

    Maybe a bigger concern is when it is poor people who control the guns and they realize their poverty is being exploited by the wealthy, conservative elites who use the military. :)

  • tmatt


    On issues of pews and culture, African-Americans are not “liberal.” They are old-coalition Democrats, for the most part.

    As the Democratic Party leaders in, well, Ohio. Ask John Kerry.

  • http://JAVA ECJ

    “Maybe a bigger concern is when it is poor people who control the guns and they realize their poverty is being exploited by the wealthy, conservative elites who use the military.”

    An ironic statement to post on this the 88th aniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. We all know how that event played itself out for the ‘poor people who controlled the guns.’ Except it was the Checkists who controlled the guns, and they weren’t poor.


  • Michael

    Or ask George Bush, who thought he could lure African Americans to the Republican side by focusing on gay marriage, etc. They voted against gay marriage, then pulled the lever for Kerry. There was a 1% increase in African Americans voting for Bush. THe same approach appears to have also failed in luring Latinos, who are culturally conservative but economically and politically liberal.

  • Joe Long

    Another interesting phrase: that rural youths are weighing the “risks” of going to war and finding them outweighed by economic benefits. As a rural kid who signed up as a reservist in late ’90, when Desert Shield was clearly about to become a war – I and my comrades were not so much “weighing the risks” as deliberately signing up FOR the war – out of duty, adventure-lust or whatever; many of us (especially the active duty types) might not have signed up in peacetime!

    This is something reporters are even less likely to understand than religion. Crusaders themselves, they are nonetheless often blind to ideological motivations in others.

  • Joe Long

    Oh – and double-check the stats on the “disproportionate” enlistment of black Americans. I think you might be surprised. Especially if you get more specific about it and look at who volunteers for “combat arms” jobs – Infantry, Artillery, Armor, “boots on the ground” jobs. I don’t think you’ll find racial imbalance.

  • Michael

    African Americans represent 25% of the Army and despite drops in enlistment linked to disenchantment with the war, still enlist disproportionately in the Reserves. Their regular duty numbers are getting closer to the actual numbers in the population.

    Joe is correct that deaths in Iraq haven’t been disproportionate along racial lines, except maybe an overrepresenation of Latinos. In terms of the overall military, it does appear that Whites are disporportionately dying in Iraq.

    I wonder if those rural White kids knew these numebrs, they would be such a recruiting goldmine.

  • Joe Long

    “I wonder if those rural White kids knew these numbers, they would be such a recruiting goldmine. ”

    History and American tradition say “yes”. The Marines, as usual, are taking (and of course inflicting) disproportionate casualties – and, as usual, are the only service meeting their recruiting goals.

    Also, Michael, you restricted your racial stats to the Army – adding the other services in would make things more evenhanded.

  • Michael

    adding the other services in would make things more evenhanded.

    Not really. African Americans are overrepresented among enlisted troops in all branches except the Marines, where their numbers are fairly close to the general population. While the perecentages are lower when it comes to officers, African Americans are still overrepresented when compared to the general population that would be qualified to be officers (based on education, etc.) in all branches, except the Marines.