Bush's martyrs

Michael Lind reveals who is really fighting in Iraq: southerners who, unlike the secularised Puritan

''Keep the soldiers happy," the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, on his deathbed, reportedly advised his successor. At the moment, this is a challenge that President George W Bush is struggling to meet. Most US military officers were opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a project concocted and supervised by civilian appointees such as the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and the staff of the vice-president, Dick Cheney. Prolonged deployments of National Guard units are making the families of America's "weekend warriors" angry and stressed, and morale is reportedly low among America's overstretched career soldiers. As American and coalition casualties climb day by day in Iraq, Bush's boasting on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln looks ever more like hubris. And the likelihood of Bush's Democratic opponent in the November presidential election being a Vietnam veteran who was decorated for bravery at a time when Bush avoided combat duty in Vietnam by serving in the National Guard in Texas and Alabama makes things even more difficult.

Will dissent by the US military undermine a politician who is running for re-election as a war president? Bush's opponents may hope so. But there is little chance that the Democratic opposition can capitalise on the disillusionment of American soldiers with their commander-in-chief.

Geography is the reason. Since the draft was abolished in 1973 in the United States, the percentage of recruits to the military from the south and west of the country has risen, while the proportion of soldiers from the north and north-east has declined. Between 1985 and 2001, according to the defence department, the percentage of all recruits from the south rose from 34 per cent to 42 per cent. Meanwhile, recruitment from the north-east, as a percentage of the whole, has dropped from 22 per cent in 1977 to less than 14 per cent in 2001.

The claim that minorities are over-represented in the military is a myth. Black Americans are slightly over-represented among enlisted personnel, but they are represented in the officer corps at roughly the same level as they are represented in the comparable, college-educated civilian workforce. Latinos are under-represented in the military, compared with their numbers in the population. The groups that are truly over-represented in America's armed forces are whites from the south and west.

As the south and west have grown increasingly Republican in political orientation, they have accounted for an ever-growing share of US military personnel - while the new Democratic heartland of the north-east has contributed fewer and fewer soldiers over time to the military. The result is that the US military has become strikingly Republican in partisanship. Soldiers are not compelled to divulge their party loyalties. But the leading students of the subject believe that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the US military by a factor of 2:1 - and, in the officer corps, by as much as 8:1.

This explains, among other things, why Democratic supporters of Al Gore, during the contested presidential election of 2000, sought to use technicalities to disqualify absentee ballots by Florida soldiers serving overseas - a tactic that backfired by making them look unpatriotic. It also explains why Bill Clinton turned to a Republican, William Cohen, to be his defence secretary, and worked with a series of chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were certainly or probably Republican. It is getting harder to find Democratic politicians who served in the military or know anything about it.

What explains the north-south disparity in both American politics and the American military? The media lazily explain it in terms of divisions between "left" and "right", but many egalitarian, anti-corporate southern liberals are far more hawkish than many elitist northern conservatives. As the American historian David Hackett Fischer and others have observed, the north and south of the United States were populated during the British colonial period by groups with different views of the military. The culture of New England is shaped by the legacy of the Puritans, who associated military pomp and war with royalism and aristocracy. Southern culture, by contrast, has been shaped by two colonial-era subcultures - the patrician "cavaliers" of the lowland south, whose ancestors fought for Charles I and who emulated the militaristic British aristocracy, and the Scots-Irish "hillbillies" of the Appalachians and Ozarks, who were less genteel but just as pugnacious as the southern lords of the manor.

The deeply ingrained militarism of southern culture means that they have a higher tolerance of battle losses than Americans in other regions. White southerners are more likely to die in America's foreign wars - but for two centuries they have also been more likely to support America's foreign wars. Even when it was clear that they were going to lose, the southern Confederates fought on in the American civil war until they sustained losses which, as a percentage of the south's population, were comparable with those suffered by Britain, France, Germany and Russia during the two world wars. The south may sour on the Iraq adventure - but not because 500 soldiers, or 1,000, is too high a price. Southerners believe there is no greater honour than dying for one's country - and their high levels of religiosity afford the comfort of belief in an afterlife as well.

The power of the military ethic in the south and south-west means that the Democrats are almost certainly wrong to hope that the military record of John Kerry will neutralise Bush's advantage among military and pro-military voters. It is more likely that Kerry's words and statements as an anti-Vietnam war activist, following his service in Vietnam, will neutralise his combat record.

The idea that the Vietnam experience turned soldiers into guilt-stricken pacifists is another myth dear to the liberal left. Polls over the past few decades have shown that Vietnam veterans are somewhat more likely than those who never served to support US military action. To some extent, the hawkish attitudes of Vietnam vets may represent self-selection, because in spite of the draft, young men with moral objections to war in general had ample opportunity to avoid military service during the Vietnam years. This may impair Kerry's ability, if he is the Democratic nominee, to win the support of veterans, because since the 1970s he has opposed most US military interventions overseas, from the invasion of Grenada to the first Gulf war (opportunistically, he voted to authorise Bush's invasion of Iraq, only to criticise it after the fact). Despite his heroic service record, Kerry is no more likely to win over centrist and conservative Vietnam vets than any other Massachusetts liberal.

This is not to say that Bush faces no difficulties with American soldiers and their families. There is a genuine rift between the neoconservative civilians in the Pentagon and the office of the vice-president, and the conservatives in uniform who tend to represent the views of the southern and western Republican voters. Walter Russell Mead has described southern and western culture as "Jacksonian" (after the bellicose American general and president Andrew Jackson). Like the neo-cons, Jacksonians are unilateralists who dislike and distrust the UN and other international institutions which might constrain American power. Unlike the neo-cons, though, Jacksonians do not dream of an American empire spreading democracy abroad. In their view, the US should strike down enemies and then come home. Nation-building is seen by southern and western conservatives as a trap.

If Bush had been challenged this year for the Republican nomination, his challenger might well have taken advantage of the divide between the neo-cons and the Jacksonians. But Bush is running unopposed, and the Democrats, committed for the most part to the idea of nation-building as part of liberal internationalism, cannot play this card against Bush. Jacksonian voters disillusioned with Bush's neoconservative Iraq war may sit on their hands, but they are unlikely to vote for a Democrat.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Republican Party obtained an enduring presidential majority, interrupted only by Jimmy Carter, because voters trusted them with defence at a time when the Soviet Union was a superpower with troops in half of Europe and nuclear submarines prowling American coastlines. The era of great-power peace following 1989 made possible Clinton's two terms. By calling the war on terrorism "World War IV" and prolonging post-9/11 anxiety, the Republican right hopes to marginalise liberal Democrats once again.

In doing so, they find unwitting allies among American liberals. The deep strain of pacifism and anti-militarism on today's American left comes out of Puritanism and Quaker religious culture, rather than out of the Marxist left. For a generation, American progressives have made the strategic mistake of opposing not merely particular wars but the military itself. In the 1970s, anti-Vietnam fervour led liberal Ivy League schools to ban the Reserve Officer Training Corps from campuses; and in the 1990s, the exclusion of openly gay citizens from the military led them to renew the ban. We have seen the result: there are twice as many conservative Republican soldiers as liberal Democrat ones. In the north-east and Pacific coast, environmentalists and anti-military activists on the left have successfully discouraged armaments production and military bases. Result: those institutions are located mostly in the southern and western "gun belt", where the hawkish predilections of voters are reinforced by economic self-interest. To make matters worse, in the two and a half years since al-Qaeda attacked the US, no leading Democrat has come up with a convincing, detailed military strategy as an alternative to Bush's. Democratic calls for more "multilateralism" are easily caricatured by Republicans as the claim that foreign countries should be given a veto over America's national defence.

If the American public re-elects Bush and entrusts the White House to Republican commanders-in-chief, part of the reason will be the unilateral disarmament of the American left.

Michael Lind, the Whitehead Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, is the author of Made in Texas: George W Bush and the southern takeover of American politics