The Municipal Military: The Impact of the Armed Services on Urban America

I gave my heart to the Army/
The only sentimental thing I could think of/
With cousins and colors and somewhere overseas/
But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me

— “Lemonworld” from High Violet by the National

Since transitioning to an all volunteer force, America’s relationship to the military hasn’t been the same. The change brought greater gender and racial diversity as African Americans poured into the services at rates that far exceeded their presence in the larger population. For example, by 1979, only six years after the transformation, the percentage of Black enlisted personal climbed to 28%, nearly three times the proportion of their demographics in the broader American public and up 18% from 1970.  These percentages declined to between roughly 21% and 23% in the 1980s. By 1990s and 2000s they diminished further as greater opportunities in the private sector, increased access to college, and a sense that the military may not be as colorblind as advertised contributed to further decline — 15% — above the 10% of 1970, but a near record low for the AVF era.  Still, if Black enlistment declined, Latino (10% by 2001) and Asian participation in the armed forces grew, even if at rates far below their African American counterparts.  In terms of gender, it comes as no surprise that the AVF ushered in an age of unprecedented military service by women. In the 1950s and 1960s, women’s enlistment reached barely above 1%, however, in the wake of the AVF, numbers rose to 8.4% in 1980 and 15% by 2001.   (For more on the AVF, see Beth Bailey)

For those born after 1973, the modern AVF remains the only military ever known to us. When the National’s Matt Berninger crooned “it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me,” he hardly meant that as a testament to “beer pong” and all night study sessions, but rather an implicit statement about Generation X’s remove from service and the class based implications of this distance. The closest Berninger gets are “cousins and colors overseas,” a common refrain from a large segment of America. Catherine Lutz pinpoints this discrepancy in her 2001 work Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century when she observes that some residents of Fayetteville, NC view enlisted personnel at local Fort Brag as “low class types who enlist for a job.”  These residents often associate the military with drugs and forms of social dysfunction. (Lutz, 207).

Yet, this idea regarding service personnel as somehow lower class did not originate with  AVF.  Veteran Paul Lewis reflected on Fayetteville’s less than open acceptance of personnel in the early 1950s. “The community of Fayetteville did not want to embrace the soldiers.  They did everything they possibly could to keep them out,” Lewis remembered. (118)

This kind of “othering” crossed racial lines. Andrew Myers notes that in Columbia, SC, African American soldiers in the postwar period and well before the all volunteer force, struggled with acceptance among the city’s black population.  Despite a linked fate and shared experience regarding discrimination, many in Columbia’s Black community resented the presence of African American enlisted personnel. “Even the colored people are divided into two classes: those in uniform and those not,” noted one letter writer in Myers’s 2006 work, Black, White and Olive Drab: Racial Integration at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and the Civil Rights Movement.

If Lutz’s overall argument suggests that the military exacerbates social and political pathologies in places like Fayetteville and Myers casts a more ambivalent but positive view of the military’s effect on civil rights in Columbia, Carol Lynn McKibben argues that through the shared experience and conservative ethos of military service at Fort Ord, Seaside, CA witnessed a multi-racial 20th century that, though not free of racial tension and controversy, established a more inclusive and progressive political municipality. Though McKibben acknowledges the work of Lutz and Myers in her 2012 work, Racial Beachhead: Diversity and Democracy in a Military Town, she notes that both authors focus on towns in the American South, “a region most resistant to racial integration.” (6) The West, she argues, provides a different example. Taken together, these three works provide new and valuable insights into military and metropolitan histories that for the most part have gone unexamined.

Fort Ord 1984

Has military life ever been so distant for such a large section of America? Fewer members of Congress can claim any connection to the armed services today than any other time in the post-WWII era.  However, in parts of America like large swaths of California, Virginia and Texas among others, the military remains a powerful local presence influencing social relations, shaping economies, and bending politics. In their respective works, Lutz, Myers, and McKibben clearly differ on just how this all shakes out, but they lay a solid groundwork for future exploration.

In the overall thrust of her work, Lutz takes the harshest line.  Politically, due in part to increased deployments required by America’s global presence, military installations breed low voting rates which in turn cause politicians to ignore many of the “urbanized parts of the county where many of them have lived.” (206) Economically, the military spending of the 1980s exacerbated the gap between rich and poor in Fayetteville, causing, she argues, unions to grow weaker.  New technological weapons systems required fewer workers and attracted skilled, more white collar service personnel and defense employees.  Add to this the anti-union attitudes harbored by many military industrial managers and the Pentagon’s encouragement over the years that companies relocate to nonunion locations, “sometimes billing taxpayers for the move,” asserts Lutz, and one can see the problem.

For women, Lutz sees real drawbacks. The requirements of service, notably its transience, often place increased pressures on spouses such that even if highly skilled or educated, many cannot commit to regular employment. This creates a “large transient reserve labor force of soldiers’ spouses,” which endures lower pay and more joblessness. “The woman who sells towels at one Fayetteville department store was formerly an assistant city planner in a major city, while the person behind the cosmetics counter there has an MBA,” observes Lutz.  For enlisted personnel, Lutz argues that the military remains an institution with deep faith in “male supremacy” and that combined with its need to control the lives of enlistees, penalizes female soldiers who are forced to endure sexual harassment and in more extreme cases, rape.

Positives do exist. The income gap between black and white residents falls below that of many other cities and Lutz acknowledges increased integration rates in neighborhoods near military installations, but this rarely extends into areas in Fayetteville more remote from Ft. Bragg. With that said, Fayetteville ranks as the nation’s fourth most integrated metropolitan area, so clearly there is some effect.

Class matters too. With a pay ratio of highest to lowest paid employee, the military scores 8:1.  To put this in perspective, Lutz points out that many corporations can be 1000 to 1.  In this way, Lutz equates the “egalitarian pay” of the military to a “progressive Ben and Jerry’s.”  For Fayetteville, this has meant a “flatter class structure” and a more vibrant middle class than would have otherwise been possible.   Unfortunately, even with these positives, the city’s reputation among the general North Carolina population remains dubious. “Many people think of Fayetteville, as I have told again and again, as a place to get a dozen beers and a sexual disease,” Lutz writes.

Bucolic Seaside, CA

If Lutz sees more negatives than positives, McKibben argues oppositely.  For McKibben, Fort Ord created Seaside, CA, a working and middle class town within a constellation of prosperous beach municipalities dotting the Pacific Coast’s Monterrey Peninsula.  Unlike Columbia, where military officials and local authorities clashed over crime rates in WWII and the pace of integration in the civil rights era (we’ll return to this in a few moments), Seaside demonstrated greater capacity for collective action, whether it be regarding 1950s racial discrimination (“[the city’s] sizeable population of diverse whites and Asian Americans were less tolerant of racism than the general civilian population at the time” [78-79]) or while struggling with rising crime rates due to the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  “Seaside was a desirable place for many black, Asian, Latino, and white middle class retired military personnel to live in and invest in,” McKibben notes, “and many committed to making the city a safe place, rather than fleeing from it when high crime rates might have driven them away.” (179)

McKibben focuses more directly on the city’s politics and the “individual history” of Seaside itself. Though Myers examines the interactions between the military and Columbia’s municipal government, he tells the story of this specific relationship rather than how the military influenced the city’s overall governance. In addition, in terms of population size, Seaside (34,000)  falls well short of Fayetteville (200,000) or Columbia (130,000). Depending on how one defines suburb, one might argue McKibben delivers perhaps the first story of postwar military suburbanization.


The Civil Rights Era in a Military Town

Since the late 1990s, Charles Moskos and others have argued that the military integrated better than any other private or public company or organization in America. According to these authors, the study of its internal workings could provide America with a societal road map for anti-racism. In general, Lutz and Myers question this conclusion or at least suggest that there exists a greater level of complexity to such arguments.  Sure, FDR’s 1941 executive order desegregated defense industry hiring and Truman’s order of 1948 did the same, at least legally, to the armed services.  However, even if the military promoted integration before civil society by over half a decade (let’s consider 1954’s Brown v Board as the benchmark), the implementation of these policies varied.  The armed services deserve credit but at the same time this idealized view requires some scrubbing.

When Lee Nichols published the timely 1954 book Breakthrough on the Color Front, depicting a desegregating Fort Jackson free from the turmoil, violence, and heartbreak of the civil right movement, he provided what would become a staple of Defense Department “official history” regarding the armed services and integration. In the 1993 reprint of the book, Nichols even claimed that his work influenced two justices ruling in the Brown v Board decision.  Undoubtedly, the military deserves credit for its desegregation efforts and the opportunities it provides working class people and minorities, but Andrew Myers finds a more ambivalent civil rights narrative in his military history of Fort Jackson and Columbia, South Carolina.  For Myers, Nichols’ work remains important but the vaunted journalist never gained access to sociological reports conducted by experts whose findings remained classified until the mid-1960s and failed to look back further than 1954 to see how the racial violence of the 1940s  “hastened the end of military segregation [at Fort Jackson] and elsewhere.” To summarize Myers succinctly, Fort Jackson deserves credit for the example that it set for the surrounding civil community, but commanders failed to act in the most crucial moments of the civil rights movement when action meant the most.

Of the three, Myers focuses on the shortest time period — WWII through the 1970s – and specifically on the issue of civil rights.  Lutz and McKibben provide longer histories stretching from pre WWI to the present, but their work overlaps in several areas with that of Myers: most importantly for our purposes, the civil rights movement, housing issues of the 1960s, and Vietnam.

As noted, the military’s relation to local and state governance serves as a central aspect of Black, White, and Olive Drab and in some places Myers reveals the idiosyncracies of Southern politics.  For example, integration at Fort Jackson coincided with the outbreak of the Korean War, which made local politicians, notably those seeking office, less inclined to critique military protocol, but Democratic control of state politics mattered too. This meant that the real elections took place in July, during the primaries. November general election proved forgone conclusions.  Even firebrands like Strom Thurmond kept quiet, though as Myers points out, Thurmond may have maintained silence for very personal reasons: “as a veteran of WWII, Thurmond still held a commission as a colonel in the Army reserve,” making him eligible for military duty.  (86) Thus, when Fort Jackson finally integrated in September of 1951, little controversy arose.

To be clear, a handful of divisions remained segregated like the 3431st Service Area (until 1952) or the Thirty-first Infantry Division (known as the Dixie Division and part of the National Guard which Myers and others have pointed out has a history of racism).

Desegregation of bases, forts, and camps unfolded unevenly. The Pentagon produced no overarching plan for integration, leaving base and fort commanders to navigate their own course.  According to Myers, the only constant in its policies was the lengths officials went to “keep quiet about what happened.”  Myers credits the use of secrecy in keeping Fort Jackson’s desegregation quiet and out of the public eye for much of its initial success.

The pace of integration did not only depend on policy directives and secrecy. Physical conditions came into play.  The lack of facilities and space at Fort Jackson encouraged integration but at larger installations like Fort Dix, New Jersey where there existed a long established segregated infrastructure that could more efficiently process Black troops, desegregation took longer.  (84) Even with the base’s hiccups and residual levels of segregation and discrimination, Collins George, journalist for the Pittsburgh Courrier commented that considering the surrounding area, race relations at Fort Jackson appeared “particularly advanced.” (95)

Off base proved a different story.  Though transportation on base grounds had to be integrated, once vehicles left federal property, things changed. “Buses literally stopped outside the post gates so that passengers could reseat themselves,” Myers points out. “For Black soldiers, the rule brought into sharper focus the contradiction between the ideals they defended and the conditions under which they lived.” (109) Confrontations on public buses between Black service personnel resisting Jim Crow segregation grew fairly common, such that drivers actually tried to avoid confrontations rather than engage in argument.  Eventually these incidents and one in particular which grabbed national attention, led Fort Jackson leaders to notify soldiers that though integration ruled the Fort, in the community service personnel had to abide by local law.  Additionally, all future soldiers arrested or taken into custody over legal violations would be handed over to military authorities and tried by the rules of military court.  Though the city ceded the power to punish soldiers for violations, it also removed the possibility of Black soldiers serving as leverage in local civil rights battles. As evidenced by the above examples, Fort Jackson’s commanders consistently sided with the white elite of Columbia.  From the first moments of integration in 1950 through the 1960s, “no commanding general ever wielded [sanctions] against Columbia businesses that catered to soldiers on a Jim Crow basis,” notes Myers and perhaps even worse, “local civilians demonstrated no fear that [a commander] would.” (136)

If African American soldiers suffered for such policies, it also penalized their dependents.  Despite the Brown v Board ruling, Columbia schools moved slowly, if at all, to integrate.  With few facilities for education on base, children of African American personnel faced segregated schools which fort leaders, predictably, did nothing about. Not until the 1970s, after the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and 1965 Voting Rights Act, when Black voting rates exploded, did commanders begin to make a greater effort.  Local white politicians knew that the views of African Americans needed to be considered; thus, commanders felt more comfortable pressing them for reform. Still, in the heat of the 1960s and despite the backing of Secretary of Defense McNamara who made several attempts to desegregate housing around military installations, fort commanders clearly evaded the issue.

In Fayetteville, anti-communism buffeted the civil rights movement in countervailing directions. If some like the Fayetteville Observer ascribed communist influence to rights activists others like the President of Fayetteville’s Teacher’s College (now Fayetteville State University) argued that because of communism’s threat abroad in Asia and Africa, America must display real racial equality; otherwise, “the two third’s of the world’s population that is non white will turn to the communists for leadership.” (114-115) Charlotte Brooks noted similar justifications for the integration of housing in 1950s San Francisco.

Integration at Fort Bragg moved slowly.  In the 1950s, segregation persisted with most black soldiers and their families living in the Spring Lake area and all fully aware of the boundaries between white and black Fayetteville. By the 1960s, integration expanded, though not enough to eliminate certain spatial borders, as “black troops continued to live mainly in certain areas of town and assiduously avoided others.” (119)  As in Columbia, base commanders never wielded sanctions to place discriminatory businesses off limits, though they did use control of city services as an integrating device.  When bar owners balked at military-influenced integration, Fort Bragg leaders informed owners that military police would not intervene in offending establishments.  Lutz quotes veteran Monroe Evans, who noted that without MP intervention, “[Soldiers would] tear the place up … And one got torn up.”  (125)

Segregation Fort Bragg/Fayetteville circa 1940s

When compared to other Southern locales, integration in Fayetteville proceeded more smoothly.  Though many more of their wives did so, some soldiers, actively participated in local protests.  While violence did occur, looking back, Fayetteville’s white leaders emphasize how good the city was at avoiding greater conflict.  Some attribute this to Fayetteville’s “cosmopolitan culture” or its “sensible nature” but one observer provided Lutz with an economic explanation. “We were dealing just with prejudices, not job displacements and things,” he reflected, “People weren’t fighting for shrinking job market.” (123) In this way, one could argue Fort Bragg’s economic stability enabled Fayetteville to avoid the extremes of racial violence and antipathy that economic loss or the threat of economic loss in places like Detroit, Chicago, or Atlanta, exacerbated.

Relative to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s 1963 directive, which encouraged fort and base commanders to place entire towns that aggressively pursued Jim Crow on the off limits list, Fort Bragg leaders adopted a more active approach than their counterparts at Fort Jackson.  Though many black leaders acknowledge Fort Bragg’s overall positive effect on black life in Fayetteville, they are also quick to point out that it depended heavily on the “efforts of local people to make the city a place where blacks could live.” (128)  A resurgence of the KKK in the 1960s reinforced the idea that there remained quite a distance to cross.

Unsurprisingly, McKibben presents a much different case from Columbia and Fayetteville.  Though McKibben’s examples stem more from the population of veterans and service personnel and local city officials than Fort Ord base commanders, she argues that due to the military’s responsibility to desegregate, even if grudgingly, residents mirrored this development: “When military personnel and family members came to Seaside they helped form a more racially tolerant community than their fellow Americans at midcentury, even though many held onto ingrained racial prejudice.” (79) For McKibben the American West and Seaside, California in particular made for a more “multicultural and egalitarian character less unusual than in a military town located in the South or eastern part of the United States. (79) When Mayor Jack Oldemeyer made “anti-negro” remarks in 1955, the city responded immediately, focusing on the corrupt machinations of municipal governance under the Seaside official.  Oldemeyer lost the next election and retired from politics.

Even amid the national turmoil of the civil rights movement, whites, blacks, Asians, and women shared a belief that city government should not exclude anyone and certainly not be the province of white males alone. Spatially, unlike Columbia or Fayetteville where army integration policies made less of dent in housing patterns, Seaside clearly experienced this process differently.  “In spite of all the negative pressures that military life brought, including crime, families with ties to Fort Ord shared values that focused on family community, and strong sense of acceptance for people who looked or spoke differently from themselves.” (111)  This sense of equality reverberated such that when Seaside achieved its first majority African American city council in the 1980s, most of the Black elected council members eschewed identity politics.  Instead, they largely sought to form multi-racial coalitions where the ideals of the civil rights movement and principles of military culture “trumped race or class in Seaside over issues ranging from tenants rights to unions.” (197)  However inclusive this approach proved, not all Seaside residents appreciated it. African American community activist Ewalker James expressed his own and the dismay of some others in Seaside: “We finally got a black majority and they acted just like the [white] ones we replaced.” (197)

In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal often savaged communities like Seaside, but due to its progressive political tradition and solid Black middle class, residents avoided the kind of metropolitan pitfalls bedeviling other minority communities. “[A]lthough Seaside was generally poor, a stable black middle class was largely responsible for creating a city culture similar to more affluent African American communities in California and elsewhere throughout the nation,” offers McKibben.  When a cadre of white ethnics gained control over city government, their naked racial appeals offended whites and minorities alike, leading to their eventual ouster. According to McKibben, Seaside residents “shrewdly manipulated federal funding,” constructing needed housing, pushing forward economic development, and building infrastructure.  Residents have even managed to annex the best parts of Ford Ord, like its commissary area, thus boosting city population and tax base. By 1970, Seaside accounted for the largest municipal population on the Peninsula.


“The Vietnam War helped to transform some of the success of integration into ironies.  Whereas activists during World War II had decried the exclusion of African Americans from frontline duty, many of them now complained that blacks in Vietnam died disproportionately.”

— Myers, Black, White, and Olive Drab, 190

In her 2005 work, Raza Si! Guerra No! Lorena Oropeza explores the meanings attached to the Chicano movement’s anti-Vietnam protests. Oropeza draws out the complicated gender dynamics of the movement, the force of cultural nationalism, and the place military service occupied among Chicano protesters and Mexican Americans more widely.  As with Myers above, if in earlier eras minorities fought for recognition through service, Vietnam’s questionable policies and non-white opponent troubled numerous observers, among them leaders of the Chicano movement.  Prominent Chicano leader Rosalio Munoz pointed to this juxtaposition in an interview arguing that “Chicanos came back from World War II …. They put on their uniforms and medals, and they say you can’t call me a wetback, you can’t tell me where to go.” (141) However, this dependency on military service to prove one’s membership remained problematic and Munoz and others hoped to reduce its prominence in the Mexican American community.  Thus, Chicano activists acknowledged the wartime sacrifices of Mexican American soldiers from WWII to Vietnam, while pointing out that the government had exploited their long tradition of military service, thus, hoping to lend credence to a moratorium on the war.  Of course, while many Chicano activists did strike anti-war positions, others like Navy Pilot Lt. Everett Alvarez, rejected strict cultural nationalist appeals.  Though Alvarez survived five years as a prisoner of North Vietnamese forces, he believed the war needed stronger prosecution and that the anti-war activities of Chicano/as like his sister Delia, only undermined efforts. “A Chicano activist in a brown beret and a Mexican American military man in his green beret were likely to stand far apart politically, no matter their shared ethnic background,” observes Oropeza. (143)

For the most part, the same can be said of soldiers in Columbia and Seaside. In Columbia, “virtually no servicemen from Fort Jackson participated in Columbia demonstrations or registration activities,” argues Myers.  Though command placed restrictions on them, Myers suggests that other factors from their differentiation between “their rights as citizens and their obligations as soldiers,” to the desire to validate their manhood (a persistent theme of both Black Power and Chicano movements), and even disgust or disillusion over the objectives of the Black power movement and the urban riots of the period affected their political stance.  (196) In Seaside, McKibben depicts a town that “regardless of race, class, or ethnicity, parted ways with many Americans and closed ranks over Vietnam protests.” (188) In its 1970 July 4th Parade, city officials, with widespread support, banned five groups representing the peace movement from participating. When these groups challenged the ban, Seaside Chief of Police threatened them with arrest if they made any attempt to march.  With some notable exceptions, Seaside “generally defended all war efforts because they, or their loved ones, were actively involved in them,” writes McKibben.

From Lutz’s account, Fayetteville offers a more complex situation. As a major staging point for deployment, Fort Bragg served as many soldiers’ last US stop before Vietnam.  Weekend nights in downtown Fayetteville proved a carnival of excess as prostitution, exploitation, and drunkenness abounded. A simmering level of resentment frequently bubbled over from the ubiquitous graffiti declaring “fuck the army” to over 1900 Fort Bragg court martials in 1968 alone. Higher draft and combat rates for Blacks and Latinos reinforced perceptions of racism. “Most incendiary was some soldiers’ moral criticism of the Vietnam War and of racism’s role in it,” Lutz points out. “Race hatred was ubiquitous in training, battle, and soldiers’ relationships with each other.” (139)  Racially tinged brawls broke out overseas on bases, but also in Fort Bragg.  To be fair however, Lutz carefully notes that in some cases, these riots came to be described as racially motivated but in reality “were instead often antiauthoritarian, pitting black and white soldiers from the lower ranks against white MPs and NCOs [non commissioned officers].” (140) The publication of the underground anti-war Braggs Briefs by service personnel provided further evidence of dissent.

The war in Fayetteville forced many dependents into awkward positions. Local residents never fully accepted the children of military personnel. “The dependents were put down as ‘post toasties,’ and they returned the compliment, labeling the locals ‘townies’.  One former “post toastie” reflected that she and others never fit in or belonged.  Of course, though she suggests locals exaggerated the negative effects of Fort Bragg, some military influences were real. “They ‘were probably right,’ she said laughing. ‘I think the military brought drugs in with Vietnam. [And] the prostitution was pretty bad in Fayetteville.’” (158)

Iraq and Forward

Several years ago in their weekly segment on what was then The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, moderate conservative hero David Brooks and liberal Mark Shields debated military policy and particularly that of the marines. Lehrer interrupted the discussion briefly to point out in the interest of full disclosure that he and Shields had served in the Marines themselves, leaving David Brooks to awkwardly twist in the wind for five seconds. My own father and his father served and one of my younger brothers recently entered the Air Force, but I have not. For better or for worse, myself and Mr. Brooks are probably more common than my brother.  The military of today serves at great peril, but unless we can point to direct relations, they often seem invisible. That is until news programs like The NewsHour flash the images of fallen soldiers in silence as they close to credits.

Lutz, Myers, and McKibben are not without faults. The anthropological approach employed by Lutz sometimes uses concepts like mythic realities that might alienate some readers, and one could argue she downplays the kind of opportunities the military provided to lower income individuals and minorities.  After all, as Myers notes by the 1970s, “in no part of American society did as many nonwhites supervise whites as in the Army.” (207)  For his part, Myers wants to credit the military for simply being there and leading by example, when it could have done much more.   For an organization predicated on masculinity in the 1950s and 1960s, it failed to live up to its own mythic standards when confronted by recalcitrant Columbians. Myers could be more critical. As for McKibben, there does exist a sense of California exceptionalism in her work as the magic of multi-culturalism seems to salve all possible racial wounds.  Moreover, how one quantifies just how military experience and civil rights beliefs coalesce into a formal political philosophy might be more than a touch difficult.  It might even be foolish to compare Seaside, a newish smaller western town of 38,000 with longer, entrenched metropolises like Fayetteville and Columbia. Yet, compared to the insights each author provides, these criticisms feel small.

Independently and taken together, these authors provide a new vital view of America. After 9/11, George Bush famously instructed us to go shopping as we soon engaged in two costly and painful wars.  No civilian sacrifices, no demand for austerity. If we increasingly expect a smaller section of America to protect us and the rights of consumerism that twenty first America seems to embrace, then the least we can do is think about how the military and the people who inhabit it, live around us.

Ryan Reft