The Military's Deepening Geographic Divide

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an elegant, sweeping speech at Duke University where he commented on the growing divide between America's armed forces and its civilian population.

The social divisions of class and inequality have always run through the military. Fighting forces have long been drawn disproportionately from lower-income, lower-skilled, and more economically disadvantaged populations. But what is new, according to my colleague Patrick Adler at the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI), is the degree to which those class divisions are underpinned by geography.

The map above, compiled by MPI's Zara Matheson, shows the concentration of military personnel across the 50 states.

In the early 1990s, researchers chronicled the rise of the "Gunbelt" - the concentration of military assets and personnel in a strip of states on the coasts and across the Sunbelt. Gates reminds us that base closures and realignment efforts are leading to even greater geographic concentration.

"Basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states: Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky and here in North Carolina. The state of Alabama, with a population of less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs. The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs. And the Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has 3."

While the U.S. is engaged in two wars, the military makes up a smaller percentage of the American population than it ever has. As Gates himself notes:

"There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend..."

The military's growing geographic divide adds to the increasingly uneven, spiky, and fractured reality of America's economic, political, and cultural life.


The commenters raise a number of intriguing issues. The data for the map are based on where the service member is based. A number of commenters have requested a map that controls for population size. Here it is (below) via our ever-efficient Martin Prosperity Institute team of Patrick Adler on data and uber-cartographer Zara Matheson.

Our original map took up Defense Secretary Gates' comment that the military is increasingly concentrated geographically and thus less and less in contact with and in touch with America generally. When we look at the overall share of the military by states, we see a pattern that follows population size only to a point. Yes, two big states - California and Texas - have large military shares. But this is less the case in Illinois and New York and much less the case in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And several much smaller states - like New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi have higher shares of the total military than these last two big places.

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It's always useful to control for population and look at figures on a per-capita basis, as the commenters point out. This changes the landscape in subtle ways which seem to reinforce Secretary Gates' point and our own initial analysis. The geographic concentration of the military becomes even more pronounced. The variance across states is quite substantial: 13 states are home to fewer than ten military personnel per 10,000 people, while six states have more than ten times as much and three have more than 200 military personnel per 10,000 people.

Aside from relatively high concentrations in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington state, and North Dakota, the military is overwhelmingly concentrated in two distinctive areas of the Sunbelt: The southeast running from Virgina and North Carolina through Kentucky and down through South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi; and the corridor fromTexas through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming. Texas and California now drop out. The upper mid-west and the northeast, especially New England, which tend to be more liberal and left-leaning than the rest of the nation, have very low concentrations of military personnel.

All in all, this further reinforces Secretary Gates' point about the military becoming more distant and isolated from the American population broadly.