The new war against terrorism has several “ground zeros,” focal points that are defining the conflict. They include lower Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Kabul, Afghanistan and Fayetteville, N.C.
It’s from two Fayetteville military posts, the Army’s Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, that many, and perhaps most, of the U.S. troops who will fight in Operation Enduring Freedom have been dispatched. Bragg, in particular, is playing the crucial role of distant staging ground for the special warfare units involved in Afghanistan; it’s here that the Army trains its most advanced soldiers, from the fabled Green Berets of the Special Forces to the super-secret Delta Force commandos to the elite light infantry, the Rangers. These units have formed the vanguard for the campaign against the Taliban, according to the so-far spotty news reports.
When the country marches to battle, Fayetteville is a city transformed, and in some ways, its residents shift to a war footing more naturally than do most American communities. After Sept. 11, as the deployment orders mounted, local military personnel launched into familiar pre-combat rituals: packing for an undetermined length of time away from home; getting family finances in order; updating wills; shedding tears and offering reassurances of a safe return.
The city’s civilian population is likewise digging in for the months (or years?) that this war will drag on. Memories of the Gulf War mobilization 10 years ago are still fresh: If large numbers of soldiers are committed to a lengthy foreign engagement, the locals know, then the drain on Fayetteville’s economy could be fatal for some businesses.
The cultural, economic and political ramifications of the new war will be felt throughout the country, of course. In her new book, Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century, Catherine Lutz points out that we all live “in a society made by war and preparations for war,” and that, as taxpayers and citizens, “we all inhabit an armed camp, mobilized to lend support to the permanent state of war readiness that has been with us since World War II.”
Lutz, an anthropology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1992, received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and taught for 10 years at the State University of New York-Binghamton before coming to North Carolina. She has written and edited several books, most notably Reading National Geographic, a groundbreaking critical study of the magazine and the worldview it has promoted, co-authored with sociologist Jane Collins.
Homefront grew out of Lutz’s lifelong curiosity with military service and combat culture, she explained in a recent interview. As a teenager during the Vietnam War, she was struck by the strong sense that “there’s something very perplexing here,” that “I don’t get it, I don’t get how this works, that you can get a whole society mobilized to do this thing that is so dangerous to everybody, that so runs against the grain of popular desire for peace and normalcy in everyday life.”
What can a base town tell us about how society mobilizes for armed conflict? “Fayetteville may seem a very unusual place” to those of us who live elsewhere, Lutz writes in Homefront, “but it is America’s twentieth-century history of militarization writ on a small but human scale.” The city offers a telling case study in what it’s like to live under “war’s shadow”–her term for the seemingly ceaseless drive for “readiness” and “preparedness,” buzzwords the Pentagon recites like a mantra, especially in times of peace.
Camp Bragg, as the Army post was called when it was founded in 1918, was a product of the United States’ first preparedness campaign, Lutz notes. Back then, national leaders made the case that the country had to mount an unprecedented military effort in order for America to do its part in the Great War–the would-be war to end all wars. Today, with the Bush administration plunging headlong into a new global conflict, much of the rhetoric and social priorities of past preparedness movements are being dusted off and deployed yet again.
Homefront, then, comes at an opportune time to help citizens sort out their relationship with the state during a state of war, and to consider the implications of decades of devotion to national security doctrines. “We have not evaluated the costs of being a country ever ready for battle,” Lutz writes. Those costs, her book argues, are reflected in the everyday lives of the people of Fayetteville.
“Fayettenam” and “Fatalville”–the nicknames are not flattering. As much as Fayetteville is known as a military stronghold, it’s known for the bases’ unfortunate byproducts: stripjoints and bar brawls, prostitution and pawnshops, surplus stores stocked with weapons and war gear. Nagging poverty, persistent crime and acres of substandard housing haven’t helped. To top it all off, there’s the boom and bang of combat practice and the planes screaming over at low altitudes–incessant training that reminds civilians they live in what military consultants call “noise and accident potential zones.”
“The city has a bad reputation, to say the least,” Lutz writes. “Many people think of Fayetteville, as I have been told again and again, as a place to get a dozen beers and a sexual disease.”
But during six years of research, Lutz discovered a city with social riches that belie the ruinous reputation. “It’s got more going for it than most North Carolina cities, because it has all these cosmopolitan qualities,” she says. A global assortment of ethnic groups, including many who came to Fayetteville as war brides or refugees, provides an uncommonly varied set of cultures for a city in the South.
“And it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake,” Lutz adds. “It’s not just, Oh, look how interesting, these pretty costumes and different colors of people. What it has are these people who are able to think new thoughts about how the city could run. They don’t necessarily get to articulate that, they’re shut out of city hall in a lot of ways, but they have more human resources than most [cities].”
Lutz visited Fayetteville scores of times, sometimes for a day and sometimes for weeks. She spoke to hundreds of residents, civilian and military, and plumbed local, state and federal archives for data on the city’s history. The result is a book that defies categorization. “I worried about the genre boundaries that I was crossing,” Lutz says, “because it’s not standard anthropology, it’s not standard history. And it’s not just local history, I go back and forth with the national. I did worry about that, but I felt like my main job was to teach what I had learned, and if we don’t understand the whole thing, there’s a tremendous disadvantage.”
Lutz has indeed tackled “the whole thing,” or at least more aspects of life during Fayetteville’s last century than most scholars would dare to delve into in one study. On the one hand, it’s a history of the national security policies, crafted in Washington, that bring booms and busts to military outposts. “There is a widespread sense that someone else (on post or in the Pentagon) controls Fayetteville’s people’s fate,” she notes. On the other hand, the book carries the voices of the city residents Lutz interviewed. While Homefront is replete with political and historical analysis, it’s also a de facto oral history, told by regular people whose lives depend on the dictates of the national security establishment.
Throughout the book, Lutz unearths historical nuggets that draw the country’s experience with military mobilization, with all its contradictions, into focus. A vivid, conflicted cast of characters carries the narrative. There are the local developers, eager for soldiers’ dollars; the military officers carving out careers in times of war and peace; the grunts grappling with the discomforts of life in the service; and the families who stay home during the wars, trying to make sense of it all.
And there are the stories that usually fall though the cracks: the former slave who squatted on his homestead when it became part of Camp Bragg, even as the munitions flew around his shack and the army repeatedly ran him off; the black private murdered by military police in 1941, even as the United States was joining the war against the Nazi racists; the Quakers who waged a perilous campaign for peace during the height of the Vietnam War; and the recent immigrants building a new, diverse Fayetteville, the type of city that might honor the rhetoric of democracy that has fueled so many military interventions.
With stories like these, Lutz dispels the monolithic myths about civilian and military life in Fayetteville. Neither the city’s residents nor the occupants of the bases are of one mind, and both groups are permeated by class and race hierarchies and tensions. The lines separating them, Lutz notes, blur upon closer inspection: “This distinction between things civil and things military–while a distinction that in some ways is getting sharper over time and abrading political culture–has been for decades an illusion, artificially maintained.”
Near the beginning of the book, Lutz poses a question: “Are we all military dependents, wearing civilian camouflage?” By the end, she seems to be saying that while indeed we are, we need not always be a society shaped by war. She is a staunch critic of America’s latest war, but her research in Fayetteville has led her, ironically, to hope that some military values will actually temper the drive to widen the conflict.
“If you look at what Eisenhower did, versus what Bush is doing,” Lutz says, “Eisenhower was extremely conservative with the use of military force, and Bush is a madman.” Hawkish civilian leaders could learn some caution from their military counterparts, she says: “People who have seen war think differently about it … sometimes, and often, they come at the end of the day to say: ‘This is so horrific, why would you just pretend it’s a game and enter into it so lightly? Why would you think it’s such a simple matter? It’s so horrific, complicated and difficult to pull off.’ So I think that when you see Colin Powell get sidelined, he was clearly taking that kind of stance toward it all. And these people who are basically civilian sharpshooters are the ones who are most dangerous.”
Catherine Lutz will read from Homefront Thursday, Nov. 8, at 3:30 p.m. at the Bull’s Head Bookshop at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.