South Carolina’s military culture and the October flood

Years ago, reading Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel, The Lords of Discipline, I was struck by the single line – “No Southern man is complete without a tenure under military rule.” Not all Southerners serve, have served, or will ever serve their country. And today it is only a very small percentage of Americans overall who have served or will ever serve in the armed forces.

Nevertheless, Conroy’s line speaks to many of us hailing from the South, and to an even greater degree those of us from the Palmetto State. At no time more than during the recent response to the massive flooding event has this interest in serving been so apparent. This event produced heavy and historically damaging rainfall across our state.

This 1000-year rainstorm – known as an “atmospheric river” and often referred to as a “fire-hose” – was responsible for precipitation ranging to 27.15 inches over several days. But through the heroic actions of so many we were able to mitigate the disaster.

The coordinated response of the S.C. State Guard and National Guard under the strong leadership of Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston (S.C.’s adjutant general) and Gov. Nikki Haley harnessed this spirit to sharply reduce the impact of this event.

Throughout the days of the devastating floods, we witnessed love, concern and support of individuals and families from across our great state. During this tragedy, hundreds of State Guardsmen and brothers and sisters in the National Guard demonstrated the strength of character described by the Apostle Paul in his second epistle to Timothy when he said that “(f)or God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of
love and of self-discipline.”

As we have witnessed in our communities there is something to this perceived sense of selfless duty and even martial responsibility. Several cultural factors speak to why.

First is the agrarian society which has largely defined much of South; certainly South Carolina. And if we look back as far as the 19th century, we see that that agrarian culture here in the Palmetto State was steeped in the trappings of swords, guns, horses, and soldierly virtue.

If we look back even deeper into our state’s history, we find additional factors fueling this military culture. We see for instance, that during the American Revolution – though the fighting erupted in New England – the outcome of the war was ultimately settled in the South. The British miscalculated when they expanded the war into the Southern colonies. Where the British erred is that they didn’t count on our deep spirit of independence nor on men like Francis Marion “The Swamp Fox,” or Thomas Sumter “The Gamecock,” both early Commanders in the South Carolina Militia. The South was where the British began to suffer irreversible losses. And it was in the South at Yorktown, Virginia where British General Sir Charles Cornwallis, surrendered to a combined American-French force led by Washington.

Then there are our unbroken ties – some obvious, others subtle – to the proverbial “love of the regiment.” This for instance is reflected strongly in the fact that the First Provincial Militia of 1670 – one of the oldest continuous regimental lines (perhaps the oldest) in the nation – is the ascendant military organization to both the S.C. National Guard and the all-volunteer S.C. State Guard, both of which are organized under the S.C. Military Dept.

But there are so-many other military connections that don’t merely connect us, but deeply anchor the military here in S.C. and fuel this idea among all South Carolinians that the military defines our state as much or more than any other description of who and what we are. Let’s look at a few.

Fort Jackson is the largest U.S. Army basic-training base in the nation, and it sits right in the heart of S.C., next to the capitol city, Columbia. And every U.S. Marine recruit between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River must go through 13 weeks of arduous training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. (near the seaside town of Beaufort) before earning the title, “Marine.”

Speaking of Beaufort, there we have the Marine Corps Air Station.   Few know, but this is a base which serves as an alternate space shuttle landing site for NASA, and a base whose fighter aircrews have been heavily involved in the global war on terror.

Regarding air forces, we have McEntire Joint National Guard Base (about 15 miles east of Columbia), where fighter pilots fired some of the first shots of the first Gulf War, and – like their Marine counterparts from Beaufort – have flown untold numbers of combat sorties overseas since 9/11.

Then we have Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, which serves as the home of the Ninth Air Force and United States Air Forces Central, which is the U.S. Air Force’s component of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees all operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. Shaw is also home to the U.S. Third Army headquarters (that’s right, Patton’s Army) and United States Army Central, which is the U.S. Army component of CENTCOM.

There is also the worldwide-serving Charleston Air Force Base, the former Charleston Naval base with many of its assets moved to North Charleston at the Naval Weapons Station, and many other almost nondescript military stations and the ghosts of old airfields and stations, training grounds, and yes, battlefields. In fact, there are so many old battlefields here in S.C., that many have long since been forgotten and unfortunately paved over.

Our military heritage, culture and tradition in this state

But there is so much more when we look at our military heritage, culture and tradition in this state from that storied institution, The Citadel, to the now crumbling or buried old coastal bastions; remnants of deep-inland expeditions; and Indian Wars in the colonial era; to the bloody guerrilla actions that took place here during the American Revolution; to the American Civil War – where many counties in this state were all but totally burned out – to U.S. Army Air Force training during World War II where aircrews operating out of an Army airfield (today Columbia Metropolitan Airport) flew over Lake Murray islands in preparation for the famous 1942 raid on Tokyo.

These things in-and-of-themselves will forever define us. But there is something else. Something less tangible, but equally telling. If one were to read between the lines of our state’s military history they would learn that no matter how hard someone has hit us, we have always gotten back up and hit back twice as hard. This also defines us – as we are demonstrating again with our response to the devastating flooding. This is why Conroy’s line carries weight. And this is why Veterans Day is not simply another day for those of us here in the Palmetto State. Selfless service is engrained into the fiber of our great state.


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