The drumbeat-steady reports of US casualties in Iraq carry names that are strange to most of us, sites of combat like Taji and Balad. The hometowns of the fallen soldiers and marines are often nearly as unfamiliar, spots like Shawnee, Oklahoma; Riverton, Kansas; and Mansfield, Washington–the kinds of towns that exist at the far edge of most Americans’ attention.
Rural America may be at the outskirts of our national life, but it has become ground zero in terms of troop casualties. The war is taking a disproportionate toll on our rural communities. According to a study by the Carsey Institute, rural areas have suffered 27 percent of casualties but hold only 19 percent of the population. The survey also concluded that the death rate for rural soldiers, as a percentage of their hometown population, is 60 percent higher than for soldiers from cities and suburbs.
Becky Lourey, whose son Matt died when his helicopter was shot down over Buhriz, says she is not surprised that so many casualties come from small towns. Matt Lourey grew up outside Kerrick, Minnesota (pop. 71), where his family managed an alfalfa and beef-cattle farm. His mother says that in the tightknit towns of the area, Matt and many young people like him feel an urge to serve their community but have few opportunities outside the military. “I do know that rural kids grow up wanting to make a difference,” Lourey says, pointing out that three other young men from the area have also died in Iraq. “I think there’s a real crisis in this country the way college costs have risen. If you don’t have a lot of money, the Army is a way to go to college.”
The lack of opportunities in small towns and the allure of military service is a reminder that, two and a half decades after the “farm crisis” hit the headlines, rural areas continue to struggle economically. People living in rural communities are nearly 30 percent more likely than urbanites to live in poverty.
To focus attention on the cost rural communities are paying for the war, a new organization, Farms Not Arms, is enlisting farmers in the effort to end it. The founders hope that by encouraging farmers to speak out, they can bridge the divide between the antiwar coasts and the more prowar interior. “I think there’s a lot of unhappiness about this war,” says George Naylor, an Iowa corn and soy grower and president of the National Family Farm Coalition. “A lot of farmers who might be Republicans, but who aren’t right-wing Republicans, have changed their views on the war.”
Farms Not Arms has two main goals. The first is to increase the visibility of farmers at peace marches. Farms Not Arms members across the country will carry the group’s banner at six marches marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Some 350 farmers have endorsed the group’s statement opposing the war, which says, “While we foolishly try to police the whole world, we have lost the ability to feed ourselves.” Organizers hope to have 10,000 signatures by the end of the year.
The second goal is to recruit farming families to offer their farms as refuges where returning vets can heal their battle scars through the quiet, steady pace of agricultural work. “All of these guys are coming back trashed,” says Will Allen, a Marine veteran from the 1950s who today runs Cedar Circle Farm in Vermont, the state with the highest percentage of battlefield losses. “Farming is healing. We know that, because we’ve done it. We’re in post-traumatic stress too. Because we’re in bankruptcy, or we’ve already lost the fucking farm.”
Farmers make up a tiny portion of the population. But Farms Not Arms organizers believe that despite their small numbers, they can have an outsized influence on the debate. They say there are natural cultural links between farmers and soldiers–a shared belief in hard work, discipline and collective effort–and that these similarities can be used to connect with rural soldiers and their families and convince them that it’s time to end the war.
“I feel like as farmers we don’t have a lot of political baggage,” says Michael O’Gorman, a co-founder of Farms Not Arms. O’Gorman says he started thinking about how to oppose the war after his son enlisted. “I think we’re expounding pretty American ideals here, Jeffersonian ideals…. Maybe this is a wake-up call for America, that we can’t be the country we set out to be and have more soldiers than farmers. Maybe we can bring the country together.”