CHARLESTON, S.C.—One doesn’t have to travel very far in South Carolina to discover reminders of its martial spirit.

Eight military bases are scattered across the state. They include Parris Island, where U.S. Marines pass through boot camp—an experience fictionalized in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Behind glass at the Charleston Museum, a pair of intricately carved 19th-century dueling pistols stand in for an old honor culture that still hasn’t been totally extirpated from the American South.

The same South Carolina that supplied great military leaders like Revolutionary War General William Moultrie, nicknamed the “Gamecock,” produced the pro-slavery representative, Democrat Preston Brooks, who in 1856 beat abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) half to death with a cane in the Senate chamber.

Not far away from the Charleston Museum, across the water from the spot where General Moutrie built his famous fort of palmetto logs, is the place where the American Civil War began. Fort Sumter hunkers low over Charleston Harbor.

Just outside Charleston’s airport, near the Air Force base, sits a symbol of the modern military-industrial complex: the North Charleston Boeing Plant.

Former South Carolina governor and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s connection to Boeing, where she served on the board of directors, has become a talking point for her foes, particularly those siding with former President Donald Trump.

Yet, while campaigning in the Palmetto State—a nickname honoring the fort created by General Moultrie—Ms. Haley has bragged about the aerospace giant’s local manufacturing activity, which came about through a deal hatched under her predecessor, former Gov. Mark Sanford.

“By the time I left, we were building planes with Boeing,” Ms. Haley told a crowd at New Realm Brewing Company on Charleston’s Daniel Island during a Feb. 4 campaign stop.

South Carolinian Bill Warren, who was waiting to hear the former governor speak, told The Epoch Times, “I think that South Carolina’s got a long history of not being afraid to mix it up.”

Ms. Haley’s hawkish rhetoric on the Russia–Ukraine war, the Israel–Hamas war, and other flash points thousands of miles away has led some critics to dub her a “neocon,” or neoconservative.

The label has also been applied to other South Carolina politicians, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Of course, like almost everyone else at the top of the state’s Republican food chain, Mr. Graham has endorsed President Trump, often seen as an opponent of neoconservatism, over Ms. Haley ahead of his state’s open primary on Feb. 24.

Many voters in the state that sent an outsized share of its population to serve in the Middle East have a not-so-neocon-ish view of foreign affairs.

The conservative establishment’s assessment of President Trump’s view on foreign affairs was shaken up during the presidential debate in South Carolina in February 2016.

“The war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” then-candidate Trump said, fueling speculation that South Carolina’s many veterans would reject him.

Yet, Mr. Trump ultimately won the South Carolina primary, receiving almost a third of the state’s vote and raking in all fifty of its delegates. He’s on pace to trounce Ms. Haley in the state she once governed, at least judging by current polls.

“I’m a big Ron Paul guy,” Jordan Pace, a Republican state representative in South Carolina, told The Epoch Times.

Mr. Pace had just spoken after Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) at a pro-Trump press conference on Feb. 2 outside the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant. Anchored in the water behind him was a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the slate-gray USS Yorktown—another symbol of American military might, known for its role in capturing Iwo Jima and other Pacific islands during World War II.

“If you talk to former military, especially military that fought in the Middle East, the vast majority of those guys are adamantly against the Bush–Cheney neoconservative former policy—the whole saber-rattling nonsense,” Mr. Pace said.

“Honestly, the biggest draw for Trump in this current contest in my mind, besides the fact that he’s not Nikki Haley, is that he didn’t start any new foreign wars,” he said, but added that Mr. Graham’s support for President Trump is “slightly unnerving.”

‘We’ve Shifted From Your Neocon Establishment’

In the northwest corner of the state, before the Piedmont hills rise sharply into the Blue Ridge Mountains, stands Clemson University.

On the morning of Feb. 3, Trevor Tiedeman, the chairman of the Clemson College Republicans, spoke to The Epoch Times near the school’s terraced amphitheater.

He made it clear who the youthful conservatives he knows tend to like: President Trump and talk show host Tucker Carlson.

“He [Mr. Carlson] changed the American right in a way that’s been very, very positive, because we’ve shifted from your neocon establishment to your more populist type,” Mr. Tiedeman, a senior studying industrial engineering, told The Epoch Times.

He didn’t disagree with the notion that South Carolina’s Republicans often tilt neocon, observing that its GOP-dominated state legislature has earned a reputation for liberalism—a concern seconded by Clyde N. Wilson, a professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina specializing in the American South.

“[The legislature] is full of opportunists. They all think they’re gonna get some national position,” Mr. Wilson told The Epoch Times over the phone on Feb. 6.

“I could not tell you why South Carolina breeds the worst of Republicans,” Mr. Tiedeman said, suggesting that some in Charleston, Hilton Head, and other parts of the state’s coastal Lowcountry are “country club Republicans” committed to the status quo.

“It must be something in the water around here,” he joked.

JeAnais Mitchell, another Clemson senior who serves as the Young Republicans’ public relations chairwoman, told The Epoch Times that younger South Carolinians are moving in a more Trumpian direction on war.

“We’re just the generation that had to experience everything after 9/11—realizing so much carnage, realizing all the pain and hurt, and how so much of it could have been avoided if people didn’t have such a narrow focus on what they wanted instead of the good of the entire nation,” said Ms. Mitchell. She is studying history and legal studies and also leads outreach for the school’s Turning Point USA chapter.

“If we’re not strong and can’t do well, then it doesn’t matter what happens on the other side of the world because we won’t be able to survive,” she said.

But Clemson conservatives aren’t the only young South Carolinians sounding non-interventionist (or, to some, isolationist) on foreign policy.

At South Carolina State University, a historically black college in Lowcountry Orangeburg, Raymond James is looking forward to voting for President Trump. One of his main worries is warfare embroiling the United States across the world, a troubling recent trend.

“It’s getting out of hand,” he told The Epoch Times.

At the Citadel, a senior military college in Charleston, students walk through the campus in fatigues. Near the entrance of the library, tabletop miniatures illustrate the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s strategy against Rome.

Deeper inside, a mural depicts cadets at the Old Citadel in 1846. Those men trained their state’s Palmetto Regiment ahead of the Mexican-American War. That regiment’s members included Preston Brooks, the future congressman who caned Sen. Charles Sumner. Many Citadel graduates fought in that conflict, too.

Lewis Diggle, a freshman studying finance, told The Epoch Times he didn’t sense a lot of cynicism about war among students at the Citadel, even after decades of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

But Colin Weldon, another freshman at the Citadel, said morale regarding the United States escalating military involvement, including with Iran, is “fifty-fifty” on campus: half positive, half negative.

“There [are] some people who are like, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait’… And there [are] some people who don’t want to be involved in a foreign conflict,” said Mr. Weldon, who is studying supply chain management.

Like Mr. Pace and others who have spoken with The Epoch Times, he stressed the lack of new wars under President Trump as a selling point for South Carolina voters.

“People definitely want to have a safer America to help rebuild it,” he said, adding that he believes President Trump has stronger support at the Citadel than Ms. Haley or incumbent President Joe Biden.

“I just feel like he has a better grasp on the youth compared to Nikki Haley,” Mr. Weldon said.

“We have some Democrats, we have some Republicans, we have some independents. I think it’s a good mix,” sophomore Kayla Cyrus told The Epoch Times.

She said her school “is not really preaching against or for” war in Iran or other places around the globe.

“It’s really just a great school. It teaches you about different perspectives,” she added.

Defense Contracting and Confederate Renaming

In North Charleston, not far from the airport and the Boeing campus, Citadel graduate and Air Force veteran Gary Jaffe leads strategy and growth at Atlas Technologies, one of many defense contractors in the Charleston area.

He spoke to The Epoch Times on behalf of the Charleston Defense Contractors Association, an industry group.

“The defense-industrial base is very strong here in Charleston,” he said.

He drew attention to the Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic at Joint Base Charleston.

“Most of the members of our organization are seeking opportunities there,” Mr. Jaffe said.

Some numbers bear out the importance of defense to the state’s overall economy. A 2022 report from the South Carolina Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that it accounts for 1 out of every 9 jobs in the state and more than 11 percent of the economy.

It estimated that the military community had an economic impact of $34.3 billion. $12.7 billion of that was concentrated in the Charleston area.

Mr. Jaffe attributed the news that the Coast Guard would soon site a “superbase” in Charleston to South Carolinians’ pull in Washington. Mr. Graham, for instance, spent years on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Charleston, he added, “is very, very pro-defense.” He posited that a less active (or aggressive) U.S. presence globally would harm the local economy.

Mr. Jaffe doesn’t think non-interventionism (or isolationism) is gaining ground in South Carolina.

“I think there’s a heightened awareness of the pacing threats that Russia and China present the United States… I believe this community has fully embraced and is on board with not only our existing presence but a growing presence,” he said.

Yet, even as Mr. Jaffe and others argue for greater American vigor, the military has faced a recruiting crisis—particularly of white soldiers.

A partial explanation for the trend can be found just across the Georgia line at Fort Eisenhower. Until just a few months ago, it was known as Fort Gordon after John Brown Gordon, a general in the Confederate States of America who later served as a Georgia senator and the state’s governor.

Fort Gordon is just one of multiple military installations across the South that are being renamed to shed associations with the Confederacy. While advocates of renaming argue it advances racial justice and rights old wrongs, critics see it as one more manifestation of “wokeness” in the military that undermines America’s military strength while vilifying specific groups—whites, men, Christians, Westerners, and heterosexuals, among others.

Southerners and the Confederacy have been central targets in America’s contemporary Cultural Revolution.

“Taking down the Reconciliation Monument was a serious blow to morale,” said Mr. Wilson, the historian of the American South, referring to the removal of a Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. Jaffe didn’t want to weigh in on cultural issues, arguing that those conflicts are a little hard to quantify. He chalked up enlistment issues in part to money.

“I feel like pay and equitable wages for our servicemen and women is really the most important,” the Air Force veteran said.

“No, I don’t think it’s a pay issue,” said Mr. Wilson.

“I think the South has an older attitude. We don’t have to have a moralistic excuse to defend the country. But [we’re] finding it less worthy of defense. I think people are really feeling that,” he said.

‘Everybody’s Got an Opinion’

Like Clemson’s Mr. Tiedeman and Mr. Wilson, Jeff Davis, the former chairman of the Greenville County GOP, laments the relatively liberal tendencies in South Carolina’s statehouse—something he also identified in the top ranks of the military and the military-industrial complex, though not in the rank and file.

“For whatever reason, you do not rise up offending people. And people like me, I’m happy to offend people,” he told The Epoch Times.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), the only member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation who supports Ms. Haley over President Trump, was hesitant to say that “Tucker Carlson conservatism” is eclipsing neoconservatism in his state.

“Depends on who you talk to. Everybody’s got an opinion,” he told The Epoch Times.

He also sounded skeptical of the idea that voters see things much differently from the state’s elected officials.

“If they’re dissatisfied enough, they’ll show up at the polls,” Mr. Norman said.

Yet, when reiterating his potential openness to a primary challenge of Mr. Graham in 2026, he didn’t hesitate to question that senator’s record in favor of war.

He contended that Mr. Graham “has never been a hawk” on the budget.

Rep. Bill Timmons (R-S.C.), a member of a Greenville real estate and trucking dynasty and a supporter of President Trump’s White House bid, objected to the notion that his state has particularly “hawkish” representatives in the Senate and the House.

“We don’t want to go to war,” he told The Epoch Times “I believe the United States has a critical role in global leadership.”

Mr. Jaffe, the defense industry group spokesman, had a similar point of view.

“The global climate sort of commands leadership, and that’s what America delivers,” he said.

Mr. Wilson, the historian, offered a more skeptical perspective.

“South Carolinians are loyal and patriotic. They will volunteer to fight an enemy. The notion of ‘global democracy’ does not ring a bell,” he said.

Capt. Eric Oser, a retired submarine commander who served in Admiral Hyman Rickover’s nuclear Navy, also spoke of America’s presence on the world stage, including in relation to China.

China has stepped up its production of Type 096 submarines, nuclear-propelled vessels armed with nuclear ballistic missiles. What does that mean for the United States’ national security?

“Depends on the foreign policy. That’s why I support Nikki Haley,” he told The Epoch Times at a rally for Ms. Haley in Charleston.

Mr. Timmons, a captain in the South Carolina National Guard and a member of the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, argued that the current president is “using the executive branch to reshape society in their world view,” including in the military.

“I see it firsthand constantly. Everything is about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Everything is about climate,” he said.

“The military is to fight and win wars. I can assure you that the Russians and the Chinese don’t care what color you are.”

‘To Fight and Win Wars’

On the afternoon of Feb. 4, a few hours before Ms. Haley spoke on Daniel Island, the weather was cold and windy on Sullivan Island.

But that didn’t stop people from visiting Fort Moultrie, a grass-covered complex of parapets dotted with cannons and other artillery from centuries past. The visitors included more than a few fathers and sons, the latter curious about everything they saw—including a World War II-era machine that could, in the event of chemical warfare, both cool and purify the air.

“Isn’t it [chemical warfare] a war crime?”

“Doesn’t mean it never happens.”

Man, by his nature, makes war. All his greatest civilizations are built on successful conquest. Even when things are at their least nasty and brutish, peace and order depend on a well-honed capacity for defense—the strength to fight, always in reserve, never exhausted.

At the moment, Americans, and South Carolinians, appear to have little appetite for “forever wars,” even as conflicts overseas continue to intensify. But nature is undefeated.

On the land once occupied by General Moultrie’s palmetto fort, fathers continue teaching sons the ways of war—and it’s hard to imagine them stopping.

Mr. Wilson, the historian, did not disagree that there’s something martial in the spirit of South Carolinians that cannot be extirpated.

But he had an important caveat: “That does not necessarily transfer into support for Nikki Haley or for the Republican establishment.”

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