Don’t be misled: a commanding majority of Americans still solidly trust the military

Some pundits, academics, and others have long been insisting that U.S. civil-military relations are in “crisis a claim which, as Rosa Brooks has noted, is a “a recurring feature of American politics”.  They will no doubt believe they have found succor in the recently released Gallup Poll showing that the percentage of Americans who had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military fell to 60%, the lowest since the Clinton Administration (1997).

Stark headlines like “Poll says confidence in US military lowest in 25 years” may make for great clickbait, but when followed by a stories short on context they could leave some readers with serious misunderstandings about how Americans feel about their armed forces.

Sure, it’s true that during the current presidency the decline in confidence has been striking: a full 12 points from the 72% who had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military in the last year of the previous administration–a nearly 17% drop in just three years.  So, yes, no doubt the civil-military relations’ provocateurs will claim this as further evidence of a civil-military relations “crisis.”

Except that there really isn’t a crisis.  Let’s unpack this a bit.

The military is still the most trusted governmental institution.

Though the enterprise garnering the most confidence is small business, among governmental institutions the military by far leads the way.  As Politico put it:

“The military still evokes the highest public trust among the 14 other institutions included in the poll. Five institutions stand as the least trusted, with newspapers, the criminal justice system, television news, big business, and Congress all garnering confidence from less than 20 percent of Americans. Congress, in particular, registers the lowest confidence at a mere 8 percent.”  (Emphasis added).

A much higher measure of confidence than what the Reagan Institute survey found

Furthermore, many civ-mil commentators and others have been relying on the Ronald Reagan Institute’s National Defense Survey of November 2022 as evidence of a civilian-military relations crisis.  It said:

“Just five years ago, 70% said they had a great deal of trust and confidence in the military. However, that percentage steadily declined, and last year, for the first time, a minority of Americans had the highest level of confidence in the military, only 45%. This year, that trend appears to be stabilizing. Now 48% say they have a great deal of trust and confidence in the military. Notably, this is still down 22 points from merely a few years ago.”

According to the Reagan Institute, in reply to one of a series of questions, 60% of the respondents said the leadership of the defense establishment was “overly politicized” and this decreased their confidence in the military itself.  It added:

“Americans make only a slight distinction between different types of leadership when they complain about politicization. While they see civilian DOD leaders and uniformed military leaders as contributing to this issue, they are more likely to blame presidents as Commanders-in-Chief. Nearly 60% of respondents say that performance and competence of presidents has decreased their confidence in the military.” (Emphasis added).

If there is a civil-military relations concern, it is evidently mainly an issue with the “civil” side of the equation, specifically, the President.  It is not with the rank and file of the armed forces; I’m convinced that the public’s affection towards them is virtually unchanged and remains very high.

In any event, though I am skeptical of the Reagan Institute poll, aligning its 48% figure from last November with Gallup’s 60% from June would suggest a 25% increase in confidence in just about six months. 

The figures are best understood in the larger context

What many civil-military relations critics often omit is the larger context of the steady overall decline of Americans’ faith in all institutions.  When you compare the military’s 60% to the current average low of 26% for all institutions that Gallup tracks, the military looks pretty good.  Gallup observes:

“Confidence [in those institutions tracked] has generally trended downward since registering 48% in 1979 and holding near 45% in the 1980s. It averaged closer to 40% in the 1990s and early 2000s before dropping to the low 30% range in the 2010s. Last year was the first time it fell below 30%.”

Looking at Gallup’s chart is extremely helpful in putting things in context (the red box is my add):

In my view, the drop in confidence in the military is much more likely to be principally attributable to the military being ‘collateral damage’ in a situation where political polarization and other factors have impacted trust in all government institutions (and many non-government ones as well). 

Moreover, the overall decline in patriotism may well be another factor but, again, it something not specific to the military or civil-military relations.

Still, the fact remains that a very high percentage of the public is quite trustful of America’s armed forces.

Concluding observations 

As Lawfire® readers may know, I’ve long-believed it best serves the country to temper the rhetoric about civil-military relations (see here).  As scholar Joseph Collins puts it, “US civil-military relations are complicated, but not broken.”

This is not to say there aren’t issues.  For example, the fact that the military’s rating fell 12 points since 2020, compared with the 10-point drop for institutions in general, is a matter worthy of further examination (and it may be answerable simply by the fact that percentagewise, a 12-point drop in the military’s very high rating is, relatively speaking, smaller than a 10-point drop for an institutional average that started at a lower rating). 

And the military’s seemingly intractable recruiting shortfalls are, in a real way, a civil-military relations issue.  (Scholars like Peter Feaver and Heidi Urben seem to agree-see here).

Furthermore, when polled in March of 2022 as to what they would do if they were in they were in the same position as Ukrainians are now: stay and fight or leave the country, a plurality of young Americans (18-34) said they would flee.  Is that a civil-military relations issue?  You decide but I think that could be one way to characterize it.

Additionally, Dr. Urben has grappled with the impact of social media on civil-military relations, as has other scholars see, e.g., here and here.  In fact, the Department of Defense has recently issued its first policy that aims to address the complexities that the technology creates for proper civil-military relations. 

Discourse about social media and the military ought to continue.  (There are a lot of dimensions to the impact of social media on military issues so be sure to take a look at Riley Flewelling’s LENS EssayNot Just Words: Grappling with the Doxing of Civilians in War ).

So, yes, there are civil-military relations matters deserving of attention, but they are best approached in a reasoned, measured, and factual way.  No one need be pollyannish about the challenges, but alarmist rhetoric is unhelpful and counter-productive.

The public deserves to have the issues put in the larger context and not be distracted by provocative headlines that clearly don’t tell the whole story. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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