The public’s confidence in the U.S. military is the lowest it’s been in decades, and it’s doing no favors to the armed forces’ current recruitment struggles.
Thanks to a combination of culture war issues, fresh reports of sexual assaults and suicides within the ranks, and a disastrous end to the Afghanistan War two years ago, Americans’ perception of the armed forces has taken a hit, according to experts and recent polls.
“It’s a confluence of lots of things and it’s becoming a real crisis,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a security fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The latest numbers from Gallup, taken from a poll conducted June 1-22, found that Americans’ confidence in the military was at its lowest point in 25 years: 60 percent. The last time it was this low was in 1997. Republican sentiment has seen a particularly steep decline, dropping from 91 percent to 68 percent in the past three years.
Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen. Pat Ryder on Thursday said while he wasn’t in a position to address the “why?” behind the decrease, he maintained that the Defense Department will continue to try to earn the trust and confidence of Americans.
“Popularity ebbs and flows over time,” Ryder told reporters. “We don’t take public trust and confidence for granted. As an all-volunteer force, we know that we have a responsibility to Congress and the American public to ensure that they have an understanding of what we’re doing to defend the country, how we are spending taxpayer dollars, how we are employing the resources that we’ve been entrusted with.”
The military has long found itself entwined in various culture war issues, but increasingly has found itself under criticism from the right in recent years over various social policies — a driving factor in the falling support.
At the same time, it’s not as if it is making up support on the left, where different kinds of worries are aimed at the military.
The Reagan Institute, in a separate survey last year, found that trust in the military was at 48 percent, with both Republicans and Democrats believing that politicization played the biggest role in the low numbers, albeit for different reasons.
While more Republicans see “woke” policies as threatening the military, Democrats perceive extremist service members as the biggest danger.
“The military is caught up a bit in the culture wars, I’m afraid,” O’Hanlon said. “Then, the bad news stories about sexual assault, accidents, and other things reinforce the impression of the military as a less-excellent institution — even though these problems are no worse within the armed forces than outside. Losing a war in Afghanistan doesn’t help.”
Conservatives, in particular, have targeted the military over diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (DEI), the new Pentagon policy to reimburse troops who must travel across state lines to seek an abortion, and efforts to root out extremistS from within the ranks after current and former service members were found to have participated in the attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
House Republicans went after many such Pentagon policies in the chamber’s version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, though it remains to be seen if their effort holds up when the House and Senate return to reconcile their bills next month.
Ryder would not speculate Thursday as to whether perceived politicization was hurting confidence in the military or its recruiting efforts.
“There has been and continues to be brave and selfless Americans who are willing to raise their hand, take an oath to defend the Constitution, defend our nation, regardless of how popular the military is, or military service is at any point in time,” he said.
Another factor is the former military officers who have taken high-profile roles in politics, offering their viewpoints on the likes of both Fox and CNN, said Matthew Kroenig, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“You increasingly see retired generals, advocating for one political candidate or another, speaking at political conventions, signing open letters for one candidate or against them,” said Kroenig, who previously worked at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
While the military keeps a top spot on the list of American institutions that earn a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence – only losing out the first place slot to small business — the public’s impression of the armed forces has shifted often in the past several decades.
Trust in the military hovered low in the 1970s and 1980s after the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Middle East, with its all-time low at 50 percent in 1981 after the Iran hostage crisis.
Americans had a far rosier outlook of the military following the Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks, but those highs began a downward trend somewhere around 2011 at the end of the Iraq War and with no end in sight for the Afghanistan War.
After the disastrous and deadly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, public confidence in the military fell even lower.
“Especially for younger people, the military now is [thought of as] an organization that fails,” said Kroenig. “For previous generations, the military was something to look on with pride. I think more recently, people think of the military as an organization that fails to deliver, that gets involved in these costly conflicts that don’t benefit the American people.”
That dip is becoming a problem for military services that in recent years have struggled to meet their recruitment goals, particularly the Army, which fell more than 15,000 recruits short of its target of 60,000 last year.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Congress earlier this year that the Army will again struggle to meet its goal of 65,000 recruits for 2023.
A strong job market, dwindling supply of qualified troops — with only 23 percent of young people qualified academically or physically to serve — and a lack of interest in joining the ranks has created the worst recruiting crisis in the 50 years since the military became an all-volunteer force.
Kroenig said he worried the dip in public perception could infect other areas of national security, with the fear that isolationist sentiments in the American public could gain more footing.
“Should we provide arms to Ukraine? I think if people don’t trust the military to do the right thing, they’re going to be much more likely to say, ‘No, why do we care about that? Let Ukraine take care of themselves,’” and have the same outlook for Taiwan, he said.
“I’m worried already and I don’t know how we fix it.”