<< The Body Politic

The civil-military divide

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Some interesting findings from the Pew Research Center’s recently-published study on “War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era“:

  • The nation’s post-9/11 wars have been fought by an all-volunteer active-duty military made up at any given time of just one half of one percent of the U.S. population. Not since the peacetime years between World War I and World War II has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces.
  • Today’s military is roughly 30% smaller than it was 20 years ago, when slightly more than 2 million men and women served on active duty. Currently a total of 1,447,602 men and women serve on active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard.
  • More than eight-in-ten (84%) of these modern-era veterans say the American public has little or no understanding of the problems that those in the military face.
  • Only about half of Americans (48%) say they would advise a young person to join the military, well below the share of post-9/11 veterans (82%) or pre-9/11 veterans (74%) who say they would give the same advice.
  • As other institutions have lost favor in American public opinion, the standing of the military has grown. In a 2011 Gallup survey, the share of Americans who say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military was 78%. The military got the highest rating among 16 institutions tested, among them the church or organized religion (48%), big business (19%) and Congress (12%).
  • Asked how well the American people understand the problems that those in the military face, only 8% say they do so very well and 19% say they do so fairly well. The shares of veterans who say so are 3% for very well and 18% for fairly well.
  • Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) report that they have a close friend or family member who served in the wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

These new data confirm the disturbing trend that even as Americans hold the military and those who serve in it in high regard, many have little real understanding of what that service entails–or who it is that actually serves. As Elizabeth Samet has pointed out, Americans want to “support the troops,” but have little idea of how to do so besides offering the obligatory “thank you for your service.” While analyzing Pew’s new research, Samet’s concluding words are worth pondering: “Few Americans have understood more clearly the seductions and inadequacies of professing gratitude than Abraham Lincoln. Offering to a mother who had lost two sons in the Civil War ‘the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic,’ Lincoln nevertheless acknowledged ‘how weak and fruitless must be any words … which should attempt to beguile’ her from her grief. Expressions of thanks constitute the beginning, not the end, of obligation.'”