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November 12, 2007

This Veterans Day, it may be useful to consider how American attitudes toward the US military have changed over the past few decades. American attitudes on the military as an institution, at this point during the Iraq War, are in marked contrast to what they were at a similar time during the Vietnam War. Why is that?

In a Gallup poll taken in June 2007 Americans ranked the US military as the institution in which they had the most confidence. Sixty-nine percent said they had either “a great deal,” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the US military. 

Like all opinion polls, you can interpret this one in different ways. Despite how carefully the question was crafted, everyone had a slightly different definition of the word confidence when they responded. Still, the regard Americans today have for the military, despite their attitudes about the Iraq War, and the bad publicity the military has gotten from Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other incidents, is impressive.

This is quite different from the effect the unpopular Vietnam War and incidents like the My Lai massacre and other negative news coverage of the war had on attitudes toward the military.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis published in March 2007, during the Vietnam War, “A sharp decline in confidence in the U.S. Military accompanied growing American disillusionment with the war.” A February 1966 a Harris poll found more than 62 percent of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence in “people running the military.” By March 1973, in a NORC poll, that number had fallen to 32 percent. 

Over the course of the Iraq War, public attitudes about the war itself have followed a similar downward trend, but not opinions of the US military.

In March 2003, in a Pew survey, 22 percent called the intervention in Iraq a wrong decision. By December 2005, that number had risen 48 percent, fluctuating somewhat and reaching 54 percent in Pew's February 2007 poll. Positive attitudes toward the military, however, have not diminished.

Interestingly, and contrary to what you might have believed, while positive attitudes about the military rose briefly during the short and successful Gulf War, they quickly receded again when it was over. Pew/Times Mirror surveys found “very favorable” attitudes toward the military ranging in the neighborhood of 20 percent in the late 1980s. They rose briefly to 60 percent in the aftermath of the Gulf War, but they dropped back into the 20-30 percent range until the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers in September 2001.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, approval rose sharply as it did in 1991. In a May 2002 Newsweek poll, 59 percent expressed a very favorable view of the US military. Thirty-four percent said they had a mostly favorable view.

Three years later, in March 2005, a Pew survey found little decline in the high levels of approval. Eighty-seven percent said they had a favorable view of the military, including 49 percent who said they had a very favorable view. Pew's January 2007 poll found those numbers virtually unchanged. Eight-four percent expressed a favorable view of the military, including 47 percent with a very favorable view.

Why have American attitudes about the military remained so positive despite their attitudes on the war and all the negative publicity? While all social phenomena complex, there may be one relatively simple explanation.

As a Vietnam veteran and career military officer sensitive to American views of the military, I can tell you that positive images of the military in the news and entertainment media were almost non-existent during the later years of the war and for years afterward. Moreover, the American people as a whole never bought into the belief that the winning the Vietnam War was vital to US national security. As negative attitudes about the war grew, so did negative attitudes about the military.

Certainly there were many aspects of Vietnam War era American society that are different from today. The peace generation, the drug culture, etc., all had their impact on attitudes, but can they account for the differences in attitudes about the military during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars? Some, no doubt, will argue that they can.

Nevertheless, over the decade between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, despite the downturn in attitudes before 9/11, Americans saw abundant positive images of the US military in the news and entertainment media. From the positive coverage of the Gulf War to the positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan, to positive coverage of the assault on Baghdad during the Iraq War, Americans watched a successful, well-equipped, well-trained military focused in a global war against terrorism.

At the same time, until the recent spate of anti-war movies, Hollywood made a series of war movies that showed the US military and the US warrior in a positive light. This is in sharp contrast to what they did during the Vietnam War.

More important, however, Americans understand the fundamental difference between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Whether they believe US intervention in Iraq was a good idea or a bad one, they understand the very real connection between Islamic Fascism, as opposed to Vietnamese nationalism, and US national security. They know they have an important stake in the outcome of the Iraq War whether they like it or not.

People tend to infer conclusions from opinion polls that conform to their own positions on the issues. What you infer from the opinion surveys above is up to you. One conclusion you can infer from them is that the principal difference between American attitudes of the military during the Vietnam and Iraq wars is American’s confidence in the military’s ability to protect us, and the need for it to do so. The fact that there has not been a repeat of the 9/11 attacks is no small factor.

Happy Veterans Day



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