Will the Pandemic Affect America’s Confidence in the Military?

April 29, 2020
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In response to COVID-19, Washington has called on one of the country’s most trusted institutions to do its part — the U.S. military. In recent weeks, the Pentagon has deployed the military across the nation to support America’s effort against the COVID-19 pandemic. It contributed two Navy hospital ships, deployed two Army field hospitals, committed the support of the Army Corps of Engineers, and activated the Army National Guard in more than a dozen states — including several states where National Guard units are supporting law enforcement. To many, the use of the military during the crisis makes eminent sense; it has unique capabilities and resources, and retains the trust of most of the American people.

On the other hand, some worry that deploying National Guard troops on a large scale and for a long period of time could threaten civil liberties. Fears of domestic deployments turning into “martial law” are perhaps unsurprising, given that Americans are bombarded with martial language from public officials describing the COVID-19 pandemic as a war and by calls to put the military on “a wartime footing.” This fear ultimately prompted the chief of the National Guard bureau, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, to make a direct public statement in an effort to dispel fear-based rumors by dismissing the possibility of National Guard-imposed martial law (or a “military lockdown”).



Will the military’s role in the COVID-19 response negatively affect or undermine Americans’ confidence in the armed forces? Concerns over how Americans will respond to domestic military operations are by no means limited to the minds of conspiracy theorists. Kori Schake, a leading scholar in the field of civil-military relations, recently argued that military resources should be deployed to combat COVID-19, but not in ways that “might threaten America’s social fabric.” In other words, using the military for purposes of domestic control, instead of for its medical or logistical capabilities, risks damaging Americans’ trust in their military.

By contrast, a trio of authors from the Brookings Institution, including Gen. (Ret.) John Allen,  argued that National Guard forces should be readied now to “backstop and backfill police forces.” Despite this strong recommendation (and the reality that guardsmen are already supporting law enforcement in some states), the authors shared Schake’s concerns about the perception of domestic military deployments, and cautioned that, “if not handled well, it could jeopardize not only the trust communities have in their police forces but also the standing of the military in society.” Some commentators, including Jim Golby and Alice Friend, took a much different position, in effect arguing that Americans may actually be overconfident in the military’s ability to “save us from COVID-19.”

At the center of this debate is a relatively straightforward empirical question: What do we really know about how domestic military operations affect Americans’ confidence in the military?

Americans Trust Their Military

The military enjoys a rare place in American life. The military is consistently rated as one of the most trusted public institutions in the United States. In the last Gallup poll, from June 2019, 73 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the U.S. military, the highest ratings on Gallup’s scale. American’s confidence in their military is crucial for healthy civil-military relations. Some scholars argue that Americans’ trust in their military is durable, after surviving the tests of the military’s performance in recent wars. However, to my knowledge, scholars have not yet tested the empirical effects of domestic deployments of the military on Americans’ confidence in the armed forces.

It is reasonable to expect that military operations to resolve the COVID-19 situation will address the public’s urgent needs, thus giving Americans reason to sustain or even increase their confidence in the U.S. military. Alternatively, there are good reasons to think that Americans’ attitudes about their military will depend on the type, location, and outcomes of the military’s role in the COVID-19 response.

First, the military’s posture may matter. There is a world of difference between experiencing armed military members performing security functions (like “backstopping” police) and unarmed military members performing medical functions or delivering supplies. No matter how well-intentioned, soldiers in uniform with black rifles may invoke fear or reciprocal aggression.

Second, Americans’ proximity to the troops could influence confidence in the U.S. military. Some Americans may have direct, personal contact with military members engaged in COVID-19 responses, while others may only hear about military engagement outside their local area. Receiving direct military support in one’s community may increase an individual’s risk perception and fear of the virus. One might expect a form of “Not in My Back Yard” (or NIMBYism) sentiment to prevail: Americans may be more likely to support a military COVID-19 response outside their community than in their immediate proximity, where their lives and COVID-19 outcomes will likely be more affected by a military presence.

Alternatively, Americans’ attitudes about their military may not be affected by how or where the military is deployed as part of the COVID-19 response. This alternative, if true, should assuage fears that domestic military support would create the kind of blowback that Schake, as well as the Brookings team, are concerned about.

Military Deployments During Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the Los Angeles Riots

Based on evidence from Americans’ recent experience with their military during natural disasters and riots, confidence in the U.S. military may actually increase after its COVID-19 response efforts. For a baseline, we can look to recent deployments of the National Guard for indicators of how Americans’ confidence in the military varies with the type and location of military actions. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York and New Jersey, the National Guard was deployed to perform disaster assistance. From 2012 to 2013, confidence in the military declined negligibly in New York and New Jersey where the National Guard response was strongest (decreasing from 67.1 percent to 66.7 percent). This case suggests unarmed domestic military operations may not affect public confidence in the military in any meaningful way.

Figure 1: Public Confidence in the Military Before and After Hurricane Sandy.

Source: Figure generated by the author. Data: Gallup (2012, 2013). Point estimates are accompanied by generous 85 percent confidence intervals, given the small data sets.

In contrast to Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. military’s response to Hurricane Katrina was much more robust. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, “Task Force All American,” were deployed to New Orleans to restore order after the storm. Soldiers conducted armed patrols in addition to traditional disaster assistance tasks. Residents witnessed paratroopers with M4 rifles and red berets (albeit, without rifle magazines) on the streets. Gallup’s data shows that among Mississippi and Louisiana residents (those most affected by Katrina), the percentage of respondents expressing high confidence in the military increased from approximately 81 percent to almost 90 percent from 2005 to 2006. This one case suggests that robust or armed military response may engender more confidence in the troops, but (as will be discussed), there are other factors that could account for this increase in confidence.

Figure 2: Public Confidence in the Military Before and After Hurricane Katrina.

Source: Figure generated by the author. Data: Gallup (2005, 2006). Point estimates are accompanied by generous 85 percent confidence intervals, given the small data sets.

One final historical test case is the military intervention into Los Angeles in response to the L.A. riots of 1992. In contrast to Sandy and Katrina, the military’s response to the L.A. riots was designed to restore civil order. This is arguably a hard test for how Americans respond to domestic military operations, given the highly politicized nature of the L.A. riots and the fact that armed troops were deployed to maintain security. Among Californians, confidence in the military increased by 15 percent, from approximately 56 percent to 71 percent from 1991 to 1993 (before and after the riots), according to Gallup, again suggesting that robust responses engender confidence. Meanwhile, contrary to expectations that an armed military intervention in Los Angeles would be poorly received among minority or low-income Californians (and thereby decrease confidence in the U.S. military), these groups expressed increased confidence in the U.S. military from 1991 to 1993 in California. In fact, confidence in the U.S. military increased by 34 percent among non-white Californians and by 17 percent among low income Californians (below the $20,000 annual income threshold used in Gallup’s screening).

Figure 3: Public Confidence in the Military Before and After the L.A. Riots.

Source: Figure generated by the author. Data: Gallup (1991, 1993). Point estimates are accompanied by generous 85 percent confidence intervals, given the small data sets.

Each of these cases provides evidence contrary to the assumption that domestic military operations create a significant dent in the Americans’ confidence in the U.S. military. In two “hard” cases involving robust military responses, Katrina and the L.A. riots, confidence increased and, after Hurricane Sandy, the decline in confidence was negligible. However, analysis of these cases come with a host of drawbacks, not the least of which is that none involved a global pandemic. First, the data is imprecise. Sample sizes from affected areas are small and not plausible as representative samples. Second, the polling data is not timed closely to before and after the events. The polling data is likely confounded by the many other factors that could have affected Americans’ confidence in the U.S. military during each period. Hurricane Sandy occurred during an election period and the Afghanistan war, Hurricane Katrina occurred during two major wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), and the L.A. riots data spans the period of Desert Storm and the transition between the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Finally, the “after” polls could conflate Americans’ views on the military with retrospective perceptions of the effectiveness of the overall governmental response the military’s contribution. For all of these reasons, among others, we cannot rely on existing polling data to know with precision how Americans’ confidence in the U.S. military changes when military forces are employed for domestic purposes.

Current Public Opinion Data

To get a better baseline of data on the subject of U.S. military deployments and public confidence, I fielded a pilot study on April 4 to a nationally-representative sample of 600 American adults. The novel design allowed me to estimate confidence in the military among two different groups of Americans: those who already believe that there is a military COVID-19 operation in their local or state area, and those who have not yet experienced a military response in their area. This latter group participated in an online experiment involving domestic U.S. military support to the COVID-19 response, a design which allows us to assess how Americans’ confidence in the military may vary with two dimensions discussed earlier: the type of military response (armed or not) and the location (in the respondents’ local/state area). Though only a pilot study, this data complements the historical cases discussed above. Moreover, the design allows us to make better assumptions about how domestic U.S. military operations are likely to affect Americans’ confidence in the military and, thereby, inform the debate about how the military should be used for the COVID-19 response.

First, approximately 47 percent of respondents reported an ongoing military response to COVID-19 in their local community or state, and these respondents’ locations match publicly disclosed military deployments. When asked to express their level of confidence in the U.S. military — using the same question as in prior Gallup studies — nearly 81 percent of this group expressed high confidence in the U.S. military. This is a level of confidence higher than expressed in the last Gallup poll of June 2019, in which 73 percent of Americans expressed high confidence in the military, again contrary to the expectation that use of the troop might decrease public confidence. More importantly, there was virtually no difference in the confidence levels among Americans who believed that an armed military response was ongoing and those who believed that an unarmed (e.g. medical or logistics only) response was ongoing.

Figure 4: Public Confidence in the American Military in Response to Ongoing Military COVID-19 Responses.

Source: Survey conducted by the author on April 4, 2020. Point estimates are accompanied by generous 85 percent confidence intervals, given the small data sets.

Among respondents unaware of a current military deployment in their area, approximately 74 percent expressed high confidence in the military, a level strikingly similar to the baseline level among respondents in the 2019 Gallup poll. Next, among subjects exposed to the experiment (a hypothetical scenario involving future military intervention), confidence levels were virtually unaffected by an armed deployment in their local area. Three-quarters of respondents expressed high confidence in the U.S. military when presented with a hypothetical military intervention in their local area. Contrary to expectations, confidence decreased slightly among respondents exposed to a hypothetical unarmed military intervention in their local area (56 percent of these subjects had high confidence in the U.S. military). 

Figure 5: Public Confidence in the American Military in Response to a Hypothetical Military COVID-19 Response.

Source: Survey conducted by the author on April 4, 2020. Point estimates are accompanied by generous 85 percent confidence intervals, given the small data sets.

These recent results reveal that domestic U.S. military support to the COVID-19 response may increase Americans’ confidence in their military, that the U.S. military’s standing among Americans may not fall if it is used in an armed capacity to support local law enforcement, and that there is little reason to be concerned that NIMBYism will affect Americans’ attitudes towards their military. First, domestic military interventions, regardless of type, may increase confidence in the U.S. military. That increase was observed in the Gallup data for affected residents after Hurricane Katrina and the L.A. riots, as well as in my recent polling data for respondents experiencing an intervention now. Second, the type of military deployment may not be important. Confidence increased after Hurricane Katrina and the L.A. riots (both armed interventions). Confidence levels were similar among respondents experiencing armed or unarmed interventions for COVID-19. Only the recent experimental test showed a difference, and in that data, confidence was lower among respondents reflecting on a possible unarmed response. Though unexpected, this result contradicts predictions of a backlash from an armed domestic U.S. military response.

Finally, the experiment does not suggest any support to a NIMBYism theory of public confidence. The level of confidence in the U.S. military was about the same, regardless of whether the hypothetical intervention was local or external to respondents’ immediate area. These results, though counterintuitive, suggests that Americans may not be fazed by the presence of armed U.S. military members in their local area.

Readers should take these results with a grain of salt — the data is either historical or from a small pilot study. Moreover, there are self-evident limitations in applying survey-based research to complex real-world problems like the COVID-19 crisis. The salient problem is that the online experience of a local military intervention is certainly different than seeing troops in one’s city amidst a crisis, an experience that could evoke much stronger or different responses. Perhaps most importantly, these results cannot predict how Americans’ confidence in their military will be affected by the efficacy of the military response or the overall outcome of the COVID-19 crisis. We don’t yet know whether Americans, in retrospect, will think that the national COVID-19 response was effective, or that the military played a helpful role in that response.

What Does the Data Suggest?

This new data, when combined with the relevant historical cases, provides a better empirical starting point for the debate on the civil-military consequences of the domestic U.S. military support to the COVID-19 response. The evidence presented here suggests there are few reasons to be pessimistic about how Americans will feel about their military based on the COVID-19 response.

Of course, this is not the end of the debate on the civil-military consequences of COVID-19 or the U.S. military’s role in the response. Going forward, a crucial question is whether this situation contributes to politicization of the military. As many others have argued, there were a large number of reasons to be concerned about politicization of the U.S. military before the pandemic. Since the outbreak, there are indications that partisanship is shaping Americans’ attitudes on the COVID-19 response. As a result, partisan attitudes may color Americans’ views of the U.S. military during the crisis, given its prominent role in the government’s response. COVID-19 is, in many ways, reshaping Americans’ daily lives — perhaps permanently. In this context, the data discussed suggests that concerns about the consequences of COVID-19 on Americans’ confidence in the military is a secondary concern.



Neil Snyder is an Army Colonel and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Stanford University, where he currently serves as a fellow of the United States Army Strategic Plans and Policy Program (ASP3). The views expressed in this article are his own.

Image: U.S. Air National Guard (Photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Tucker)