More Deferential but Also More Political: How Americans’ Views of the Military Have Changed Over 20 Years
Americans’ views on the relationship between civilian leaders and the military are disturbing. When it comes to decisions about the use of force, recent surveys demonstrate that Americans are inclined to disempower civilians and defer to the professional military’s judgment. Nor are Americans much troubled by active-duty, let alone retired, military leaders publicly intervening in policy debates. Moreover, Americans’ opinions on the subject are driven by their partisan political commitments. When Donald Trump was in the White House, this meant that Democrats were surprisingly deferential to the military, which they hoped would act as a check on this president whom they distrusted and often reviled.
But is the public’s lack of commitment to democratic civil-military relations, and its politicized view of the military, a new problem? Or is it just the normal state of affairs, amplified into a crisis by the churn of the news cycle? It is hard to know because scholars and pollsters have not done regular, or even occasional, deep dives with identical questions that allow for direct comparisons. Over 20 years ago, in fall 1998 and spring 1999, the Triangle Institute for Security Studies conducted a comprehensive survey — more comprehensive than any before or since — of Americans’ views on civil-military relations. While occasional surveys have been fielded since, including by us, they have asked different questions. As a result, we do not know how Americans’ views on civil-military relations may have changed over the course of the last two decades. In June 2021, therefore, we fielded a survey, via the Lucid platform, to a representative United States-based sample of 913 respondents that replicated many of the questions asked by the Triangle Institute nearly a quarter-century ago.
The survey results are concerning — especially when compared to the older Triangle Institute data. They show that Americans’ deference to the military has grown over the last two decades, and that members of the U.S. public, particularly Republicans, are increasingly worried about the military’s involvement in politics. This is troubling news for the health of U.S. democracy and American national security.
The Pull of Deference
Americans across the political spectrum express considerably more deference to the military today than they have in the past. In 1998 and 1999, the Triangle Institute survey asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “In general, high ranking civilian officials rather than high ranking military officers should have the final say on whether or not to use military force.” A majority — 53 percent — of respondents agreed. This result, among others, suggested that Americans in the late 1990s had not fully grasped the principle of civilian control of the military. But even fewer of our 2021 respondents concur — just 43 percent.
Deference to the military has increased among self-identified members of both major political parties: Around 30 percent of both Republicans and Democrats in the late 1990s strongly agreed with the statement that civilians should have the final say on the use of force, but just 15 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats similarly strongly agree in 2021.
One might have plausibly hypothesized that the Triangle Institute survey represented the high point of deference to the military. In the late 1990s, the U.S. armed forces were still riding high off its unexpectedly easy triumph in the Gulf War. That victory had salved the wounds of Vietnam and seemed to confirm the wisdom of ending the draft and installing the all-volunteer force. A series of generals earned accolades that decade — from Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, whose bluntness and frankness the press found refreshing during the Gulf War, to Colin Powell, whose unflappable professionalism and unimpeachable integrity seemed to epitomize the army’s transformation, to Wesley Clark, the Rhodes Scholar who served as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
Meanwhile, the leading civilian politicians of the day seemed militarily suspect. Bill Clinton’s evasion of the Vietnam draft did not help, nor did his decision early on to challenge the military over its discrimination against gay soldiers. Critics derided the U.S. armed forces’ peacekeeping missions in places like the Balkans — which civilians insisted upon, over the professional military’s hesitation and objections — as armed “social work.” The 1990s were marked by numerous instances of civil-military dysfunction in the United States, but, as far as the U.S. public was concerned, the military came up smelling of roses.
One might even have hypothesized that the next two decades should have laid the groundwork for less deference. In the “Global War on Terror,” the U.S. military was given the mission of pacifying and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq and stamping out Islamist extremism around the globe. Civilians granted the armed forces immense resources — over $2 trillion in supplemental overseas contingency appropriations and nearly $1 trillion in increases to the Defense Department’s base budget — as well as substantial autonomy in designing and implementing military operations. But victory proved elusive. Insurgency and terrorism waxed and waned and waxed again amidst the “forever wars.” Despite the U.S. military’s deep involvement in arming, equipping, and especially training the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, they repeatedly lost on the battlefield to the Islamic State and the Taliban.
Yet deference to the military has risen, despite the U.S. armed forces’ setbacks in the Global War on Terror. We can only speculate as to the reasons. It may be related partly to Americans’ generally declining trust in government. The military is the one major national institution that has bucked the steady post-Vietnam fall in trust. Moreover, it seems clear that civilian politicians, more than the professional military, have taken the blame for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These plausible explanations, however, beg the question: Why has the U.S. military retained Americans’ trust in the last two decades, and why has it evaded blame for the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq? The answer likely lies in the popular militarism that is a key part of modern American culture. The United States has long granted the military unusual social standing, cast officers as heroes and soldiers as paragons of good citizenship and patriotism, and hailed servicemembers as models for their fellow Americans. Such militarism dates back to the early days of the all-volunteer force, established in 1973, but it reached an even higher peak during the Global War on Terror.
American politicians of both political parties, who have regularly reproduced these rhetorical tropes for decades, bear some responsibility for this militarist myth-making. As a result, discourse and images valorizing the military, including its top officers, have been dominant in the popular sphere — from politicians’ speeches to television to movies. Such militarism is manifest as well in the belief among a very large majority of Americans in soldiers’ and officers’ patriotism and competence: over three-quarters of our respondents trust military officers because they “put the interests of the country first” and because they are “good at what they do.” Given such veneration of the military, why wouldn’t Americans call for their political leaders to suspend their own judgment in favor of that exercised by such exceptionally patriotic, competent heroes?
Politicians’ militarism helps to insulate the global American footprint from domestic political criticism. But that has come at a cost: rising public deference to the nation’s senior military officers.
Eroding Faith in a Military Above Politics
But the second major finding of our survey is even more troubling. Its results suggest that the U.S. military is in danger of becoming, in the eyes of the public, a political actor just like any other in Washington.
For the time being, the U.S. public’s trust in the armed forces remains secure. In 1998–1999, 93 percent of Americans said they trusted the military “a great deal” or “only some.” Likewise, today, you are hard-pressed to find anyone who distrusts the military. Over 86 percent of our respondents express at least some degree of trust in the armed forces. True, compared to a survey we conducted in 2019, when Trump was still president, Republican trust in the military has waned slightly, and Democratic trust has intensified a bit. But this is par for the course whenever the White House changes hands: Partisans affiliated with the loser of the most recent presidential election express less trust in all institutions of government, including the military, and partisans affiliated with the winner express more. Overall, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents continue to trust the military more, and distrust the military less, than do Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
But dig a little deeper, and the U.S. military’s standing as a uniquely apolitical institution comes into doubt. Like the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, we asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: “Members of the military should be allowed to publicly express their political views just like any other citizen.” Two decades ago, a solid majority of respondents (55 percent) strongly agreed. However, in our June 2021 survey, only 28 percent of respondents strongly agree. The drop in agreement is bipartisan, but it is especially strong among Republicans. In the late 1990s, 52 percent of Republicans agreed strongly that members of the military should be able to express their political views. This dropped dramatically, to 23 percent, in our survey. Meanwhile, 59 percent of Democrats in the late 1990s strongly agreed, compared to 35 percent in 2021.
We see similar drops in Republican support for military policy advocacy and criticism of civilian leaders. Two decades ago, the vast majority of Republican respondents (nearly 90 percent) agreed to some extent that “it is proper for the military to advocate publicly the military policies it believes are in the best interests of the United States.” Just 69 percent of Republicans agree in 2021. Similarly, in the Triangle Institute survey, 60 percent of Republicans agreed to some extent that “members of the military should not publicly criticize senior members of the civilian branch of government.” In our survey, 72 percent of Republicans agree.
Some of these results might appear, at first glance, to be good news for democratic civil-military relations. After all, it is inconsistent with the principle of civilian supremacy if military officers “publicly express their political views just like any other citizen,” or “advocate publicly the military policies [they] believe are in the best interests of the United States,” or “publicly criticize senior members of the civilian branch of government.” One might infer that the U.S. public has internalized the message of democratic civil-military relations to a greater degree over the last two decades.
We wish. One would expect conservative Americans to be disposed to defer to the military, which epitomizes the values they prize (e.g., discipline, tradition, and order), and political liberals to support tighter civilian control of an institution they, relative to conservatives, tend to distrust. One would further expect political conservatives to be less troubled by the prospect of assertive public military policy advocacy. Indeed, that is what the Triangle Institute for Security Studies found in 1998–1999, when over 89 percent of Republicans supported public military policy advocacy, versus 77.5 percent of Democrats. While Republican support has plummeted, to 69 percent, Democrats’ beliefs have remained comparatively stable, holding at 71 percent. Likewise, it seems reasonable to expect Republicans to be less bothered by the prospect of members of the military publicly criticizing senior civilian officials. This was true in 1998–1999, when over 68 percent of Democrats opposed the prospect of servicemembers criticizing civilians, compared to around 60 percent of Republicans. Today, Democratic opposition has fallen slightly, to below 64 percent, while Republican opposition has grown to 72 percent.
Importantly, these flips in partisan support are not explained by who occupies the White House. Both surveys were conducted when Democrats were in the Oval Office. Republicans could have been expected to welcome public military policy advocacy and criticism, so as to check a Democratic president — which is what we wrongly predicted in a scholarly article published last year.
Instead, these peculiar findings appear to reflect what we have elsewhere called the “Tucker Carlson effect.” Led by Trump, Republican pundits’ and politicians’ longstanding veneration of the military’s senior leadership seems to be coming to an end. As president, Trump quickly soured on “my generals,” whom he had appointed to Cabinet posts, and he reportedly lashed into the top brass as “dopes” and “babies” during an infamous meeting in the Pentagon’s “Tank” in July 2017. But these tensions largely remained behind closed doors until July 2020, when Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked back his misguided June walk with Trump across Washington’s Lafayette Square. It accelerated in June 2021 when, during the ongoing controversy over “critical race theory,” Milley emerged as a surprising defender of the importance of teaching about systemic racism. In response, Republicans declared the nation’s top generals “woke,” attacking the senior leadership for falling prey to, and even inculcating, political correctness.
It seems that — compared to fellow Democrats in 1998–1999 and to contemporary Republicans — Democrats today are more confident that senior military officers share their policy preferences and so are happy for the top brass to speak out. If Democrats seem comfortable with senior military officers publicly criticizing civilian politicians, it is presumably because they think that senior officers are their political allies, who will direct their criticism against Republicans. Meanwhile, compared to fellow Republicans of the past and to contemporary Democrats, more Republicans today appear to suspect that senior military officers do not share their policy views and therefore oppose military engagement in policy debates.
Greater apparent U.S. public support for democratic civil-military norms — such as senior military officers refraining from intervening in public debates over policy — masks Americans’ growing underlying anxiety about civil-military relations. In the Triangle Institute survey, Americans were nearly equally divided on the question of whether “civilian control of the military is absolutely safe and secure in the United States.” Today, over 48 percent of Americans disagree with that statement, while just over 37 percent agree. Republicans are especially apprehensive in 2021: just 35 percent think civilian control of the armed forces “absolutely safe and secure,” while 56 percent have their doubts.
It is distressing that, in 2021, a majority of Americans do not affirm the principle of civilian supremacy over the military. It is even more disquieting that support for this principle has fallen over the last two decades. As scholar Peter Feaver once memorably wrote, in a democracy, “civilians have the right to be wrong.” Civilians should have the final say over the use of force because they — compared to military officers — are much more directly accountable to the people. While military officers have a right and responsibility to advise civilian politicians and officials, they have no right to substitute their judgment for that of civilians. The will of civilians must reign supreme. As go civil-military relations, so goes the health of U.S. democracy.
Yet we are equally distressed by the mounting evidence that the U.S. military’s status as a uniquely apolitical and nonpartisan institution is eroding. Politicized denigration of the military is no less problematic than its politicized adoration. This poses risks for decision-making about prospective and ongoing military operations: If one party believes that a “woke” military leadership too highly values political correctness, might they not be skeptical of those officers’ expressed professional judgment? It poses risks for recruitment: If one set of partisans — currently Republicans, but perhaps Democrats in the future — comes to believe that the officers setting military policy are the enemy of right-thinking Americans like them, would they not be hesitant to send their children into that institution’s ranks? And it poses risks for the military’s warfighting capability if, as a result, Congress undertakes intrusive investigations into the political leanings of prospective senior officers and applies political litmus tests.
But the dangers are greater still. Democratic civil-military relations, like other elements of liberal democracy, rest as much on informal norms and practices as on formal institutional arrangements and rules. If Americans do not expect the military to remain on the political sidelines, if their attitudes toward the military swing with the political winds, the professional military’s adherence to these norms — which so far remains fairly secure at the highest levels among active-duty officers — will eventually decay. In a democracy, Samuel Huntington long ago observed (and feared), the military will eventually roughly reflect society’s values and mores. If the military is thought of and treated as just one political actor among many in a polarized polity, it will eventually start to act as just one political actor among many in a polarized polity.
We are not envisioning anything as dramatic as active-duty officers openly endorsing political candidates or threatening a coup if a particular candidate takes office. The country remains, thankfully, a long way from such depths. But the death of democracy takes place by a thousand cuts. It comes about through erosion, not explosion. Were the military to tumble far down the slippery slope of politicization, civic-minded Americans on both sides of the political aisle would surely wake up and howl. But they would be too late.
It is not too late now. Restoring the military’s apolitical standing will make significant demands of both the military and civilians. It requires a renewed commitment from the active-duty military, which has, in various ways, subverted democratic control and contributed to public confusion about the military’s role, from openly disparaging presidents to threatening resignation to making public statements on policy to issuing damaging leaks. It requires discipline from retired generals, who have too often traded on their military credentials and embraced an active role in politics and punditry. But, first and foremost, it requires politicians to sail a clear course between military veneration and vilification. The only thing worse than the nation worshipping its most senior military officers is the nation reviling them.
Ronald R. Krebs is professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and editor-in-chief of Security Studies. He is most recently the co-editor, with Thierry Balzacq, of The Oxford Handbook of Grand Strategy.
Robert Ralston is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Follow him on Twitter @RobertJRalston.