Young Adults Still Support War on Terrorism

In the October 13th New York Times article, Abandoned by U.S. in Syria, Kurds Find New Ally in American Foe , the authors state: 

For five years, United States policy relied on collaborating with the Kurdish-led forces both to fight the Islamic State and to limit the influence of Iran and Russia, which support the Syrian government, with a goal of maintaining some leverage over any future settlement of the conflict. On Sunday, after Mr. Trump abruptly abandoned that approach, American leverage appeared all but gone.

It may seem like Americans are done with fighting wars associated with reducing the risk of terrorism around world, but our data show otherwise. When asked whether they favor or oppose, “Allowing U.S. military to conduct other military actions to pursue terrorists around the world”, a strong majority still support this idea (77.9%).

support for military pursuit of terrorists, 10_14_19

Like many of our other findings in this project, civilians are much less supportive of the use of force (59.9%) than academy (85.6%) and ROTC (86.6%) cadets but majorities of all three groups appear to be ready to commit to this goal.

The politics associated with pulling troops out of Syria are more complicated than simply fighting terrorism. Our data suggest that, under some conditions, political leaders can rely on the support of young adults if they are convinced that the conflicts can help end international terrorism.

Mission Ready? BMI and Military Service

A report by Mission: Readiness found that 75% of young Americans are unfit for military service, partially due to the fact that 27% of them are too overweight to join. This problem has likely worsened in the 10 years since the article was published, as obesity rates continue to rise. Our data has been used to evaluate the same issue, investigating how many men and women aged 17 to 20 abide by their respective army weight requirements. We have also found how well ROTC and academy cadets meet these standards.

Using information collected about height and weight to create BMI scores, our data found that 37.8% of young American civilians are physically unfit to serve in the army. Military cadets, on average, comply with weight standards more than civilians, as expected. The highest compliance rate in our data come from female cadets.

Obesity by mil status, 8_27_19

Seven percent of civilian females in our sample are underweight compared to less than one percent of civilian males, which largely accounts for the difference between the fitness of the male and female civilian groups. The increase in compliance to weight standards comparing civilians to military personnel is expected but scores among the cadets are not perfect either.

We also wanted to know if people are self-selecting out of the military based on their physical condition but we found no correlation of BMI and individuals’ consideration for joining the military (statistics not shown), which means that perspective members are not self-selecting themselves out due to their weight. Regardless, it will be seen whether trends in obesity will make it more difficult for the services to recruit qualified cadets.

The Afghanistan War Over Time

The war in Afghanistan was launched shortly after the 9/11 attacks and has become the longest war in U.S. history, spanning almost 18 years. In November 2001 89% of Americans supported entering the war. However, as detailed by Politico, this number was cut in half by 2015, with only 42% defending America’s entrance into Afghanistan. While we know that civilian support for the Afghanistan war has generally decreased over the years, it is less known how views within military personnel groups have changed with time.

Our data finds that support for the war in Afghanistan has linearly declined by just over 20% from 2002 to 2017 in both military groups and civilians. However, military support for the war effort consistently rates at about 30% higher than civilian support, as displayed through trend lines. The difference between the groups is so profound that only the initial two years of data from civilians (68.9% and 81.1% in support) surpass the lowest point of support in military (64.7%). The data set for academy and ROTC cadets is also more linear, which may suggest that their views are more focused due to close handling of the conflict.

AfghanChart2

Why would cadets show significantly more support for the war effort when they are the ones who must put themselves in harms way? Earlier research using these data shows that military affiliation is associated with favorable attitudes toward going to war (see here). Much of the difference between the two groups can be explained by political ideology and gender. Whatever is producing these differences, there is a clear parallel in which both groups’ support has declined over time, yet the gap remains.

Mental Health among Civilian and Military Students

Military.com recently reported on the numbers of suicides attempted on defense facilities, sometimes called ‘parking lot suicides’. Specifically, they state that 260 suicide attempts have been recorded on Veterans Administration facilities. Stories of a mental health crisis have been associated with the military with the onset of the PTSD diagnosis in the 1970s. At the same time, stories of student crisis are also emerging as colleges and universities struggle to support students dealing with depression and anxiety (see this New York Times article). Which group is struggling the most? Our data (n=9,357; 2017)  shows that cadets, both ROTC and academy cadets, have about the same levels of self-reported depression with 9% of cadets indicating that they have occasionally or not at all experienced depression compared to 11% of civilian students. These differences are even greater when looking at self-reports of mental health status. However, when asked to assess their mental health overall, civilian students are much more likely to say that their mental health is ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ – 7% among cadets but 31% among civilian students.

Mental health blog, 4_12_19

It is important to remember that all cadets are screened before joining the services which probably limits the number of people with extreme problems or issues. That said, mental health issues appear to be impacting this generation as a whole and many people joining the services bring the issues and problems associated with their generation.

Gender Equality Among Veterans

A recent post from Military.com (https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/03/10/va-struggles-curb-harassment-female-veterans-medical-centers.html) suggests that female veterans are not being treated the same as their male counterparts. We do not address this issue directly with our data but did ask our sample how important, “Equality of people, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc” is to them. Selecting on veteran status, you can see that the vast majority of men and women believe it is important (94% of men and 95% of women).

 

equality chart 1, 3_11_19n=824, 620 male veterans and 204 female veterans

The chart combines the “very important” and “somewhat important” categories. Eight-seven percent of female veterans say equality is “very important” compared to only 72% of men, suggesting that it is particularly important for female veterans. Albeit a small difference, only .5% of female veterans say that they “Don’t Know” compared to .8% of men.

While women are now officially accepted into combat roles in the armed services, they still represent a statistical minority among both service members and veterans. We will have to keep watch over gender integration beyond the extent to which they can take on different positions to include interactions among people of different genders. Our data suggest that both men and women see equality as important, so it won’t be a “hard sell” to encourage service members to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Conflict in Syria

A number of people were upset with President Trump’s announcement about pulling out military support from Syria in December of 2018. According to Gallup Polls, about half of Americans supported the use of force in Syria. Their question was worded, “Do you approve or disapprove of this U.S. military action against Syria?”

syria3, 1_30_19

We asked cadets and civilian students the same type of question. They were asked whether “The US should or should not use military action to attempt to end the conflict in Syria?” (n=2371). Not surprising, civilian students were much less supportive of the use of force than cadets. Only 21% of civilians but over 40% of ROTC or Academy Cadets supported the use of force in Syria. Interesting though, this support is less – cadets and civilians – than what Gallup is reporting. It could be because Gallup used a different question and it includes all adults, not just young people who are generally more liberal on these issues.

 

 

 

The Military and the Media

 

Gallup polls recently released a study showing an overall improvement in trust of the media (see https://news.gallup.com/). They report that 45 percent of Americans trust the media, up from 41 percent in 2017 and 32 percent in 2016. However, Democrats are much more trusting of the media than Republicans. How do cadets view the media? Our study shows a somewhat lower opinion of the media compared to civilians – at least when it comes to the media’s depictions of the military.

Cadet and Civilian Attitudes toward the Media*
  Civilians Cadets
Very/Somewhat Supportive 61% 47%
Neutral/No Opinion 24% 19%
Very/Somewhat Hostile 15% 33%
* Respondents were asked, “Mass media depictions of the military are…Very Supportive, Somewhat Supportive, Neutral, Somewhat Hostile, Very Hostile, or No Opinion.” Differences due to rounding.

Our data suggest that servicemembers have less trust in media than their civilian peers because twice as many cadets (33% vs. 15%) say that they believe that the media is somewhat or very hostile toward the military. Some veterans and servicemembers may view the protests of football players kneeling during the national anthem as anti-veteran. These images may also be associated with the media who report those stories.

And our cadet respondents are more opinionated than civilian respondents. Only about three percent of cadets said that they have no opinion on the matter compared to seven percent of civilians. However, about 17 percent of both groups reported being neutral on the matter.

It is difficult to readily access public opinion on social issues among people who serve or have served in the military because they cannot easily be identified in mass surveys and usually only account for small percentage of respondents. But this research shows that they do care about issues that relate to them and we should do our best to tease out the unique ways they view military- and defense-related issues.