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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
n=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.
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?”
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.
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*
* 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.
Should illegal immigrants be allowed to become citizens of the U.S. through military service? This question is somewhat moot since they are already doing it and it there is a long history of immigrants serving in the U.S. armed services going back to the American Revolution. Thousands of people are currently serving in this status but as many as 40 of them have had their enlistments revoked recently because of security concerns (see https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/07/05/army-discharging-immigrants/762021002/). Data from our survey show that academy cadets do support this idea with 52% of them saying that they favor allowing non-U.S. citizens to serve in the military with the hope of gaining legal citizenship status in the U.S. compared to only 38% of their civilian college peers.
The idea of alternative pathways to citizen is one foundation of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act introduced in 2001 by United States Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) which would provide permanent legal residence to immigrants who either complete two years of college or serve in the U.S. military. It is important to note that our data show that most people do not oppose the use of military service to gain access to citizenship: more than two out of three people do not oppose the idea.
Education as a pathway to citizenship, another dimension of the DREAM Act, is a different matter. In this case, more civilian students (41%) would support the idea compared to only 31% of military cadets and 27% of ROTC cadets – and larger proportions of the latter groups oppose it.
The DREAM Act has come up multiple times for debate but it has never been passed. Given the current debate over immigration policy, the DREAM Act holds the promise of creating a way of managing the demand for entry into the U.S. that will satisfy both liberals and conservative but there are two parts to this story: military service and education. Previous research with our data show that cadets are more conservative in their political orientation than their civilian peers, probably explaining why the cadets are more open to the military pathway to citizenship while civilian students see education as more viable than cadets.
None-the-less, large proportions (as many as 1 out of 3) of both groups are uncertain about the DREAM Act, they simply don’t know enough to decide whether military service or higher education should serve as a means of legitimizing immigrants into the U.S. Should this act be brought back to a vote, current citizens will have to be better educated on it before it will gain any traction.
The goal of this site is to provide information about the attitudes and behaviors of young people toward the military today, civil-military relations, and pressing socio-political issues. While there are many great sources of information about young people’s attitudes, very few of them emphasize the military and almost none of them are dynamic, they are not updated regularly. This site provides analysis of data that are being collected at one-to-two times a year from college students, military academy cadets, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets, and other sources of information related to the military and national defense.