By Robert Hodierne
Senior managing editor
Air Force Times
The American military — once a staunch supporter of President Bush and the Iraq war — has grown increasingly pessimistic about chances for victory, according to the 2006 Military Times Poll.
For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president’s handling of the war than approve of it. Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war.
When the military was feeling most optimistic about the war — in 2004 — 83 percent of poll respondents thought success in Iraq was likely. This year, that number has shrunk to 50 percent.
Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42 percent said they disapproved. The president’s approval rating among the military is only slightly higher than for the population as a whole. In 2004, when his popularity peaked, 63 percent of the military approved of Bush’s handling of the war. While approval of the president’s war leadership has slumped, his overall approval remains high among the military.
Just as telling, in this year’s poll only 41 percent of the military said the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq in the first place, down from 65 percent in 2003. That closely reflects the beliefs of the general population today — 45 percent agreed in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.
Professor David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, was not surprised by the changing attitude within the military.
“They’re seeing more casualties and fatalities and less progress,” Segal said.
He added, “Part of what we’re seeing is a recognition that the intelligence that led to the war was wrong.”
Whatever war plan the president comes up with later this month, it likely will have the replacement of American troops with Iraqis as its ultimate goal. The military is not optimistic that will happen soon. Only about one in five service members said that large numbers of American troops can be replaced within the next two years. More than one-third think it will take more than five years. And more than half think the U.S. will have to stay in Iraq more than five years to achieve its goals.
Almost half of those responding think we need more troops in Iraq than we have there now. A surprising 13 percent said we should have no troops there. As for Afghanistan force levels, 39 percent think we need more troops there. But while they want more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly three-quarters of the respondents think today’s military is stretched too thin to be effective.
The mail survey, conducted Nov. 13 through Dec. 22, is the fourth annual gauge of active-duty military subscribers to the Military Times newspapers. The results should not be read as representative of the military as a whole; the survey’s respondents are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the overall military population.
Among the respondents, 66 percent have deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan. In the overall active-duty force, according to the Department of Defense, that number is 72 percent.
The poll has come to be viewed by some as a barometer of the professional career military. It is the only independent poll done on an annual basis. The margin of error on this year’s poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
While approval of Bush’s handling of the war has plunged, approval for his overall performance as president remains high at 52 percent. While that is down from his high of 71 percent in 2004, it is still far above the approval ratings of the general population, where that number has fallen into the 30s.
While Bush fared well overall, his political party didn’t. In the three previous polls, nearly 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans, which is about double the population as a whole. But in this year’s poll, only 46 percent of the military respondents said they were Republicans. However, there was not a big gain in those identifying themselves as Democrats — a figure that consistently hovers around 16 percent. The big gain came among people who said they were independents.
Similarly, when asked to describe their political views on a scale from very conservative to very liberal, there was a slight shift from the conservative end of the spectrum to the middle or moderate range. Liberals within the military are still a rare breed, with less than 10 percent of respondents describing themselves that way.
Seeing media bias
Segal was not surprised that the military support for the war and the president’s handling of it had slumped. He said he believes that military opinion often mirrors that of the civilian population, even though it might lag in time. He added, “[The military] will always be more pro-military and pro-war than the civilians. That’s why they are in this line of work.”
The poll asked, “How do you think each of these groups view the military?” Respondents overwhelmingly said civilians have a favorable impression of the military (86 percent). They even thought politicians look favorably on the military (57 percent). But they are convinced the media hate them — only 39 percent of military respondents said they think the media have a favorable view of the troops.
The poll also asked if the senior military leadership, President Bush, civilian military leadership and Congress have their best interests at heart.
Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those surveyed said the senior military leadership has the best interests of the troops at heart. And though they don’t think much of the way he’s handling the war, 48 percent said the same about President Bush. But they take a dim view of civilian military leadership — only 32 percent said they think it has their best interests at heart. And only 23 percent think Congress is looking out for them.
Despite concerns early in the war about equipment shortages, 58 percent said they believe they are supplied with the best possible weapons and equipment.
While President Bush always portrays the war in Iraq as part of the larger war on terrorism, many in the military are not convinced. The respondents were split evenly — 47 percent both ways — on whether the Iraq war is part of the war on terrorism. The rest had no opinion.
On many questions in the poll, some respondents said they didn’t have an opinion or declined to answer. That number was typically in the 10 percent range.
But on questions about the president and on war strategy, that number reached 20 percent and higher. Segal said he was surprised the percentage refusing to offer an opinion wasn’t larger.
“There is a strong strain in military culture not to criticize the commander in chief,” he said.
One contentious area of military life in the past year has been the role religion should play. Some troops have complained that they feel pressure to attend religious services. Others have complained that chaplains and superior officers have tried to convert them. Half of the poll respondents said that at least once a month, they attend official military gatherings, other than meals and chapel services, that began with a prayer. But 80 percent said they feel free to practice and express their religion within the military.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
By Robert Hodierne