Saturday, January 06, 2007

Where blows the political wind among military personnel?

While the military is generally, apolitical, those who make up the military usually identify with some political party or along some spectrum of political beliefs. I was reading Stephen Retherford's blog, Sisyphus, and saw his post about a recent Military Times survey and an opinion piece by Rosa Brooks in the LA Times.

The Military Times surveys active duty members on an annual basis; the survey, notes the Military Times, is the only annual survey of active duty members:
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.
What's the poll tell us -- and, yes, I know to be suspect of any "statistics"?

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.
How'd they get these figures?
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 aver age older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more ca reer-oriented than the overall military population.

Among the respondents, 66 per cent 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.
Okay, so I have a sense of how they got the numbers. What else does it tell us? According to the Military Times, more than half the respondents give the Commander-in-Chief general approval.
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.
Mr. Retherford titled his post Freeing the military from the Republican Party grip; I'm not sure that's what the numbers tell us, but I'm also not certain the military is holding the military in a grip; the military hasn't, at least as far as I know, been hijacked. To (badly) paraphrase and interpret Karl von Clauswitz, the military exists so that our elected leaders have a force they can use to implement policy by other means. The fact of the matter is that for the last many years, the Republican party has been the dominant, at least at the national level, political party in control. The President sets policy; the military merely carries it out.

In her commentary, Rosa Brooks states,
For most of U.S. history, issues of national security rarely divided Americans along sharp party lines: The old adage that "politics ends at the water's edge" generally held true. The military, while institutionally conservative with a small "c," was not closely identified with a particular political party. But somewhere between the end of the Vietnam War and the middle of the Clinton era, the U.S. military began to look like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
I'm not sure I buy it. During my time as a student at the Naval War College, I was surprised at the breadth of political views expressed by my classmates. Sure, there were plenty to the right, but the bulk of them saw themselves, and were, moderates or centrists or radical centrists.

She also states,
For a time, the Republicanization of the military became self-reinforcing. The GOP has controlled the White House for all but 12 of the last 34 years and has made a determined effort to identify itself with the military and to court military voters. By the turn of the millennium, the perception that Republicans were "pro-military" while Democrats were "soft" on defense had become an entrenched facet of American politics.
I'd agree that this perception -- that Republicans supported the military while Democrats were soft on defense and security -- seems to be prevalent. Sadly.

And, I mostly agree with her concluding paragraphs:
A politicized military presents a threat to democratic ideals of civilian control. Over the last 30 years, the Republicanization of the military also has had a deeply distorting effect on public debates about national security, making it almost impossible to question Republican national security policies without being labeled "anti-military."

As we struggle to move beyond the horrors of Iraq, we desperately need to develop fresh approaches to changing security threats. That requires a military that isn't partisan — and political leaders who won't make posturing in front of the troops a substitute for responsible policies.
Our military is under civilian control for a reason; I just wish more elected leaders had experience in, and a true understanding of, the military.

Anyway, interesting food for thought; and I'm sure the Military Times' survey will provide fodder for weeks of posting in the blogosphere.

Oh, and yes, I lifted (er, linked to) the picture above from Mr. Retherford's Sisyhpus blog. Thanks, Stephen.

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