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Americans' trust in military hits 'malaise era' territory

Partisans have rushed to explain why, but the answer might be complicated — and quite simple — at the same time.

Analysis | Washington Politics

It’s official. The state of the U.S. military is on the fringes of malaise era territory and it isn’t clear how the institution will be able to turn around the negative spiral with the American people anytime soon.

A new Gallup Poll has found that 60 percent of the American public trust its military. Still over 50 percent, but a far cry from 70 percent just two years ago in 2021 and an even further fall from the 80-plus figures just a decade ago. The drop is seen among all party affiliations: Republicans (68 percent), Democrats (62 percent) and Independents (55 percent). 

For perspective, Gallup pointed out that that the last time it dipped to 60 percent or below was in 1997 and actually lingered below 60 percent during the late 1970’s, the post-Vietnam phase when the military was transformed into an all-volunteer force and the national was wracked by what then-President Carter called a “crisis of confidence,” later coined “malaise.” 

The left claims that racism and other intolerances in the ranks have caused Americans to turn against the military; the right says “woke” politics are at the root of increasing alienation. Perhaps the culture indeed is responsible for the 25 percent shortfall in recruitment, but beware of partisan narratives that appear to speak for everyone and explain trends so neatly. Never is anything that simple.

The truth is the country is two years fresh out of a war that lasted two decades. While Afghanistan was an endless churn of personnel rotations, military families back home suffered under the strain of divorce, financial fragility, and a one-parent home life. Veterans returned with injuries, inside and out. Kids grew up in these conditions. Moreover, that the Iraq War (which overlapped Afghanistan for a half a dozen years) is now deemed a failure, is no ringing endorsement for 18-year-olds who have to read dusty old history books and watch movies to understand what it was like to win, to be “the good guys” in a heroic narrative. These things matter.

As (Ret.) Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who challenged the truths of the generals during the Afghanistan war pointed out in an email, the cat is out of the bag on how deceptive the military and Washington leadership was for the 20 years of  the Global War on Terror. It’s seeped into the bloodstream. No one can fairly or accurately pinpoint what is at the core of the slipping trust numbers, but one can’t — and shouldn’t — count out this new, post-GWOT “malaise.” 

“I've been arguing for well over a decade that the penchant of our senior military leaders to deceive the American public about the course of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and support in the Yemen and Libyan wars, continues to deteriorate that level of trust,” Davis said. “Add in continuing deception by the various Administrations (it’s a bipartisan problem, by the way), and the American people will continue shedding trust.”

Brandan Buck, a PhD candidate in history and Army veteran who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, says a disproportionate number of Americans from the South and Midwest served in the GWOT and have been increasingly disenchanted with their role.

"In the wake of the Global War on Terror, a well-deserved crisis of confidence in Washington, a disproportionate burden of casualties, and a far less compelling foreign policy message, one should not expect the same enthusiasm from America's century-old warrior class," Buck shared with me in an email.

"As we find ourselves further from memories of the 'Good War' and deeper into a disaggregated narrative landscape brought on by the internet, one should not be surprised that the trends of the past fade away," he added.

Add that to the continuing feeling that our leadership isn't being straightforward or even honest about current operations or endless proxy wars overseas, said Davis.

“Trust must be earned back but that process can't even start until we first stop the bleeding by being straight with the American people, quit trying to ‘put a good face’ on everything that happens — even when it’s ugly and bad — and refusing to give the hard, honest assessment.”

That might be the truth of the matter, hiding in plain sight, though it would be a shock if anyone with the power to change things, admitted it.

A female US Army (USA) Drill Sergeant (left) provides security for the Color Guard as they post the colors at the start of the graduation ceremony for the Recruits \\graduating at the end of the nine-week Basic Combat Training (BCT) program at Fort Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina (SC) in 2006. (Photo SSGT STACY L PEARSALL, USAF)
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