For years, some of America's most influential experts and academics have suggested that the US military is drifting dangerously far to the right on a host of important social issues, creating a growing gap between the armed forces and the rest of the nation. Several have gone so far as to label it a crisis.
Yet mounting evidence indicates that America's military leaders are more in tune with the rest of America than previously thought.
While they may take strong conservative stands on homosexuality and the death penalty, military officers are in fact more inclined to favor handgun controls and abortion rights than the civilian population.
The findings challenge long-held stereotypes and paint a more textured portrait of the military's decisionmakers.
"Like any other group, they are really more diverse than a lot of people give them credit for," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center in Washington.
Moderate on key issues
Perhaps the strongest support for the notion of a moderate military is a study by Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., that was released last year by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.
It showed that senior military officers identify with the Republican Party by an 8 to 1 margin, but they are measurably less conservative than the public on a number of key issues.
Among the findings in the report:
*More than two-thirds of military officers (69 percent) favor strict handgun controls. A 1999 Pew survey found only 56 percent of the public favored controls.
*Some 65 percent of senior military officers surveyed supported leaving abortion decisions to women and their doctors. A September ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 57 percent of the public favored keeping abortion legal in most circumstances, Pew says.
*Military officers strongly opposed banning books advocating homosexuality or communism. More than half the public says "books containing dangerous ideas" should be banned from public school libraries, Pew reports.
*Young adults entering the enlisted military are less Republican than young adults entering college.
"The military is squarely between elite civilians and the general public on many issues," says Professor Feaver.
To many professional officers, these findings show the military's attitudes can't easily be pigeonholed, and exonerate them from accusations of political favoritism.
"We are not practicing partisan politics to the detriment of military professionalism," says Lt. Gen. Richard Chilcoat, president of National Defense University and the oldest serving general on active duty.
"When you get beneath the surface, you see that military officers have a strain of liberalism that runs through them - they're more liberal than the general public on a number of issues," he says.
Yet others still worry that the armed services are moving further away from mainstream views.
For one, Feaver's study indicated that military officers surveyed overwhelmingly oppose gays serving openly. A slight majority of the public favors homosexuals serving openly.
Tom Wall, a former Army training battalion commander, also recalls a profound change in colleagues' attitudes after Bill Clinton was elected president.
Mr. Wall says Army officers would openly criticize Clinton at work, breaking a longstanding tradition of nonpartisanship. "I had never before heard people get vocal about the commander in chief," says Wall, who joined the Army in the mid-1970s.
"I shared some of the feelings, but was uncomfortable with stating them publicly," he adds, drawing a line between work and private life. At home, he says, "that was one thing. But at the office? That was dirty, that wasn't right."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society