Why is America losing faith in its military?

A new Gallup poll shows that the lowest number of Americans in 23 years think the US has the world's No. 1 military – a change in perceptions.

Ben Margot/AP
The United States Navy Blue Angels fly over Levi's Stadium before the NFL Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, Levi's Stadium.

As the United States military recovers from two decade-long wars – neither of which were won decisively – and endures significant downsizing, do Americans think it's still the best in the world?

The answer is increasingly 'no,' according to a new Gallup poll. Last year the number of Americans who thought they were protected by the world's strongest military was 59 percent, but this year that number has dropped to 49 percent – the lowest figure in the 23 years Gallup has recorded the trend.

While America's military has been stressed by 13 years of war, experts say the poll results are more an indication of how the public – influenced by election year rhetoric – is struggling to come to terms with the enduring threat to the US and what an effective military looks like.

The poll results are, in part, "a reflection of the changing nature of warfare," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

"Being the strongest nation militarily doesn't count as much given the wars we're fighting," he adds. "You can't field a huge infantry and armor and defeat an insurgency. It's been a long time since we've won a war like that." 

Yet the sight of America's protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the downsizing across the Armed Forces (including an ongoing 40,000-troop drawdown from the US Army), and persistent condemnation from Republican presidential nominees of the drop in military spending seem to have convinced more of the public that the country's military is a shadow of its former self. 

In addition, a decade of fighting in the Middle East under the banner of a "war on terrorism" has only seemed to make the terrorist threat more dangerous. International terrorism is the leading threat to the US, according to another Gallup poll this month. The resulting perception is that the American military simply hasn’t done its job the way it did in previous decades, says Robert Loftis, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and a former official in the US State Department.

"This really is about perceptions," he adds. "We've been used to thinking, 'We'll send the military in to fix everything,' and now we're seeing, 'Well, the military can’t fix these problems.' That leads to a perception that the American military isn’t as strong as it could and should be." 

A large proportion of the public are still cleaving to a World War II-era notion of what an effective military looks like, Professor Segal says.

"Back when wars were conventional wars fought by military forces representing nation states, we could say that the nation that has the largest, most effective military … is going to be the strongest nation," he adds. "Now, meeting those criteria doesn't necessarily mean you’re going to win wars."

That the military that has toiled against insurgencies in the Middle East is effectively being compared to the military that defeated standing armies in World War II is unrealistic, he continues.

"One has to ask whether military forces are our most effective weapon against international terrorism," he says. "The fact is they don’t seem to be."

There is some truth to the claim that the US military has been weakened in recent years, just not enough to suggest it's still not the most skilled and efficient military in the world.

The Armed Forces have been understandably stretched by a decade of war, experts say. The average age of planes in the Air Force is 28 years old, according to Clarence E. McKnight Jr., a retired US Army general, and some equipment used by the Army is also decades old. USA Today reported in 2010 that nearly 13,000 soldiers had served three to four years in Iraq, over multiple deployments, leading to increased rates of mental illness and marital problems.

"We have deployed our troops more often, and for longer periods of time, than are optimal for military performance," says Segal.

"We as a nation have recognized some of the problems with the military, and they are real problems. It doesn't mean we're weak. It means we're not perfect," he adds. "We probably have the most effective military force I have seen in the years I've been studying the American military, and I've been studying [it] since the 1960s."

The declining public confidence in the US military could also be related to the disconnect developing between the general population and the small fraction – less than 1 percent over the 2000s – who have been on active military duty, says Professor Loftis.

In a follow-up email to the Monitor, he wrote that as fewer Americans have served in the military – 10 percent of Americans saw active duty during World War II – they have tended to "romanticize the military."

"In that case, we substitute rote 'thank you for your service' statements…for a deeper examination of America's real defense needs and the proper role of the military in protecting and advancing American interests in the world," he adds. "Thus, the more simplistic claims that our military is no longer the strongest fall on receptive ears because people have no personal experience to judge otherwise."

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