During the past few years, negative headlines about the military have been littering the media, including print, television, and electronic. Many are from just the past several weeks or months. Every story is a concern individually, but the cumulative effect is potentially devastating to public perceptions of the military and its members.
We have been inundated with reports of high veteran unemployment and suicide rates, as well as a sexual-assault epidemic. We have read about cheating on academic tests at military academies, on nuclear-reactor exams in a Navy schoolhouse, and on nuclear-weapon-procedure tests at multiple Air Force installations. We have also heard about failed nuclear-weapon-protection exercises and the inadvertent transfer of weapons. Other topics have included leadership failures, resulting in senior personnel being removed from command or positions of trust; and the mismanagement of the recovery of troops missing in action and of military cemeteries. One terrorist attack on a major Army base was even labeled as workplace violence, and its victims were denied the Purple Heart.
We continue to hear of veterans suffering the long wait for disability determinations as their claims linger in the Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy. Most recently we have heard about the gross mismanagement of VA hospitals, which have been so negligent that veterans may wait months for treatment or die before receiving it.
Gallup conducts annual surveys to measure perceptions of public entities. In June 2013, public confidence in the military was 76 percent, just one percent below the previous year but six points lower than in 2009. The Pew Research Center found the same decline. In 2013, 78 percent of the public felt that “the armed services contributed ‘a lot’ to society’s well-being.” This was six points lower than four years earlier. Public confidence topped out at 85 percent in early March 1991, according to Gallup, a result likely influenced by the swift success of Operation Desert Storm. Recent numbers may sound low—and nearly a quarter of the public holds less-than-stellar perceptions—but they actually remain near historic highs. Still, we cannot count on “pretty good.”
Pew’s poll reflects public esteem for the military; Gallup’s is a reflection of confidence in the armed services. Both measurements are important.
Public perceptions impact our ability to recruit qualified applicants. Because today’s youth have unlimited access to current events and associated discussions, the effect of negative news stories may be particularly detrimental. The opinions of parents, teachers, veterans, and other leaders who counsel young people on life choices, and encourage them to seek or avoid the military, cannot be overstated.
It’s not just about recruitment. Popular support is also important because citizens can pressure elected representatives to support the armed services with programs and funding—or to cut them. And those representatives, an ever-decreasing number of whom are veterans, may already be less inclined to support the military.
The Pew and Gallup polls measure the feelings of the public. But opinions within the military matter just as much. Considering Commander Guy Snodgrass’ assessment that the Navy is “about to face its most challenging officer retention problem in more than two decades” (“Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” U.S. Naval Institute blog, March 2014), internal perceptions obviously matter. We often call these quality-of-life considerations, and they must not be ignored.
A poll taken today, influenced by the headlines mentioned earlier, would likely show another dip, and we should not be surprised. Recent attempts by military and civilian leaders to reduce military compensation and benefits, while ostensibly tied to the budget, are most assuredly reinforced by less-favorable public perceptions of the services.
Leaders need to take immediate action. First, we must fix what’s broken. The headlines cannot be whitewashed or ignored. Second, we need more effective public affairs. In most instances, military press target the internal audience, those already associated with the military. We need a more effective external communications strategy, not to squash negative headlines but to counterbalance them with positive stories that reflect the national-security benefits of our services. Public perception matters and may improve with better strategic communications, but it depends most on strong leadership.