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Americans have increasingly supported the military in recent years, a trend that intensified following the terrorists attacks last September. During the early months of the campaign in Afghanistan, support for the military has risen considerably from its Vietnam-era lows and continues to hold strong.

In the years preceding the Sept. 11 attacks and military campaign in Afghanistan, Americans tended to think the military had lost strength. According to a September 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 47 percent of Americans thought the U.S. military had weakened since the Gulf War (only 12 percent said it had become stronger). Thirty-eight percent told the Gallup Organization in a May 2000 poll that our national defense system should be stronger.

When it comes to an increase in military spending, however, Americans have been less gung-ho. According to a Gallup poll taken in September 2000, less than one-third of Americans (31 percent) felt that the federal government spends too little on national defense and military efforts. Twenty-two percent said it was spending the right amount. The former group, however, has increased since 1993, when only 17 percent of Americans said the government spent too little on defense, and since 1998, when roughly one-fourth said the same. Americans widely support an increase in pay for military personnel. While 34 percent polled in a September 1999 Associated Press survey said federal spending on the military and national defense should increase, 78 percent supported a military pay raise. (When asked which should be a priority — pay increases or investment in new military equipment — Americans chose the former, 49 percent versus 44 percent, in a March 1999 Gallup poll.)

Perhaps lulled by an era of relative peace, most Americans considered national defense less of a priority in the last election than education, health care and taxes. Although 3 in 10 polled by Gallup in July 2000 said that national defense was an “extremely important� election issue, and 4 in 10 called it “very important;� 9 in 10 Americans felt the same way about education.


Until the recent attacks, Americans' confidence in the military had not rebounded to its pre-Vietnam War highs. As of 1966, more than 6 in 10 Americans still expressed a great deal of confidence in the military. By 1971, that figure had dropped to 27 percent, and bottomed out at 23 percent in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president. During the past 30 years, high points in military confidence were in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re-elected (45 percent declared a great deal of confidence); in 1992 (50 percent), after the Gulf War was fought and the trouble in the Balkans was gaining attention in the U.S. and in 1993 and 1999, when the U.S. sent troops to Somalia, the Balkans and in an earlier pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

Nonetheless, Americans continue to support the military, believe in its importance and express confidence in it as an institution. According to Gallup, in June 2000, 64 percent of Americans had “a great deal� or “quite a lot� of confidence in the military as an institution; 7 in 10 Americans polled in May 2000 believed it was important for the U.S. to be No. 1 in the world militarily. As of February 2001, Harris Interactive showed confidence in the military was high (44 percent) relative to other governmental institutions, such as Congress (18 percent) and the White House (21 percent).

Most polls show that men, Republicans, the older and less educated, Southerners and Westerners are more concerned about America's relative military preparedness and capability than other Americans.


The immediate reaction of most Americans to the Sept. 11 attacks was military retaliation, with 9 in 10 backing a military response in the days immediately following the tragedy (according to myriad polls). A month later, support still ran high for such action. In an Oct. 8, 2001, CBS News/New York Times poll, 87 percent of Americans said they approved of military actions in Afghanistan which had begun the previous day. Americans also seem to be willing to stick it out for the long haul. In a Gallup poll taken Sept. 21-22, 2001, 92 percent believed the war on terrorism would be a long war, compared with 51 percent who thought the same back in Dec. 12-17, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In November 2001, a Los Angeles Times poll still showed approval holding, with over three-fourths of Americans saying they will support the war for “as long as it takes.� The vast majority also remained undeterred by civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with 85 percent agreeing in a Gallup poll taken in late October 2001 that casualties are unavoidable.

Certain caveats remain. More people told Gallup in October 2001 that in general, military force should be used as a last resort (52 percent) rather than readily (44 percent). Support also eroded to 65 percent in the event that casualties upward of 1,000 American troops were incurred in Afghanistan, as revealed in a September 2001 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll.


In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, over three-fourths of Americans said they support military action even if it meant a prolonged recession.

Would you support the U.S. taking military action if you knew each of the following would happen?

Military action would continue for a period of several months 86%
U.S. ground troops would be used in an invasion 80%
A prolonged economic recession would occur 78%
Further terrorist attacks would occur in the U.S. 78%
Military action would continue for a period of several years 66%
1,000 American troops would be killed 65%
Source: Gallup/CNN/USA Today, September 14-15, 2001


Even as military operations grew more complex, support for the armed services continued to hold steady. As of Nov. 4, 2001, 86 percent of Americans supported the U.S. military's mission to Afghanistan, down only slightly from 88 percent between Oct. 19 and 21 (according to Gallup), and 66 percent favored sending a large number of ground troops into combat on Afghan soil. However, those polled were somewhat less sure that the U.S. would be able to achieve its goals in the military operation. Only 1 in 4 (27 percent) say they are very confident the U.S. will be able to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and only 17 percent say they are very confident the military will be able to destroy all terrorist operations in Afghanistan. One lesson the Gulf War has taught is that high support for the military achieved during war rarely lasts when the fighting abates — particularly if the war fails to achieve its goals. According to Gallup, in March 1991, 85 percent of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military. Seven months later, that figure had dropped to 69 percent. In the early stages of the Vietnam War, 24 percent of Americans had no regrets; by 1971, 61 percent considered military involvement a mistake. Confidence in the armed forces, alas, seems to ride on results.


  • The military is enjoying the highest levels of confidence among the American public since the early Vietnam War era. High approval ratings are seen across the board, with most men, women — old, young, liberal and conservative — approving of military action in Afghanistan.
  • Americans are willing to make sacrifices for military success. A majority say they would endure a prolonged war, loss of American troops, Afghan civilian casualties and an intensified stateside recession for the sake of a military victory.
  • Satisfaction with the military tends to run highest during the early stages of conflicts, as demonstrated during wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Thus far, satisfaction with the military is running high even relative to these past conflicts, although satisfaction with the progression of the most recent operation, and confidence in the eventual achievement of current military goals runs somewhat lower.


  • The new heroes could extend beyond firefighters and police officers to include military personnel. As of November 2001, Gallup showed 87 percent of Americans approving of Secretary of State Colin Powell and 80 percent approving of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Consider including images of and story lines around family members in uniform. A soldier returning to his wife; parents with a photo of their daughter who's in the Air Force in the background or a child talking about how his dad, a sergeant in the Army, is a hero could prove effective in months to come.
  • Think military in terms of music. “God Bless Americaâ€? isn't the only patriotic tune in town. Military style music — such as marches or old army songs — could be effective background in certain advertising campaigns, adding a feeling of patriotism, nostalgia and heroism.
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