“In 2018, Gallup recorded that some 74% of Americans said they had -a great deal’ or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military; in 2023, that number had dropped to 60%. That is still high compared to other governmental institutions, but it is a marked decline.” – Peter Feaver
Peter Feaver is a professor here at Duke University, where he runs the Program in American Grand Strategy. He talks with Judith Kelley, Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy about his new book, Thanks for Your Service: The Causes and Consequences of Public Confidence in the US Military.
Note: this conversation took place in late October, 2023.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
On recent decline in confidence
The most recent decline is almost surely driven heavily by a change in Republican posture to the military. You can almost date it to the middle of September 2020 when President Trump, frustrated with the way he was being criticized by some former military leaders whom he had appointed to high office in his administration, and he sort of lashed out at them. That got picked up by other Trump supporters and Trump media figures. For a number of years now, there’s been negative messaging about the military from opinion leaders on the Republican side, and that’s helped cause a decline in Republican attitudes towards the military.
On the connection between personal service and confidence in the military
One of the drivers of public confidence in the military is did you yourself serve. [If so,] then you have higher confidence. Did your family member, close family member, loved one serve? Then you have higher confidence. That’s an important driver, because we know, demographically, those numbers are dropping.
[With the] passing of the World War II generation, the eventual passing of the large mobilization army of the draft army. In the last 30 years, we’ve increasingly recruited from within families who are already serving. We’re recruiting from a narrower pool. So the number of people who do not have a personal connection with the military is going up, inexorably.
[I titled the book] Thanks For Your Service, because we have this phenomenon of high confidence in the military, low propensity to join the military. [It’s like people say], “Thanks for your service, I’m glad you’re doing it so I don’t have to do it.”
This can create opportunities for alienation where we’re putting the military on a pedestal. If you’re on a pedestal, then you’re looking down on the people who have put you on the pedestal. So an opportunity for alienation in that direction.
Likewise, there’s an opportunity for alienation in the sense of we’re asking you to serve, we don’t quite understand, we don’t even have skin in the game or are paying attention to the things that we’re asking you to do. The burdens of national security are being borne by few and not understood by the majority. These are concerning aspects of the phenomenon.