About two-thirds of the active-duty U.S. military approve of President George W. Bush’s overall performance, while the same percentage of officers consider themselves Republicans, according to an unprecedented poll released here Tuesday.
The "Military Times Poll", conducted by the publishers of the Army Times and the independent newspapers of the three other major services, also found that most of the active-duty military considers itself very much a breed apart, morally superior to both US society and its civilian leadership.
In addition, the survey, which was based on 933 written responses to a survey sent to 2,500 enlisted personnel and officers, found that the overwhelming majority of those queried believe that US forces are being stretched too thin by Bush’s "war on terrorism" and that only 56 percent believed the president was handling the Iraq war well.
Compared to the US public at large, the military considers itself clearly more conservative and Republican, according to the survey, which might be the first to measure the political and related beliefs of a broad cross-section of active-duty enlisted personnel and officers in the major services.
The poll comes on the heels of "the American soldier" being named Time Magazine’s "person of the year" and amid a still controversial military occupation in Iraq that, combined with other recent deployments, has raised serious questions about whether Washington needs to expand its 1.4 million-strong active-duty armed forces to keep pace with Bush’s military ambitions.
The fact that nearly 90 percent of the poll’s respondents agreed that "today’s military is stretched too thin to be effective" will undoubtedly tilt the debate in favor of those who support a major expansion of at least two army divisions, even if it adds significantly to the already unprecedented 500-billion-dollar federal deficit projected for 2004.
Deployments under Bush’s "anti-terrorism" war have already made the military the most visible face of the United States across broad swathes of territory throughout Eurasia and the Islamic world.
In many areas, US troops are training their foreign counterparts, so their own political attitudes might to some extent also affect the opinions and attitudes of their students.
Traditionally, the US Armed Forces have prided themselves on being essentially apolitical and fully responsive to civilian authority. When they became an all-volunteer force after the draft ended in the early 1970s, many analysts expressed concern the military could become increasingly divorced from the society that it was sworn to defend.
A number of independent surveys were carried out in the mid to late-1990s to assess racial and political attitudes in the services, but these were confined mostly to in-depth interviews of officers attending war colleges, rather than on a large sample chosen at random.
Some of those surveys raised new alarms about a growing civilian-military gap in which military officers were found to be significantly more conservative than their civilian counterparts, and self-described "liberals," who had historically been well-represented in the army in particular, had all but disappeared from all of the services.
In the 2000 elections, the issue became particularly pertinent, as Republicans fought hard to get all absentee military ballots counted in Florida on the untested assumption that active-duty personnel had voted overwhelmingly for Bush. Indeed, the absentee military vote probably provided the winning margin for the president.
The new Times survey, which was conducted in October and November (before the capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein), tends to sustain that view, although the gap between the military and the general public appears to be somewhat narrower than the earlier studies had suggested.
While recent polls show that roughly one-third of the public considers itself Republican, 57 percent of the active-duty military identified themselves with that party with two-thirds of officers, compared to 49 percent of enlisted personnel, checking the Republican box.
Compared to 32 percent of the civilian public who described themselves as Democrats, only nine percent of military officers and 16 percent of enlisted personnel did so. Twenty-nine percent of the military respondents either said they were independent or declined to answer the question.
As for attitudes toward Bush, two-thirds of military respondents said they approved of his overall performance as president, compared to only 13 percent who disapproved of it.
By contrast, 55 percent of civilians indicated approval and 43 percent indicated disapproval, according to an August poll by Gallup. In this case, too, a higher percentage of officers approved of Bush (73 percent), than enlisted personnel (64 percent).
But on Iraq, the military’s attitude was much closer to civilians’. Some 64 percent of soldiers said the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, compared to 59 percent of civilians who agreed in a recent Gallup poll.
Moreover, only 56 percent of the military said they approved of Bush’s handling of the war, compared to 50 percent of the general public.
"(The military’s) approval of Bush is noticeably stronger than their approval of his handling of the war in Iraq," the Times‘ managing editor, Robert Hodierne, told IPS.
"It makes me think their opinion of his Iraq policy is more fragile," he said, adding that some in the military would never denounce their commander-in-chief, even if guaranteed anonymity.
Hodierne stressed that the survey did not include members of the reserves or the National Guard, who make up almost 30 percent of the soldiers currently deployed to Iraq or its neighboring states.
Members of these two services, whose numbers also total about 1.4 million, have tended to be far more critical of the Iraq deployment than the full-time military.
Hodierne said he believed that the sample was not a perfect cross-section, even of active-duty personnel. "Our sample tends to be older, higher-ranking, and longer in service," he said, noting these variables might also contribute to a somewhat more Republican and conservative result.
On other factors, the survey found that 53 percent of active-duty personnel described themselves as either "very conservative" or "conservative," compared to 40 percent of the general population. By contrast, seven percent said they were "liberal or very liberal," compared to 20 percent of the general population.
More than two-thirds of respondents said women should serve in combat, but of those one-half said they should do so only if they volunteer.
About one in nine of the survey’s respondents was female.
Nearly four out of five military personnel said they believed racial and ethnic minorities are treated more fairly in the military than in civilian life, while two-thirds said they believe members of the US military have higher moral values than the civilian population.
As to the state of moral values in the society at large, only two percent said they were "excellent"; 35 percent "good"; and 62 percent said either "only fair" or "poor."
The survey found that active-duty personnel were somewhat more religiously observant than the general population. About one-half said they attend religious services at least once a month, compared to 37 percent of civilians.
Recent polls have shown that the frequency of religious observance and identification with Republicans was highly correlated.
(Inter Press Service)
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