Most Would Encourage Military Service But Confidence in Armed Forces Remains Low, Survey Finds

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Under Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Erik Raven, administers the Oath of Enlistment
Under Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Erik Raven, administers the Oath of Enlistment to 9 future sailors at Commander, Navy Recruiting Command. (Jose Madrigal/U.S. Navy)

A slim majority of Americans would recommend their family and friends join the military even as their confidence in the military hovers at a low point, according to the latest defense survey from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

This year's survey found that 51% of respondents said they would encourage friends and family who were considering joining the military to do so, compared to 33% who said they would discourage their loved ones from joining.

At the same time, 46% of respondents said they have a "great deal" of trust and confidence in the military, sitting between last year's result of 48% with great confidence and 2021's all-time low of 45%.

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The institute did not collect data that directly explains the slight divergence between those who would recommend military service and those who have great confidence in the military, but officials posited that one explanation could be found in the main reason people say they would encourage military service.

"You look at the number one reason on the encourage list, and it's about patriotism, service and honor, and those are things that sort of might exist outside or those values might rise above any particular concerns around the current military or civilian leadership, which is clearly what's driving the declining trend overall in institutional confidence," Rachel Hoff, policy director at the Reagan Institute, said on a conference call with reporters.

Trust in the military has plummeted since the first iteration of the survey in 2018 when 70% said they had great confidence in the military, which in decades past had been seen as shielded from the public's eroding trust in U.S. institutions. But even with the drop in confidence in the military, trust in the armed forces still far outpaces every other institution in the Reagan survey, including Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, law enforcement and the media.

This year's results come as nearly every branch of the military continues to struggle to meet recruiting goals. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the Army, Air Force and Navy failed to recruit as many young Americans as they set out to despite a full-court press that included hefty enlistment bonuses, relaxed enlistment requirements and fresh marketing campaigns.

Military officials have attributed their recruiting troubles to a combination of factors, including a strong civilian job market and a small pool of young Americans eligible to serve because of fitness and academic requirements. Republican politicians, meanwhile, have argued that potential recruits are being turned off by "wokeness" in the military, a term Republicans apply to almost any policy they disagree with but most often refers to diversity and inclusion policies.

With its past surveys finding that perceptions about politicization of the military were driving the drop in confidence in the institution, the Reagan Institute this year asked why respondents would encourage or discourage their loved ones from joining the military. Amid the recruiting woes, military officials see "influencers" such as parents, teachers and coaches as a key target to reach to convince young people to enlist.

The results of the survey suggest the GOP political messaging on "wokeness" is resonating with Republicans, but that most people have other, more traditional concerns about military service.

The top two reasons Republicans said would lead them to discourage family and friends from joining were that the military is "too woke" and that they distrust political leadership. The survey found 19% of Republicans citing distrust in politicians and 18% citing woke social policies.

But overall, just 8% of respondents identified wokeness as their top concern and just 6% cited a distrust in leadership.

The top reason people said they would discourage loved ones from joining the military is that it's "too dangerous," with 21% saying so. The next reason, at 20%, was that they are anti-war. Both of those reasons were also the top concerns for Democrats, with 26% expressing concern about the danger and 22% saying they're anti-war.

Those results align with a survey the Army released at the beginning of the year that found most young Americans identified safety as the top reason they wouldn't want to enlist.

Of those in the Reagan survey who said they would encourage family and friends to join the military, 31% said it was because of a sense of patriotism, honor or service. Post-service benefits such as the GI Bill, often seen as one of the most potent recruiting tools, ranked far lower, with 7% saying that's the reason they would encourage someone to join.

The survey also asked whether the military was too focused on social issues at the expense of warfighting, appropriately balancing both concerns, or too focused on warfighting instead of social issues. A plurality of Republicans, or 38%, said they think the military is too focused on social issues, but just 23% of all respondents said so. A plurality of all respondents, or 39%, said the military is appropriately balancing warfighting and social issues.

This year's survey also comes as Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., continues to delay hundreds of military promotions over his opposition to the Pentagon policy of covering travel and leave for service members seeking abortions.

Without specifically referencing Tuberville or abortion, the survey broadly asked whether people think it's appropriate to block military confirmation votes in order to protest Pentagon policies unrelated to warfighting. Nearly two-thirds of respondents, or 63%, said they think it's inappropriate. That included a majority in both parties, with 71% of Democrats saying it's inappropriate and 58% of Republicans saying so.

The survey was conducted from Oct. 27 to Nov. 5 by a bipartisan team from Beacon Research and Shaw and Company Research. About 2,500 adults were polled with a mix of live telephone interviews and online surveys, and results were weighted based on U.S. demographics. The survey has a margin of error of 2%.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

Related: Spiraling Confidence in Military Is Being Driven by Perceived Politicization, Survey Finds

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