How the Military Influences the Public

In 2002-03, the Bush administration coordinated with retired military officers who were acting as policy experts on CNN and elsewhere to whip up the Iraq War frenzy. Such military commentary can have a significant and dangerous impact on U.S. public opinion, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recent study by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver published by the Center for New American Security examines the effects that public statements by senior military officers have on public opinion about the use of force.

The study is based on survey research in which respondents were presented with real and hypothetical questions about whether the United States should apply military force to certain situations overseas. Some respondents were told that U.S. military leaders favored the contemplated action, others were told that the same military leaders opposed the action, and still others were given no cues about what the military thinks.

The U.S. military’s “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad at the start of the Iraq War, as broadcast on CNN.

The main finding of the research is that publicly expressed military views do make a difference on public opinion, especially when such views oppose a military action. Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.

The authors discuss some concerns suggested by these findings, especially the hazard of what they call “a problematic politicization of the military.” Their concerns are legitimate, but the study fails to make an important distinction between the sort of military opinions that ought to worry us (worry us, that is, because they are being expressed publicly) and the sort that ought not.

The public (and policymakers in the Executive Branch and Congress) ought to pay careful attention to what senior military officers say on questions that are contained within the military’s area of expertise. That is where military officers can offer opinions that are more firmly grounded than what anyone else can offer. Such questions would include the costs and time required to accomplish a military mission, risks incurred in accomplishing it such as collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of being able to accomplish it at all.

A military officer’s opinion ought not to be considered worth more than anyone else’s when it goes beyond the area of specifically military expertise. Outside that area would be questions such as political and diplomatic costs of an action, national priorities in the allocation of limited resources, and how important attainment of the military objective would be to the national interest.

Because these sorts of questions are just as important in any decision to apply armed force overseas as are the ones on which military officers are specially qualified to speak, an overall judgment on whether any given application of force ought to be undertaken also goes beyond the area of military expertise. Thoughtful and intelligent military officers are going to have opinions about these things and are entitled to have them, but that is not the same as having a special claim on the public’s attention.

If there is a norm to be cultivated here, it is that active-duty military officers ought to insist on being heard on military questions (which is not the same as the question of whether a particular military action ought to be undertaken), while being mindful of the politicization hazard that Golby, Dropp and Feaver mention and thereby not taking advantage of their prestige, their uniform and their credibility to offer publicly their opinions on other things.

Unfortunately, too often military opinion gets handled in exactly the opposite way. On one hand, armchair generals sometimes do not defer to the military on military questions. A well known and egregious example is the public disparagement by civilian Pentagon leaders of the army chief of staff’s judgment about the U.S. troop presence that would be required in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, military officers’ opinions on questions that go beyond strictly military judgments sometimes are given excessive prominence, usually because politicians either want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision by pretending that a military opinion can be treated as a surrogate for a policy judgment, or want to use military officers as supporting props for promoting their own point of view.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “How the Military Influences the Public

  1. Greg
    April 18, 2013 at 20:07

    The magnitude of military treachery was meticulously detailed in an epic work of journalistic thoroughness in the New York Times on April 20th, 2008. According to the report, a special office of the pentagon was created, before 9/11, to “amplify” administration talking points concerning the build up to and eventual invasion and occupation of Iraq; and continuing until the pentagon “suspended” the operation in April, 2008.

    The article states that up to 75 retired military generals and other high-ranking officials were gathered together as “objective” analysts, to disseminate pentagon outlined information to media outlets, such as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and others.

    “In turn, members of this group have echoed administration talking points, sometimes even when they suspected the information was false or inflated,” the report said. “Some analysts acknowledge they suppressed doubts because they feared jeopardizing their access to key decision-makers as possible business opportunities for the defense contractors they represent,”
    according to the report.

    A few expressed regret for participating in what they regarded as “an effort to dupe the American public.” The story also states that the officers who did not repeat the Bush administration’s official line were denied further access to information.

  2. Rick
    April 16, 2013 at 23:50

    Smart soldiers, the few there are, leave the service early thus if you can not see the truth… they stay in military service longer. So logically the longer in rank, the dumber the person unless they are a sociopath who loves and thrives on invading sovereign nations and killing innocents civilians. Just look at West Point’s motto Duty, Honor, Country-> Duty come before Honor. USMA’s in your face indoctrination, if this does not spell it out for you, then you are blind as many who graduate from there. Didn’t Kissinger referred to military men as “dumb, stupid animals to be used” as pawns for foreign policy. Most Generals would be in the highest tier in either the sociopath or dumb category! Then there are the few exception as Gen Smedley Butler- “I spent 33 years as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism – I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”

  3. jeff
    April 15, 2013 at 02:39

    Unfortunately, the bulk of soldiers are judged by the generals, and politicians running the military. Just like I am judged by foreigners from the actions of my government. There may be more criminal elements in the military today, but the bulk of the soldiers are just honest patriots. Be happy they gave you the right to badmouth them.

    • rudyard
      April 15, 2013 at 05:07

      “Be happy they gave you the right to badmouth them.” When soldiers are responsible for giving you the right to anything, you can be certain you’re living in a statist reality. Soldiers have given me as much freedom as a bunch of politicians have. Which is to say, NONE.

      • Frank Pitz
        April 15, 2013 at 09:05

        Two thumbs up!

  4. emmanuel
    April 15, 2013 at 00:19

    The US Navy: a Global Force for Good.

  5. Eddie
    April 12, 2013 at 22:49

    RE: ” Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.”

    That may be STATISTICALLY significant difference, but that just essentially means that it wasn’t due to chance – – – that there IS actually SOME effect due to the military opinion makers, but I think that’s a long way from being a meaningful (ie; >10 or 15%) POLITICAL effect. I believe that a lot of this US militarism we’re inflicting on the world and ourselves is heavily due to the cultural zeitgeist. We in the US are basking in a culture of glorified violence & crime… militarism, gun culture, record prison population (conversion school for petty criminals to violent criminals), hunting, ultra-violent video games, slasher genre movies, UFC/boxing, ‘reality’ shows like COPS, etc. Many of these were historically present, but it certainly seems as if the intensity has increased. It appears that as people see so much ‘pretend’ violence on screens (movie/TV/video) they become inured to much of it… then it’s a small step to just ignore REALITY violence like news footage of mangled bodies of children in FOREIGN countries who were under our bombs, because those aren’t as graphic as the movie or video game they saw yesterday.

    Unfortunately, this is probably immune to rational change, and will require some domestic political trauma before things swing away from this….

  6. Don Bacon
    April 12, 2013 at 22:03

    Harry Truman wasn’t perfect (who is), but he had the drop on generals.

    “It’s the fellows who go to West Point and are trained to think they’re gods in uniform that I plan to take apart”.

    “I didn’t fire him [General MacArthur] because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three quarters of them would be in jail.”

    Ouch, that hurts. I was a MacArthur fan and so named my son Douglas.

  7. GeorgeSands
    April 12, 2013 at 18:48

    After learning what I have about the US military I think of them as the lowest form or mankind. Any group that allows rape and sexual assault as they have over the decades should be shut down. Most military personal are liars. Look at recruiters and everything we know about the military in general. They are people that lie for their own benefit.

    Nobody trust rapist and everyone is learning that is what you are.

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