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In the Ranks: Making Sense of Military Morale

In its 2011 annual survey, the Center for Army Leadership asked soldiers to respond to a seemingly innocuous statement: “The Army is headed in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the next 10 years.” Only 26 percent of those on active duty agreed—an all-time low in the history of this survey. The report caused ripples well beyond the Army community. News outlets—from NBC News to the Boston Globe—ran stories about the Army’s crisis of confidence and
overall military morale. 

The results were as puzzling as they were troubling. At the time of the survey, the Iraq War was over and Afghanistan seemed to be winding down. Threats like those posed by the Islamic State and Russia had yet to gain widespread public attention. The Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as “sequestration”—which mandated significant cuts to the Army’s budget—had not gone into full effect. 

Moreover, declining morale is not unique to the Army; it runs across the services and even across countries. In a 2014 US Navy Retention Study, 42.2 percent of sailors described their morale as “marginal” or “poor,” while only 17.7 percent described it as “good” or “excellent.” Likewise, a 2014 service-wide survey conducted by Military Times found a 35 percent drop since 2009 in those servicemen rating their quality of life as “good” or “excellent.” No wonder policymakers are taking notice, as seen most obviously in a statement from Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, saying the “worsening morale crisis” should be a “cause for grave concern and requires immediate attention and action by the commander in chief, senior Defense Department leaders, and the US Congress.”

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Despite the widespread concern the military’s morale problem has generated, however, the reasons for it are not immediately apparent, nor are recommendations for the correct policy for how to solve it. A number of possibilities—the inconclusive wars just fought, budgets cuts, and military benefit reductions—jump to mind as the causes of discontent, but these are based on conjecture more than fact. Moreover, closer analysis reveals both good and bad news for the military: On the one hand, the morale problem may not be as significant as the numbers depict; but to the degree that there is a problem, it is likely to be harder to solve than is commonly believed. 

 

While the latest polling data about the winter of our military discontent are certainly unsettling, they must be placed in a wider context. Long before the September 11th terrorist attacks, politicians, pundits, and soldiers alike worried about the military’s declining morale. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, criticized the Clinton administration for policies that left the troops “overworked and demoralized, and many left the military or considered doing so.” Almost from the start of the Global War on Terrorism, the military’s morale was the subject of concern. As early as July 2003, media accountsreported that American troops in Iraq were “suffering from low morale,” which “in some cases hit ‘rock bottom.’” Indeed, a Stars and Stripes survey conducted in October 2003 found that 34 percent rated their morale as “low” or “very low,” 27 percent said “high” or “very high,” and the rest said it was above average. The survey seemed so disconcerting that reporters pressed visiting congressional delegations on its accuracy and the appropriate policy response. 

From then on, the media regularly reported on declining troop morale at every turn in the conflicts. In 2007, as the surge went into effect in Iraq, a Council on Foreign Relations study worried about this issue. Surveys conducted by the Army reported similar findings in late 2009, as the Afghanistan troop surge went into effect. By 2010, Army surveys showed soldiers’ morale had fallen to an all-time low—with 46.5 percent of troops reporting medium, high, or very high morale, down from 65.7 percent in 2005. Accompanying these dismal figures were yet more worries—raised by current and former flag officers, politicians, and defense policy experts—about “breaking the force.” And yet, despite this steady drumbeat of bad numbers and gloomy predictions, the military continued to fight, and fight well.

In fact, the American military arguably remains in better shape today than it has been in other eras. During the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath, for example, the military was—almost by any measure—in far worse shape. Between 1969 and 1971, there were 800 recorded “fragging” incidents (when soldiers attacked their own with grenades and other weapons), killing some 45 noncommissioned officers and officers. The Army’s desertion rate skyrocketed from 14.9 incidents per thousand in 1966 to 73.9 in 1971. Drug use became rampant—with one academic study finding, “Almost half of the ‘general’ sample [of enlisted soldiers] tried heroin or opium while in Vietnam and one-fifth developed physical or psychological dependence.” None of these problems exist in any comparable degree in today’s military.

Perhaps more importantly, earlier indicators of flagging troop morale recently have declined. During the height of the Iraq War, the Army, in particular, struggled with junior officer retention. Indeed, 34.2 percent of the West Point class of 2000, for example, left the service as soon as they completed their five-year obligation—the highest average in 16 years.Today, however, the Army no longer faces such an exodus. In fact, the Center for Army Leadership’s 2013 survey found that the number of active-duty captains planning to stay until retirement hit an eight-year high. Similarly, in 2005 and 2006, the Army struggled to meet its recruiting goals, but in financial year 2014, all of the military’s active component services and all of the reserve components—except for the Army Reserve—met or exceeded their accession quotas, although admittedly recruitment goals are easier to meet now, as the
military’s end-strength declines. 

All of this is not to dismiss the military’s current morale problem as irrelevant. To the contrary, there are still reasons for concern. While officer retention has recovered at least in terms of quantity, questions still remain over the quality of the officers who remain in the ranks. Suicide rates—often also tied to morale—seem to have stabilized, if not declined, but still remain high. Clearly, there are serious underlying issues reflected in the polling data, but perhaps the first step in understanding the problem is avoiding the Chicken Little trap: Despite the wave of reports, the sky is not falling. 

 

While the military’s morale problems may be less problematic than they might seem at first, those that undeniably exist may also run deeper and be harder to correct. Perhaps the most obvious cause of declining troop morale is cuts to military benefits. A Military Times survey, for example, found that the troops “feel underpaid, under-equipped, and under-appreciated.” Only 44 percent of troops rated their pay and allowances as “good” or “excellent” in 2014, down from 87 percent in 2009. Similarly, those who rate military health care as “good” or “excellent” have declined from 78 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2014. And these perceptions appear to reflect reality. To pay for ongoing budget shortfalls, Congress reduced the annual military pay increase from 1.8 percent to 1 percent, limited bonuses, and debated charging troops for some of their housing costs, while military health-care issues took center stage with the scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital.

The perceptions may seem easy to correct, but there are three principal reasons why the United States may not be able to solve this malaise by simply writing a check. First, even with the slowdown in military benefits, overall they still remain quite generous. While estimating the true total value of compensation packages for the military is quite complex, multiple studies have concluded that service members are better compensated than their civilian equivalents and have been so for much of the past decade. Moreover, the military received annual pay increases through the recession, following the 2008 financial crisis, even as civilian federal employees’ salaries were frozen. Unlike in many civilian professions, military pensions allow servicemen to receive a defined-benefit pension starting after 20 years of active federal service. Similarly, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s January 2014 study, the “share of health care costs that TRICARE [military health insurance] users pay is much lower than the costs paid by most civilian consumers who use private or employment-based health insurance.”

Second, tamping down benefits is not simply a budgetary choice. The Defense Department already struggles to pay for current benefits, so it simply cannot afford increases, especially as its topline budget becomes increasingly constrained by sequestration. Already the price tag for compensation to service members, their families, and retirees was estimated at $340 billion in financial year 2014 and is only projected to increase in the years ahead. According to the Congressional Budget Office, military health care alone rose 130 percent between 2000 and 2012 and now consumes 10 percent of the Defense Department’s budget (up from 6 percent in 2000). As the Joint Chiefs testified to Congress in May 2014, military compensation “rebalancing”—i.e., cuts—is no longer just an option, but a fiscal and strategic necessity.

Third but perhaps most importantly, it is not clear that writing ever larger checks would solve the discontent, even if this were possible. The Military Times survey found dissatisfaction not only over compensation, but with the quality of the officer corps (while 78 percent of the troops said their officers were “good” or “excellent” in 2009, only 49 percent gave this response in 2014), with only 27 percent saying that senior military leadership have their “best interests at heart” in 2014, down from 53 percent in 2009. Half of the sailors in the 2014 Navy Retention Study said they did not believe the senior leadership cared about what they think or held themselves accountable. And the fact that only a quarter of soldiers in the 2011 Center for Army Leadership survey thought the service was headed in the right direction points to problems even more profound than budgets.

At the same time, the unhappiness also transcends the immediate strains of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To be sure, multiple deployments—not to mention casualties—took their toll on service members and their families. Even setting aside the substance of what service members were asked to do and the violence inherent in war zones, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars translated into troops missing birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, imposing a real human cost on servicemen and their families.

But the wars alone also cannot explain the current decline in morale. With decreased presence of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, American casualties also have plummeted over the last several years. At the peak of the fighting, in 2007, the United States lost more than 1,021 service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2008, however, that number was more than cut in half, and by 2014, the year of greatest discontent, it stood at 50.

Likewise, deployments—particularly for the land forces—have decreased, as the large-scale American involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan near an end. And in fact, according to both a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association and an Army-funded study by the National Institutes of Health, suicides appeared unconnected to combat experience, cumulative days deployed, or number of deployments. Most of the service members in uniform today joined after 9/11 and all have made a conscious, voluntary decision to serve in a wartime military. If anything, it’s not the wars—but rather their absence—that is the novel development for today’s military. 

Finally, the dissatisfaction also cannot be simply attributed to the recent cultural changes to the military. Another Military Times survey found that while a mere 15 percent of those surveyed approved of President Obama’s performance as commander in chief, they increasingly approve of some of his more controversial social policy reforms to the military. Sixty percent now support allowing homosexuals to serve openly in uniform (up from 35 percent in 2009). Another poll found that 58 percent of veterans and active-duty soldiers believed in opening up “ground units that engage in close combat” to women. 

 

One of the more famous, if overhyped, lines in military history, usually attributed to General George Patton, says: “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. . . . That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war; for the very thought of losing is hateful to an American.” Embedded in Patton’s hyperbole is a grain of truth: No one likes to lose, especially militaries. It has been shown over and again that troops are willing to tolerate extreme hardships, so long as they ultimately lead to tangible results. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may not be failures, they certainly do not feel like victories—leaving many service members unfulfilled. As Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver said recently, “The mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. . . . For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”

Unlike the tragic case of Vietnam, there is no lack in social support as a result of the ambiguous outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Gallup polling, confidence in the American military has risen steadily, from about 58 percent stating they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in the military in 1973 to 74 percent today. While the number of Americans believing that the United States “is the number one” military power has dropped from 64 percent in 2010 to 59 percent today, this percentage still is larger than in the late 1990s. Moreover, Americans feel almost as strongly about maintaining a dominant military as ever, with 68 percent in 2015 responding that it is “important for the United States to be number one in the world militarily,” the second-highest percentage recorded in regular Gallup surveys over the past two decades.

That said, the wars arguably have prompted a crisis of confidence within the military itself. On the one hand, many troops still believe in the mission. A December 2013 Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundationsurvey found that 44 percent of veterans and active-duty troops thought that Iraq was worth fighting (with 50 percent opposed), compared with 38 percent in the general American adult population (and 58 percent opposed). Ironically, the contrast was even starker for Afghanistan, where 53 percent of veterans remained committed to the war (41 percent opposed) but only 30 percent of Americans did (66 percent opposed). Similarly, 80 percent of veterans feel “often” or “sometimes” proud of what they personally did in Iraq, whereas only 28 percent feel they “often” or “sometimes” did something that
made them question the mission.

At the same time, service members and veterans increasingly believe that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not been successful. A 2014 Military Times poll found that a mere 30 percent of active-duty troops thought Iraq was successful in 2014, down from almost 64 percent in 2011. And while military-specific views of Afghanistan are hard to come by, a 2014 Pew–USA Today poll found that 52 percent of Americans generally believed the United States failed to achieve its objective in Afghanistan (the same number as in Iraq). Given the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and continuance of heightened violence levels in Afghanistan, there is certainly some truth to these perceptions.

These figures suggest that the military’s malaise may stem from dissonance between the commitment to, and pride in, the mission and the knowledge that these sacrifices have not yielded the desired results. This mismatch may also explain why, as previously mentioned, so many soldiers question the Army’s direction and doubt their senior leadership. Troops are willing to undergo hardships if they yield success, but such an outcome cannot be guaranteed today. And unfortunately, this is the kind of morale problem that cannot simply be solved merely by motivational speeches or added benefits. 

But perhaps there may be a silver lining. After all, contrary to the hyperbole, the military today is not broken. Current policy debates notwithstanding, the military will remain strong in the years to come. If so, then dissatisfaction about the past can even be beneficial, if instead of self-pity or scapegoating it prompts critical thinking and ultimately innovation. In some ways, there would be more of a problem if there was not some degree of dissatisfaction and the United States walked away from the wars of the last decade content with its performance. Solving the military’s morale problem, then, may start with a mind-set shift. Rather than viewing low morale as a problem than needs to be solved, perhaps low morale instead should be viewed as impetus for future change, so that the next campaign produces better results than past ones.

A former active-duty Army officer and multiple-tour Iraq War veteran, Raphael S. Cohen is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

 

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