The Military Times newspapers have posted a first-rate, in-depth report on the morale of our armed forces, and the results reflect a military that is burned out, worried about the future and with little confidence in leadership.
Consider these data points from a survey of 10,000 service members, retirees, veterans and family members, which provides the foundation for the article. The Times reporting team compared results of this year's survey with a similar query in 2009; they found a military that is increasingly adrift, as the war in Afghanistan winds down, and sequestration-driven budget cuts take full effect. Key questions from the survey show a seismic shift in morale and optimism about what lies ahead:
The quality of my life is good or excellent:
Quality of my life will decline in the coming years (2014 only):
Base pay and allowances are rated as good or excellent:
Military medical care considered good or excellent:
At first blush, the decline in morale seems absolutely stunning, given the conditions faced by the military in 2009 compared to the present day. Five years ago, the U.S. was still fully engaged in two wars, and just past the "surge" that reversed the situation in Iraq--at a significant cost in blood and treasure. Today, the war in Iraq is officially over, though deteriorating conditions have forced the U.S. to dispatch more than 1,500 troops to serve as "advisers" to Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the ISIS terrorist Army. Afghanistan is winding down as well, but the U.S. will be forced to maintain a residual force to keep the Taliban in check.
So why has morale plummeted, despite fewer deployments? The answer is very clear, based on results from the Military Times survey. Many service members fell "used and abused;" after a decade of war, thousands are being forced from the ranks by budget cuts; there is palpable fear on military bases among personnel facing involuntary separation from the armed forces, well short of the 20-year (or longer) career that offers a full pension and retirement benefits.
Making matters worse, wage growth in the military (which out-stripped the private sector during the last decade) has again slipped behind civilian companies and firms. Re-enlistment bonuses, available for dozens of military occupations in recent years, have all-but-evaporated, and a number of service families who participated in the survey are feeling squeezed by the economy.
But the most troubling aspect of the survey is the near-collapse in confidence in leadership; in 2009, 78% of survey participants rated military officers as good or excellent; five years later, only 49% gave their officers similar grades. And the results for senior military leaders were even worse; five years ago, 53% of those responding felt that senior leadership had "my best interests at heart." In 2014, only 27% agreed with that sentiment. To be fair, the military rank-and-file have always had reservations about those who wear the stars, but that 27% confidence level must represent a new low for the post-Vietnam era.
And there's plenty of blame to go around, starting with an administration that has failed to articulate a clear strategy for the war on terror (beyond drone strikes), while slashing funds for operations, maintenance and training. But military "leadership" bears responsibility as well. There is very clear perception among service members that "no one has their back" and that only exacerbates the sense of drift.
Read the entire piece, and future installments on military readiness (14 December) and the armed forces' cultural revolution (21 December). We're on the verge of a new "hollow force," both operationally and emotionally, and sadly, few seem willing to acknowledge the problem, or offer realistic solution.
ADDENDUM: As with previous surveys, Military Times freely acknowledges that the 2014 product is not a scientific poll. Subscribers to their various publications are invited to participate, while other respondents were recruited via social media. This year, results were tallied from 10,000 military-affiliated individuals, with active duty personnel representing about 25% of the respondents. These surveys tend to over-represent career military personnel (and soldiers) while junior enlisted members are less likely to participate. Given this methodology, there is no way to determine potential margins of error, but (as the Times observes), participants are more likely to be in positions of responsibility, and active involved in day-to-day operations that are impacted by the issues outlined in the survey.