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Faith in the Military


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It's interesting to see how things have changed.


Editorial 6/9/03

By Brian Duffy ? Editor

Something to crow about

Harry Truman, the British writer Harold Nicolson inscribed in his Diaries just before the end of World War II, "is short, square, simple, and looks one straight in the eye." It wasn't just his tart tongue and physical demeanor that made "Give 'em Hell Harry" the gold standard for trust and candor among our presidents. This, after all, was the same chief executive who once pleaded with aides for a "one-handed economist" because all his other practitioners of the dismal science were saying, "On the one hand . . . on the other . . ."

It is much too soon to say where George W. Bush will rank in the modest pantheon of truth-telling presidents. The shameless accounting gimmicks in the tax-cut legislation he signed last week don't exactly augur well, however. Nor does the failure of American forces in Iraq, thus far, to find all those weapons of mass destruction the president and his aides accused Saddam Hussein of having before the invasion. Yes, even many of the harshest critics of the American-led effort to topple Saddam agree now that he was an evil man best gotten rid of. But a nationwide survey, out just last week, shows that most Americans, 60 percent, believe the reason we went to war in Iraq was to force Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction. On both the tax cuts and Iraq, President Bush may yet be vindicated. Who knows? Maybe the $350 billion tax package will produce all those jobs the president says it will. And American forces still have lots of hidey-holes to search in Iraq and may turn up the chemical, biological, and perhaps nuclear capabilities Bush and his aides say Saddam had secreted away.

Whatever the case, Bush, as commander in chief, has already presided over one of the most remarkable cultural transformations in the past quarter century. The routing of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban enablers in Afghanistan, and the lightning-fast destruction of Saddam's brutal Baath Party regime in Iraq, have consolidated a long-building sense of trust and confidence among Americans in the men and women of their armed services.

Losing faith. This is no small matter. Never mind the dismal and so-often-distorted legacy of Vietnam. America's embrace of its military comes at a moment when the nation has lost faith in so many pillars of its culture that, for many, cynicism remains the only alternative to despair. Sports and politics could always be relied upon to serve up new scandal, but our tolerance level in both arenas has rendered us virtually immune to shock. The appalling sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and the breathtaking criminality in our corporate suites, which has wiped out so many Americans' investment portfolios, are of a whole different order of magnitude, however. Add to that the evolving credibility crisis at the New York Times--talk about a gold standard!--and it's no wonder so many Americans are loath to place their faith in much of anything.

Which makes the recent expressions of trust and confidence in America's armed services all the more extraordinary. We'll get to the numbers in a moment. But like other news organizations, we at U.S. News have seen something of this phenomenon firsthand of late. Long before the first bombs fell in Baghdad, our journalists, men and women, spent dozens of hours participating in Pentagon boot camps, preparing themselves for the rigors of war on the front lines, spending days and nights with grunts and brass alike. When the war started, many were "embedded" with frontline elements, while others joined up with units on the battlefield. Most had never covered the military before. All returned deeply impressed by the intelligence, integrity, and dedication of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines whom they had lived alongside during the fighting.

The numbers put those reactions in more meaningful context. Overall, the number of Americans who express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military has been rising steadily for years. The Gallup Poll says the numbers increased from 58 percent in 1975 to 79 percent last year--before the invasion of Iraq. But the real shocker is the response among young people. "For millennials and gen X-ers, it's been really quite potent," says David King, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard. King is the coauthor, with Zachary Karabell, of The Generation of Trust: How the U.S. Military Has Regained the Public's Confidence Since Vietnam. A recent Harvard survey of more than 1,200 undergraduates found that 75 percent believe the military would "do the right thing" either "all of the time" or "most of the time." A quarter century ago, that same question, addressed to roughly the same age cohort, yielded a positive response among just 20 percent of those surveyed. "It's a question of multipliers," King told me. "Performance times professionalism times persuasion." Doing a job, doing it well, and telling the world about it candidly. Gee, maybe there's a lesson here for the rest of us.

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I've said for a long time that the military is one of the rare things in the Federal Government's budget that gives us every bit of value for every dollar we spend on it, if not more. Bang for the buck indeed.

Thanks for posting that interesting and thought-provoking article.

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