NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Nov. 7, 2011 — The military is among the most admired institutions in America, and service leaders must work to ensure that continues, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told National Guard senior leaders that surveys show the military has a 78 percent approval rating by the American people.
Dempsey asked experts at the U.S. Army War College to tell him why the military was popular — and what it would take to lose that popularity. “Maybe if I knew what it would take to screw it up, I could avoid it,” he said.
And that is possible. At the end of the Vietnam War, only 50 percent of Americans approved of the military. Through the 1980s and 1990s, that percentage grew, with it going over 80 percent twice in the past decade.
“The reasons are that the American people see us as caring about them and their welfare; the American people see us as trying to remaining aloof from politics,” he said. “They see us as honest brokers and good stewards.”
Dempsey compared the military with other professions and occupations. He found that police and small business owners also are well-regarded by Americans. Banks, politicians and others are seen as self-serving, he said.
The chairman listed four mistakes the military can make to ruin its reputation with Americans. “The first thing we can screw up is if we don’t recognize that our country has an economic crisis and we have to be part of the solution,” he said.
National power is the sum of economic, diplomatic and military strength, Dempsey said. “You can’t pick among them,” he said. “If we are seen as just another special interest group fighting off the reality of the new fiscal environment, we will lose the standing we have earned with the American people.”
The next mistake would be to not take care of military veterans, the chairman said. Even though those who leave the military come under the responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs, “they will always be our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen and our Marines,” he said. “If they are homeless and unemployed … we all suffer. When we look to the future and how we invest and how we transition and how we care for them, they are ours and they are ours for life.”
If America sees homeless vets crowded into tent camps under interstate highway bridges, the military will lose its standing, he said.
A third way to lose faith with Americans would be for service members to not be disciplined, trained and professional in their interactions with the American people, Dempsey said. The National Guard, specifically, is asked to provide a safety net for police, firefighters and other first responders, he noted.
If there is an event that overwhelms regular public safety personnel, governors or the president can call upon the National Guard to assist these civil authorities. “The American people trust us” to be even-handed, trained, and to not use excessive force, Dempsey said.
Finally, as the nation enters an election year next year, the military must remain apolitical. “The Department of Defense has some very clear guidelines on what is and is not appropriate to occur on military installations and to occur with DOD personnel,” the chairman said. “Again, we are not a special interest group. And again, we must remain apolitical.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)