Shadow Government

Is There a Crisis in Military Morale?

A new report from the Military Times lays bare another problem for the incoming secretary of defense.

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

In a remarkably busy news season, folks might have missed this report from the Military Times: “America’s Military: A force adrift. How the nation is failing today’s troops and veterans.” The title is hyperbolic, but the report is worth reading and pondering nonetheless.

Before diving in though, a brief digression on the report’s methods: The foundation for the article is the annual survey of the Military Times readership, supplemented by reportorial interviews with respondents. The Military Times survey regularly comes in for criticism because it is what pollster’s call a “sample of convenience” (the survey is sent only to subscribers of the Military Times publications) rather than a probability sample drawn from the relevant universe (the full officer and enlisted population of the armed services). This makes it technically not a “scientific” survey of the armed forces as a whole, which has led some commentators to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But several aspects of the survey design make it a useful assessment of an important segment of the armed forces — the career oriented enlisted ranks and officer corps — and it is particularly useful for tracking changes in this portion of the population over time. Yes, a full probability sample of the armed forces as a whole would have wider utility, but as independent surveys go this is not a bad one.

Now, back to the analysis.

So far, the Military Times has only released the first tranche of findings, which it claims documents a “worsening morale crisis.” The drop in some indicators really does come close to crisis-like proportions. For instance, in 2009 91 percent of the respondents agreed that “Overall my quality of life is good or excellent.” Today only 56 percent agree, and 70 percent think the quality of life will decline in coming years. This a stunning drop, and the negative assessment extends across myriad measures: pay and benefits, quality of health care, and the caliber of officers overall. Perhaps most dramatically, only 27 percent of respondents today agree with the statement “the senior military leadership has my best interests at heart.

A certain level of distrust in senior leadership is a hardy perennial of the rank and file — think of the Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II. Part of it may be unrealistic expectations of what senior military leaders can deliver in an age of sequestration. But part of it may also reflect the same civil-military tensions that contributed to the frustrations of Obama’s three secretaries of defense.

Moreover, the expressed frustration with pay and benefits may itself be somewhat out of tune with broader economic realities affecting American society. Tellingly, for a decade military pay rose at higher levels than average private sector salaries, and only in the last three years has it matched the slower rate of the private sector (although in 2014 it may have dipped below the private sector). Even within the confines of sequestration, the political leadership has arguably done more to protect pay and benefits for the armed forces than almost any other group on or off the taxpayer’s payroll. Indeed, the senior leadership of the military has repeatedly signaled that political leaders have over-protected pay and benefits — which gets back to why the rank and file may hold the senior military leadership in lower regard.

In the coming days, the paper will publish additional tranches that get even closer to the heart of our current foreign policy challenges. One will look at the doubts expressed by respondents about the military missions and strategy those operations are meant to serve. Another looks at the OPSTEMPO/PERSTEMPO challenge of sustaining the demands of global commitments with an ever-shrinking force. And, perhaps of greatest importance, the final tranche looks at how respondents view what they accomplished in Afghanistan.

The incoming secretary of defense will have a very full plate just dealing with the myriad foreign policy and force structure challenges arising out of the last couple years. But the latest Military Times survey suggests that he should squeeze one more topic onto his agenda: the morale of the rank and file.

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.