The disconnect beneath the praise for the U.S. military

Whatever you think about the lack of factual knowledge, there is a deeper issue in social conventions dominating U.S. perceptions and reflexes when it comes to the military. Americans thank soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for their service; board men and women in uniform first on airplanes; and cheer for our armed forces at sporting events. These expressions are public and genuine, but they are also social conventions that cost civilians nothing. With less than 1% of the U.S. population entering military service, millions see our armed forces at a distance.

Public dissociation from military issues is a problem for civilians and the military. An uninformed public is ill-equipped to hold political leaders responsible for policy choices. The YouGov polling, conducted in 2013 and 2014, suggests that citizens expect the U.S. military to take a larger role in policy choices, something that would transgress the traditional restraints on our civilian-led military. Those restraints are also being publicly eroded: Two recent examples are retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn speaking in support of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention and retired Marine Gen. John Allen speaking in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. Such appearances validate perceptions among citizens as well as elected leaders that military advice is Republican or Democratic, rather than the impartial and private counsel our system relies on to make good decisions.

When the public is uneducated, there may be little penalty when the president or Congress makes ineffectual strategic decisions, whether that is deploying troops in numbers inadequate to carry out strategy (such as in Iraq before 2006 and after 2010, or in Afghanistan throughout the campaign since 2001); ineffectively fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria; or not addressing the readiness degradation inflicted by budget sequestration.