Armed Forces

The UK’s Armed Forces: public support
for the troops but not their missions?

  • Since the deployment of UK Armed Forces personnel to Afghanistan and Iraq, relations between the military, the government and the public have been placed under scrutiny. Politicians and Armed Forces leaders have expressed concern that public disapproval of these missions might have damaged civil-military relations. But are fears that the public may be losing its respect for the military justified?

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    Highlights

  • Opinions of the Armed Forces

    Most people in Britain, especially older people, have a high opinion of the Armed Forces.

    Eight out of ten say they have a high or very high opinion of the Armed Forces.

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    Highlights

  • Opinions of the Armed Forces

    Most people in Britain, especially older people, have a high opinion of the Armed Forces.

    Nine out of ten people aged over 65, compared with seven out of ten aged 18–34 have a high opinion.

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    Highlights

  • Support for missions

    There is considerable public opposition to the UK’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet more than nine in ten support the personnel who have recently served in the two conflicts.

    Almost six out of ten agree that the UK was wrong to go to war in Iraq while almost half (48%) say it was wrong for the UK to send its Armed Forces to Afghanistan.

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    Highlights

  • Support for missions

    There is considerable public opposition to the UK’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet more than nine in ten support the personnel who have recently served in the two conflicts.

    Nine out of ten people declare their support for Armed Service personnel who have recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan regardless of their opinions about the actual military deployment.

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    Highlights

Introduction

Since the UK Armed Forces were deployed to Iraq (from 2003 until the end of combat operations in 2009) and Afghanistan (since 2001, but especially since the deployment in Helmand province in 2006), relationships between the military, the British government and the public have come under scrutiny. Fierce political and public debate has reflected expressions of widespread public dissent regarding the justifications for military operations, as well as doubts raised about the quality and quantity of equipment being provided for deployed personnel. Afghanistan and Iraq have become the most controversial conflicts since the Vietnam War, both in the UK (which was not militarily engaged in Vietnam) and globally. In 2001, around 20,000 people protested publicly against the UK's contribution towards the initial air strikes of the Afghanistan conflict1 and, on a global day of demonstrations against the Iraq War in February 2003, more than 750,000 people marched in protest through London alone.2 One consequence of this debate has been the concern expressed by some politicians and military leaders that a loss of mutual understanding between civil society and the military could not only lead to a decline in support for the missions conducted by the Armed Forces, but to a reduction in both public respect for the Armed Forces themselves and recruitment figures. This, in turn, could damage the morale and operational effectiveness of deployed troops, while creating pressure on the government to reduce its expenditure on defence. Another feared potential consequence of public indifference or hostility towards the military is that service personnel might face an inhospitable environment for their reintegration into civilian society following discharge. In the United States, research has suggested that personnel returning from Vietnam faced stigmatisation as a direct consequence of the overwhelming negative opinion of the public towards that war (Borus, 1973; Boman, 1982; Yager et al., 1984).

In Britain, one prominent way in which the current government has acknowledged these concerns and the importance of the relationships among government, society and the Armed Forces has been through legislation. Five-yearly Armed Forces Acts are the constitutional tool through which Parliament renews the basis on which the military are recruited and maintained as disciplined services. But the 2011 Armed Forces Act also gives legal force, for the first time, to the so-called Military Covenant whose core principles insist that members of the Armed Forces community should not suffer disadvantage as a result of their service and may receive special treatment where appropriate. The new law requires the Defence Secretary to make an annual report to Parliament on the state of the Covenant and the condition of civil-military relationships in the UK. According to the Prime Minister, David Cameron:

… the principles of the Covenant are now part of the law of our land and the value we place on our Armed Forces is clear for all to see.3

Even so, while a considerable fund of knowledge exists concerning public attitudes towards the military in the United States and in some continental European countries, there is relatively little empirical evidence available about British people's perceptions of their Armed Forces. Given the capacity for public opinion to influence when and where the Armed Forces can operate in pursuit of government policy (Foyle, 2004), and affect political decisions about defence budgets, this is a notable gap that this chapter will fill.4 Based largely on questions included for the first time in the latest British Social Attitudes survey, it explores people's views of the UK Armed Forces in general and of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.

We begin by examining overall perceptions of the Armed Forces; what is people's general opinion of them, how respected are they, and has this changed at all in recent years? More specifically, are there differences between the views of particular demographic groups? Previous research has found that men are more positive towards military conflicts and military spending than women (Eichenberg, 2003; Rohall et al., 2006; Caforio, 2007; Schoen, 2007; Burris, 2008; Clements, 2011) and that younger age groups are generally less supportive than older people (Gonzalez, 1996; Vennesson, 2003; Leal, 2005; Burris, 2008). They also suggest that people with higher education qualifications and those who place themselves on the left of the political spectrum tend to be more critical (Gonzalez, 1996; Holsti, 2004). But does opinion in contemporary Britain conform to the same patterns? Might we, for example, expect supporters of the Liberal Democrats and nationalist parties that were opposed to British involvement in Iraq to take a less sympathetic view of the Armed Forces generally than those of Labour, whose government sanctioned it? Or might the deployment of the Armed Forces on a 'mission impossible' lead to an increase in sympathy?

We next consider how far the public agrees (in principle) with the UK's military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether their general opinion of the Armed Forces is coloured by their view of these two controversial missions. Although other surveys have found majority opposition to the military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Clements, 2011), there has been little previous evidence about whether this affects public support for Armed Forces personnel returning from these operations. Finally, we also use British Social Attitudes data, dating back to 1983, to look at the priority people attach to spending on defence and whether this has altered in response to military operations over time. Our guiding aim, throughout the chapter, is to cast light on how far the concerns of political and military leaders about a disconnection between civil society and the Armed Forces are justified.

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Notes
  1. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1596810.stm
  2. A police estimate of numbers. Protest organisers suggested a figure nearer two million. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm
  3. 'Armed Forces Covenant recognised in law for first time', Ministry of Defence, Defence News, 3rd November, 2011, available at www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/ArmedForcesCovenantRecognisedInLawForFirstTime.htm
  4. A report by the former Liberal Democrat leader and career soldier Lord Ashcroft (2012) recently cast some light on public attitudes towards the Armed Forces, but owing to its sampling strategy the findings were not necessarily representative of the UK population as a whole.
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