From Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan: Why Confidence in the U.S. Military is the Highest in Thirty Years

Contact: Adrianne Kaufmann
Phone: 617-495-8290
Date: December 06, 1999

CAMBRIDGE, MA -- The influence of TV, video games and advertising on the young - usually derided by critics - has become a gold mine for the U.S. military. Today's media culture has turned the children of the anti-Vietnam Baby Boomers into those Americans with the most confidence in the military. Apocalypse Now begets Saving Private Ryan.
According to a study conducted by Professor David King and Zachary Karabell of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, the youth of today are generally viewed as more anti-authoritarian than previous generations and yet, young Americans today surprisingly have a genuinely positive view of the U.S. military.
Fifty-two percent of 19 to 20 year olds surveyed said they had "a great deal of confidence" in the "people running the U.S. military," while their parents - the Baby Boomers who came of age during Vietnam - show the lowest support for the U.S. military.
And today's 20-somethings are not alone. While confidence in almost every other aspect of government is falling, a 1998 Gallup poll shows that sixty-four percent of Americans surveyed said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military. During the same time period, a 1998 Harris poll placed only eleven percent of respondents with a "great deal of confidence" in Congress and eighteen percent who could say the same for the White House. "Even the proliferation of negative stories about the military does not seem to have made a substantial dent in the public confidence," says King.
Exploring the reasons behind the disparity between the generations, King and Karabell found that how one views the U.S. military depends significantly on what one read, saw and experienced as a young adult. Attitudes toward authority figures and authoritarian institutions are most firmly set in the mid-teen years. The popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s reflected the widespread disenchantment with the military. That same culture now reflects more respect and confidence. We have gone from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan and the difference creates a clear generation gap.
"The U.S. military has come a long way since the early 1970s and the advent of the All Volunteer Force. The turn-around in public confidence is an impressive accomplishment," states King.
A major factor in changing the image of the military in American society was the Army's use of advertising. The "Be All That You Can Be" campaign of the 1980s helped reverse the image of the Army and improved both the number and the quality of recruits. The armed forces' advertising campaigns have been an unqualified success in identifying the military with preparing for college while defending the U.S. in exciting, glamorous and adventuresome ways.
Some of the best recruitment advertising for the Army came for free. The military victories in Panama, Iraq and Kosovo have been broadcasted to millions of Americans on prime time network television. The media coverage of the Gulf War - and its small number of casualties - was a sharp contrast to the images of dead and wounded soldiers seen by Americans daily during Vietnam. In addition, some of the most popular video games feature military themes and movies such as Top Gun, Hunt for Red October, and most recently, Saving Private Ryan, all portray the military as a universe of competitive, competent, and dynamic individuals.
"The more positive military images an adolescent is exposed to, the higher one's confidence in the armed forces," says King. "Combined with the saturation of images on television, the public profile of the military changed about as much as one could imagine between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s."
To some degree, public confidence in the military is also a result of the professionalism it exhibits. It is seen as possessing integrity and its mission is respected. The military, for example, has had to respond to race and gender integration and the elimination of illegal drug use among its personnel. Whereas civilian policy makers have made little progress with these issues, King found that the actions taken by the military to deal with these matters resonate well with the American public.
Military leaders are aware that public support and confidence depends in part on its actual record. The more the military succeeds, the more it will be perceived as a success. That means that military officials have become noticeably reluctant to deploy force. Not only are they unwilling to risk lives unless the reasons are overwhelmingly important, but they do not willingly embrace risky missions where the odds of success are not overwhelmingly on their side. Public confidence in the military may, therefore, have the unintended consequence of leading to fewer military operations rather than more.
Public confidence in the military has taken years to build. "Restoring confidence is the real challenge, and one that the military has met," says King. "It is the one that other governmental institutions ought to study and emulate. Yet any institution can easily lose the public's confidence," King warns. "Something that the U.S. military is all too aware of."
For more information, you can contact Professor King directly at 617-495-1665 or read the report online at


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