Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Military Against It?

[posted by Callimachus]

Jim Webb's response had some good moments and a few flat ones and a few odd ones. But this one set me a-Googling:

The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military.

Emphasis added. What is that based on? There's plenty of anecdote, but the closest I can come to statistical evidence is this year-end survey by Military Times newspapers.

The survey, mailed to 6,000 active-duty subscribers to Military Times' four newspapers aimed at the military services, showed that 42 percent of those surveyed disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, compared with 35 percent who support it.

It marks the first time that the president's Iraq war policies failed to gain majority support since the Military Times began its annual survey four years ago.

I'm guessing that's what Webb would cite as his source, given the careful way he worded it (not "the war" but "the way the war is being fought"). But as Military Times itself points out, the poll is hardly scientific. Nor is it necessarily representative of the armed services as a whole.

As with most such surveys, the phrasing of the questions doesn't allow you to learn much from the answer. I can "disapprove" of Bush's handling and think we all ought to just come home and forget about Iraq. I can also "disapprove" it and think we ought to be more committed to Iraq and start throwing around more lead and manpower over there.

Yet only about three paragraphs into the news story someone blows through the stop sign and makes the unwarranted leap from a decline in "support of Mr. Bush's handling of the war" to "decline in support of the war," which is not at all the same thing.

Opinions of military people and their families about a war in process are going to be complex and involve qualities such as honor, personal risk, the military's "can-do" attitude, and their sense of whether their sacrifices are appreciated by the rest of us.

Deep down in the story, Phillip Carter of the blog Intel Dump (and himself "an Army Reserve captain who served in Iraq in 2004") ascribes the negative results in large part to justified "skepticism."

"The real gap is between the expectations of 2002 and the realities of 2007. ... The military has worked its butt off in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will accept the sacrifice of being in harm's way if it's going to work. If it's not going to work, they're going to ask if it's worth it."

Or, as another commenter puts it, "The management of the war has been consistently problematic, and a lot of troops see the surge as just another [half-baked] policy to wage war on the cheap. There's a lot of concern that we just continue to sacrifice while everyone else goes shopping."

When you go to the poll itself you start to see some of what the newspaper article omitted. Such as:

The poll asked, “How do you think each of these groups view the military?” Respondents overwhelmingly said civilians have a favorable impression of the military (86 percent). They even thought politicians look favorably on the military (57 percent). But they are convinced the media hate them — only 39 percent of military respondents said they think the media have a favorable view of the troops.

Which would be a story of itself, but don't be looking for it in your morning paper.

UPDATE 1/25: Mystery Pollster takes up the topic (and here, too), and seems to find the military Times readership mail survey somewhat more worthy of attention than I thought it would be:

So, to sum up: The use of the Military Times subscriber list as a sample frame gets us to as close to a random sampling of active duty military personnel as we are likely to get. However, it is best to think of the poll as consistent three year sampling of "the military's professional core" (as the Times' lead puts it) than of all the men and women serving on active duty.

Which still, however, leaves it with the same set of problems any such poll would have: "[W]ere the 70% who did not return their survey different from those who did, and if so, how different were they? That question is, of course next to impossible to answer or quantify, since as usual we know nothing about the non-respondents." He's the expert, not me, so I'll defer to him. Read the whole thing, as they say, and the comments are good as well.

Some might think I'm having it both ways by pointing out that the MT poll might not be an accurate representation of the troops' attitude toward the war, while at the same time reveling in what it purports to reveal about their attitude toward the media.

But it doesn't seem to me that that sword cuts both ways. If you assert the survey is an accurate measuring tool (as anti-war types and the media -- yes, I'm aware of the redundancy -- do), then you're stuck with the harsh view of the media. I don't think the poll was good enough to build policy on. Which means maybe the troops on duty are against the war and maybe they're not, but this isn't good evidence for it. Ditto with the troops and the media.

So my observation at the end of the post was for those who have grasped the poll as proof of their worldview, suggesting they grabbed a sword with two blades and no hilt. And journalism, as I always tell you, is the Art of Leaving Things Out. If you want to track biases, you look there.

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