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Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. military’s morale “crisis”

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Lawfare.

In April 2015, USA Today reported a disconcerting, if somewhat incongruous, finding about the Army’s morale. Despite a six-year, $287 million effort to make troops more optimistic and resilient, an Army survey found that 52 percent of soldiers scored badly on questions that measured optimism, while 48 percent reported having little satisfaction or commitment to their job.

This study is only the latest of several such studies. A 2011 Center for Army Leadership study found that only 26 percent of active soldiers thought that the Army was headed in the right direction, while the Military Times in 2014 published a study ominously titled “America’s Military: A Force Adrift.” The results are as troubling as they are surprising. After all, not only has the Pentagon invested heavily in resiliency programs, but for much of the force, combat deployments are more infrequent as the wars wind down.

What then is driving this morale crisis?

To begin with, the morale “crisis” must be placed in context. First, concerns over low morale are not new and not unique to the Army. Indeed, observers regularly fretted over low morale during the defense drawdown of the 1990s, during the start of the Iraq War, during the Iraq Surge, during the Afghanistan Surge and at practically all the points in between—each time with renewed concerns over “breaking the force.” And yet the military has not broken. To the contrary: After each report of troop morale hitting “rock bottom,” troop morale seems to slip lower yet and, still, the military soldiers on. In fact, some previous indicators of low morale—like achieving accession and retention goals—have rebounded as of late. This is not to diminish the military’s present troubles, but it is also important to avoid the “Chicken Little” trap: Despite the dismal poll numbers, the sky is not falling.


Observers regularly fretted over low morale during the defense drawdown of the 1990s, during the start of the Iraq War, during the Iraq Surge, during the Afghanistan Surge; and at practically all the points in between—each time with renewed concerns over “breaking the force.” And yet the military has not broken.

Although the morale crisis might not be an actual crisis, it may still be hard to overcome. Indeed, many of the easy explanations for declining morale seem to come up short. It is easy to point to combat stress as the root cause of low morale, but the evidence is less clear. Interestingly, a study by the Center For Army Leadership found that the number of Active Component leaders who believed the Army was headed in the “right direction” hit an all-time low of 26 percent in 2011, down from 38 percent in 2006, even though by 2011 active combat in Iraq was over and casualties had been halved.[1] Moreover, recent studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and by the Army with the National Institutes of Health question the connection between deployment and suicide, which some might assume is tied to morale (but no evidence of this has yet arisen in the research).

The dissatisfaction also cannot be simply attributed to the recent cultural changes to the military. Another Military Times survey found that while a mere 15 percent of those surveyed approved of President Barack Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief, they increasingly approve of some of the more controversial military social policy reforms instituted under his administration. Sixty percent now support allowing homosexuals to serve openly in uniform, up from 35 percent in 2009. A  Washington Post – Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 58 percent of veterans and active duty soldiers believed in opening up “ground units that engage in close combat” increasingly to women, as well.[2]

Still others point to cuts to military benefits. A Military Times study, for example, found that the troops “feel underpaid, under-equipped and under-appreciated.” It noted that only 44 percent of troops rated their pay and allowances as “good” or “excellent” in 2014, down from 87 percent in 2009. Ratings of military healthcare similarly declined from 78 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2014. In fact, the study continued, Congress reduced the annual military pay raise to 1 percent (the lowest pay raise in 40 years), limited bonuses, and debated charging troops for some of their housing costs, while post-military healthcare issues took center stage with the scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital.

On closer examination, however, benefit cuts offer at best a partial explanation. Even with the reversals in military benefits, overall they still remain quite generous and some studies demonstrate that service members are better compensated than their civilian equivalents. Indeed, soldiers were spared the salary freezes that were imposed on the civilian federal work force during the “Great Recession.” They still enjoy defined benefit pensions after 20 years of active federal service, and receive health insurance—which, according to a 2014 Congressional Budget Office study, requires users to pay smaller shares of their health care costs than do most civilian consumers.[3] 

Moreover, military dissatisfaction extends well beyond compensation. As the Military Times polling data also notes, only 49 percent of troops rated their officers as “good or excellent” in 2014 (down from 78 percent in 2009) and only 27 percent said their senior leadership have their “best interests at heart” in 2014 (down from 53 percent in 2009).

Ultimately, the military’s discontent may stem from dissonance between the commitment to, and pride in, the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and the knowledge that these sacrifices have not yielded the desired results. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan arguably have prompted a crisis of confidence within the military itself. On the one hand, many troops still believe in the mission. A December 2013 Washington Post – Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 44 percent of veterans and active duty troops thought that the Iraq War was worth fighting (with 50 percent opposed), compared with 38 percent in the general American adult population (with 58 percent opposed). The contrast was even starker for Afghanistan, where 53 percent of veterans remained committed to the war (41 percent opposed) but only 30 percent of Americans did (66 percent opposed).[4] Similarly, 80 percent of veterans feel “often” or “sometimes” proud of what they personally did in Iraq, whereas only 28 percent said they did things that “often” or “sometimes” made them question the mission.[5] At the same time, service members and veterans increasingly believe that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not been successful. A 2014 Military Times poll found that a mere 30 percent of active duty troops thought Iraq was successful in 2014, down from almost 64 percent in 2011. And while military-specific views of Afghanistan are hard to come by, a January 2014 Pew – USA Today poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed the United States failed to achieve its objective in Afghanistan (the same number as with Iraq). 

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Ultimately, the military’s discontent may stem from dissonance between the commitment to, and pride in, the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and the knowledge that these sacrifices have not yielded the desired results. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan arguably have prompted a crisis of confidence within the military itself. On the one hand, many troops still believe in the mission.

Arguably, if anything, the mismatch between commitment and results likely has only grown more vivid as of late, especially in Iraq. The sites of many of hard-fought battles of the Iraq War—Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul—now are in the hands of the Islamic State, and the Iraqi Security Forces, once so painstakingly trained by American forces, have failed to perform. Today, despite service members’ pride in the mission, few can call it a success.

If this is indeed the case then the cause of the military’s malaise may run even deeper. It also may explain why so many soldiers question the Army’s direction and so many troops doubt their senior leadership. Troops need to believe that the hardships they endure will lead to success in the end, something that cannot be guaranteed today. And unfortunately, this morale problem cannot be solved merely by motivational speeches or added benefits. It instead requires hard critical thinking about what went wrong with wars over the past decade. And if the military’s morale problem becomes impetus for future change—so that the next military campaign produces better results than past ones—it may even prove beneficial in the end.

This article is adapted from 

In the Ranks: Making Sense of Military Morale
,” which appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of 
World Affairs.


[1] See p. 37 of the study.  Reserve Component Soldiers were slightly more optimistic with 35% answering in the affirmative, although this too was down by 8% from 2010.
[2]Question 36
[3]p. 2
[4]Question 41
[5]Question 57

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