Support for returning service personnel
Since we earlier found that the public generally holds the Armed Forces in high regard, we are left with the interesting question of how far people's support for the military has been influenced - for better or worse - by their opinions about the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As previously noted, public opposition in the United States to the war in Vietnam contributed to the poor treatment of returning veterans. To assess whether anything comparable might be happening to UK military personnel, we first of all compare responses to the questions about opinions of and respect for the Armed Forces, discussed earlier, with those measuring opposition to and support for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These comparisons are presented in Table 8.10 below. Although the numbers of respondents who report a low opinion or lack of respect for the Armed Forces are often too small to enable us to draw firm conclusions, there is some evidence that those expressing the most positive views of the Armed Forces are less likely to oppose the two missions. Less than six in ten of those who report having "a great deal of respect" for the Armed Forces agree the UK was wrong to go to war with Iraq in 2003; this proportion rises to almost seven in ten of those who express just "some respect" for the Armed Forces. On the other hand, less than five out of ten people with a "very high" opinion of the Armed Forces agree that the UK was
wrong to send its Armed Forces to Afghanistan - a proportion which rises to almost six in ten of those who express a "low "opinion or an opinion which is "neither high nor low". Clearly, those who hold less positive views of the Armed Forces are more likely to oppose its recent missions, although care must be taken in interpreting the small number of respondents in some categories. Nonetheless, around half of the public report the highest levels of support and respect for the Armed Forces despite opposing the mission they were asked about. Therefore, opposition to the missions the Armed Forces have recently been involved in does not appear to produce an automatic decline in an individual's opinion of, or respect for, this institution or its personnel.
To explore the issue of support for returning personnel directly with the public, we invited the half of our sample who were asked for their views about the Iraq War (see earlier) to agree or disagree with the statement:
Regardless of what I think about the mission to Iraq, I support members of the UK Armed Forces who have recently served there
The same proposition was put to the other half of the sample in relation to Afghanistan.
As can be seen in Table 8.11 the public proves to be overwhelmingly supportive of the men and women who have served with the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, irrespective of individual opinions about whether UK military personnel should have been deployed there in the first place. More than nine out of ten people say they support members of the Armed Forces regardless of what they think about those missions, while less than five per cent disagree (one per cent for Iraq, three per cent for Afghanistan). There are few differences between age groups, although younger people are a little less firm in their positive view and slightly more likely to express no opinion either way.
Further analysis shows the views given by women and men to be almost identical, and that there are only small differences according to educational attainment. While graduates express a slightly lower level of agreement with the statement than non-graduates, the proportions are still 91 per cent positive in relation to service personnel returning from Iraq and 89 per cent in relation to Afghanistan veterans. There are, similarly, only minor differences between the views expressed by people according to political affiliation, although those identifying with the Conservative Party are the most emphatic in their endorsement of service men and women who have recently served in Iraq (97 per cent) or Afghanistan (96 per cent).
Earlier we noted the possibility that the public takes somewhat different views of the Armed Forces as an institution and the men and women who serve with them. Even clearer from the findings reported above is the distinction people make between the UK military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan (more likely to be negative than positive) and their support for personnel who have served there (overwhelmingly positive). From these data, it would appear that concerns about the consequences of two unpopular deployments on public support for individual service personnel are unfounded. The coalition government might also conclude from these findings that its decision to reinforce the Armed Forces Covenant through legislation matches the broad thrust of public opinion.
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- See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1596810.stm
- A police estimate of numbers. Protest organisers suggested a figure nearer two million. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm
- '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
- 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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