- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Americans have always had a keen interest in their military, but a new Gallup poll reveals the nation’s opinion of the armed forces is not ironclad.

The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps are now tied with the Air Force as our choice for “the most important branch of the United States armed forces,” the poll found.

It is “a significant change in the perceived importance of the branches from as recently as two years ago, when the Air Force was seen as the most important branch,” according to Frank Newport, who directed the research.

“At the same time, the Marine Corps has maintained its dominant position as the most prestigious branch of the service, and is named by more than twice as many Americans as any other armed forces branch,” Mr. Newport added.

This year, 44 percent of Americans say leathernecks are “the most prestigious service branch.” The Air Force was cited by 20 percent, the Army by 15 percent and the Navy by 8 percent.

But one Army veteran from Virginia — who has a son on active duty with the Army Rangers — is philosophical about the information.

“There’s always been rivalry between the branches of service — always,” he said. “But when the stuff hits the fan, when the chips are down, our military folks know they’re on the same team, immediately. That’s what matters.”

He continued, “A little rivalry, a little change in public opinion won’t hurt — it can give troops extra competitive edge. But cheap politicians and crybaby civilians should not use such statistics to make it appear there’s a division between the branches.”

Gallup attributes the shifting opinions to combat circumstances and the news media.

The Air Force was deemed “the branch of service most vital to the nation’s defense” in similar polls for decades after World War II — chosen by 84 percent of Americans in 1949, 70 percent in 1951, 62 percent in 1960 and 42 percent in May 2001.

“In April 2002, the response pattern was basically the same. The Air Force was again No. 1, with the Army, Navy and Marines far behind,” the poll stated.

With its heavy emphasis on ground fighting, the war in Iraq has changed all that.

In this year’s survey, 25 percent of the respondents cited the Army and 23 percent the Marines as the “most important branch,” — both up seven points from last year alone.

Another 23 percent cited the Air Force as most important — a 13 point drop from last year.

“Most of the news coverage of the war has focused on ground soldiers — dressed in their characteristic camouflage uniforms — wielding rifles and other infantry weapons as they go about their duties in that country. Most of the casualties of the war have been ground soldiers, and the primary high-ranking officers who have high visibility in Iraq are in the Army,” Gallup’s Mr. Newport noted.

“The Army has suffered negative publicity from its involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal, but if nothing else, the situation focused even more attention on the major role the Army is playing in Iraq,” he added.

The poll of 1,002 adults was conducted May 21-23 and released Friday. Its margin for error was plus or minus three percentage points.

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