Which Military Service Is Most Important to National Defense – And the Most Prestigious?

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Gallup is out with its periodic poll on which military service is the “most important” to national defense. Makes about as much sense as pointing to a toolbox and asking: what tool in there is most important? It all depends on the job at hand. A hammer makes little sense when you need to cut a 2-by-4. But common sense like that might force pollsters to earn an honest living.

Prior to 2004 — and going all the way back to the 1940s — the Air Force headed the list. But not anymore. What changed?

It’s easy to see why the Air Force was at the top for decades: dating back to Curtis Lemay and the Strategic Air Command, the Air Force expressed uniquely American power; despite all the GIs and Marines of World War II, it was the Army Air Forces — which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947 — that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war.

Says Gallup:

For many decades, stretching from 1949 to 2002, Air Force generals were no doubt pleased to find that the average American viewed the Air Force as the most important branch of the service — by very significant margins. This occurred despite the predominant role of ground forces in the Vietnam War and the successful effort led by U.S. ground forces to push Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army out of Kuwait in early 1991.

But things have changed in recent years. “A major shift occurred between 2002 and 2004, concomitant with the beginning of the Iraq war in which the primary focus of news coverage was on the actions of U.S. ground forces, Gallup reports. “The percentage of Americans naming the Air Force as most important military branch declined in 2004, while Americans placed more importance on the Army and Marines.”

Adds Gallup:

Now, in more recent years, it is Army and Marine generals’ turn to be pleased, as Americans view these two branches of the military as the most important, with the Air Force and the Navy lagging behind.

The Air Force and Navy remain in a tailspin. “This change continues, with the Army and Marines essentially tied in Gallup’s June 9-12 survey as most important to national defense, while the perceived importance of the Air Force has dropped further, from 23% in 2004 to 17% today,” Gallup says. “The percentage of Americans naming the Navy as most important has dropped from 17% in 2002 to 11% today.”

This means, of course, that if tending to the nation’s defense is too important to be left to generals and admirals, it’s also too important to be left to folks who respond to surveys. As the Pacific looms as the ocean of the future, it’s a safe bet the Navy looms as the service of the future, too.

As for the most prestigious service, it’s not even close. “Americans have named the Marines as the most prestigious branch of the armed forces in each of four surveys conducted between 2001 and 2011,” Gallup reports. “Thirty-six percent named the Marines as most prestigious in 2001, while 46% do today.”

Back in 1950, President Harry Truman famously said the Marines “have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.” Apparently, they still do.