Public Views of the Armed Forces in Britain: Misperceptions and Implications in 2015

by Dr. HELEN McCARTNEY

A new survey by Ipsos MORI and King’s College London has provided a fascinating insight into the way publics view their armed forces. The international survey was conducted in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and the US and compared public beliefs about the armed forces with reality.

The results for Britain were eclectic, showing that while the public continue to hold the armed forces in high esteem, their understanding of the challenges facing military personnel is often widely off the mark.

Last week, I was fortunate to take part in a debate where we started thinking through what might have influenced the results. Bobby Duffy (Ipsos MORI), Prof. Christopher Dandeker, Dr Laura Goodwin and I sat on a panel chaired by Prof. Sir Simon Wessely. We considered what the results say about civil-military relations in Britain and what implications might they have for the armed forces and society.

Christopher Dandeker reminded us of the need to distinguish between public empathy and sympathy, the former being knowledge-based, the latter showing a desire to support, while Laura Goodwin raised the issue of who survey respondents might be thinking about and how far the results may also reflect the views of army families, friends and potentially armed forces personnel themselves. For example, public overestimation of PTSD rates and underestimation of levels of depression and anxiety may influence stigma and affect when and if help is sought.

Bobby Duffy urged us to think about the way in which we remember. After all, mis-perceptions of the military were not just confined to the British public; similar trends were seen across publics internationally, with the exception of the French. He argued that people remember specific stories that tap into emotions better than they retain statistics. Those individual stories might create a lasting mental image that is difficult to shift, even if they are, in fact, comparatively rare.

From my perspective, I think it is useful to consider how the public acquire their information about the armed forces. Even with the return of the British army from Germany and increasing use of reservists, the British armed forces still have a small military footprint in British society. Few members of the public have a personal experience of the military or know a member of the armed forces well. In the absence of personal knowledge, the public draws on established images of the soldier in British popular culture to form opinions about the armed forces.

It seems likely that this survey might be reflecting the multiple images of the soldier that co-exist today. Many responses in the polling support previous arguments made about the contemporary image of the soldier in Britain. In art, film, media, books, charitable work and museums the soldier appears in traditional forms – most often caricatured as a hero and, less often, as a villain. However, increasingly, the soldier is also identified as a victim – and I think we can see these trends reflected in polling.

So, for example, the dominant hero image is reflected by the 72 percent of respondents who say they have a favourable view of soldiers and the 65 percent of people who are positive about the armed forces as an institution. But at the same time, the British public over-estimates negative outcomes arising from military service. The villain image is present with the public assumption that soldiers would be more or as likely to serve a prison sentence – when in fact, they are 30 percent less likely to go to prison. We also see how the image of the soldier as victim has resonated with the British public through their overestimation of the risk of PTSD, overall suicide rates, and homelessness.

The victim image has become more prevalent in recent years, as a result of changes in British societal values, increased recognition of psychological effects of war and the British armed forces fighting unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Armed forces personnel came to be seen as passive victims – of government miscalculation and wartime experience – which allowed the public to simultaneously show support for the soldier while condemning the job they were required to do.

The survey results suggest that this victim image (alongside those of hero and villain) is one that is here to stay. The British public believe that service personnel will be adversely affected by their service, and this is reflected in the over-estimation of some of the challenges facing those serving in the armed forces and veterans today.

Image: Soldiers of 22 Engineer Regiment march proudly past cheering crowds during a parade through Andover, Hampshire, 12 October 2013. Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence via Open Government License.

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