Religion and Social Trends

Which Branch of the Armed Forces Is Most Important?

Army, Air Force, and Marines tied in importance

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps are now tied with the Air Force as Americans' choice as the most important branch of the United States' armed forces, with the Navy and the Coast Guard far behind. This represents 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. 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.

Ground Forces Gain Ground as Most Important

As far back as the 1940s and 1950s, Gallup Polls showed that Americans were overwhelmingly most likely to name the Air Force as the branch of service most vital to the nation's defense.

  • In July 1949, the Air Force was chosen by 84% of Americans when asked: "If the United States should get into another World War, which branch of the Armed Forces do you think would play the most important part in winning the war?"
  • In August 1951, with the United States in the middle of the Korean War, the Air Force still came in No. 1, with 70% of Americans saying it was the "most important." The Army was far behind at 14%.
  • In October 1960, just before the presidential election that pitted two former Navy officers -- John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon -- against one another, 62% of Americans chose the Air Force as the most important branch of service.

This primacy of the Air Force persisted in more recent years when Gallup once again began asking Americans about the armed forces branches, albeit in slightly different form.

In May 2001, Gallup asked Americans which of the branches of the armed forces they considered to be "most important to the national defense" today. The Air Force was overwhelmingly the most likely to be named, chosen by 42% of Americans, well over twice as many as named the Army (18%), the Navy (15%), and the Marines (14%). (The Coast Guard, at that time part of the Department of Transportation except in times of war, was not included in the 2001 list, but has been included in the years since.)

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.

But this year, the May 21-23 poll found a significantly different pattern of perceived importance. Both branches of the armed forces whose primary mission is on the ground -- the Army and the Marine Corps -- have become more likely to be mentioned as the most important, while the Air Force and the Navy have slipped. The result: The Army, Air Force, and Marines are now tied as the most important branches of the service, with the Navy and Coast Guard substantially less likely to be chosen.

Most Important Branch of the U.S. Armed Forces?

This year's survey shows a seven-point increase (since 2002) for both the Army and the Marine Corps in the number of Americans who see each of these as the most important branch of the service. At the same time, there has been a 13-point drop for the Air Force since 2002, and an 8-point drop for the Navy.

It is almost certain that the intense focus on the role being played by the Army and the Marines in the current conflict in Iraq is the primary reason for the change in perceived importance of the branches. 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.

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

Although Air Force and naval aircraft were a big part of the initial "shock and awe" campaign that kicked off the Iraq war in March 2003, the visibility given the role of air (or sea) power has been low as the war has dragged on over the past year.

Most Prestigious

There is a difference in the way in which Americans see the importance of the branches of the armed forces and their prestige. Each of the three times Gallup has asked Americans to name the branch with the most prestige, the Marine Corps has been the overwhelming winner. That pattern persists this year.

Most Prestigious Branch of the U.S. Armed Forces?

This year, 44% of Americans say that the Marine Corps is the most prestigious service branch. That's the highest since 2001, and the Marine Corps remains far ahead of any other branch on this prestige dimension. But the percentage mentioning the Air Force as most prestigious has dropped from 32% in May 2001 -- just four points less than mentioned the Marines that year -- to 20% this year.

Additionally, despite its gain in perceptions as the most important branch, there has been little change in views of the Army as most prestigious. It was chosen by 11% of Americans in 2001, 13% in April 2002, and 15% this year. The Coast Guard is up to 5%, while the Navy has fallen to 8%.

There are few dramatic differences by age in views of the prestige of the armed services branches, although the Marine Corps is significantly more likely to be chosen as most prestigious by men than by women.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,002 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 21-23, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

22. Just off the top of your head, which of the five branches of the Armed Forces in this country would you say is the most prestigious and has the most status in our society today -- [ROTATED: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, (or) the Coast Guard]?

BASED ON --506-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

 

 

Air Force


Army


Navy


Marines

Coast Guard

SAME (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

2004 May 21-23

20

15

8

44

5

5

3

2002 Apr 22-24

28

13

13

39

1

4

2

2001 May 18-20 ^

32

11

14

36

--

4

3

^

WORDING: Just off the top of your head, which of the four major branches of the Armed Forces in this country would you say is the most prestigious and has the most status in our society today -- [ROTATED: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, (or) the Marines]?



 

23. Just off the top of your head, which of the five branches of the Armed Forces in this country would you say is the most important to our national defense today -- [ROTATED: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, (or) the Coast Guard]?

BASED ON --496-- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

Air Force


Army


Navy


Marines

Coast Guard

SAME (vol.)

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

2004 May 21-23

23

25

9

23

4

12

4

2002 Apr 22-24

36

18

17

16

1

10

2

2001 May 18-20 ^

42

18

15

14

--

9

2

^

WORDING: Just off the top of your head, which of the four major branches of the Armed Forces in this country would you say is the most important to our national defense today-- [ROTATED: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, (or) the Marines]?



Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/11824/Which-Branch-Armed-Forces-Most-Important.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030