Patriotic rhetoric makes people comfortable with military missions — but that’s not how soldiers are recruited

May 31, 2021

Researchers found that when people believe soldiers join the armed forces because they are patriots or good citizens, they are more supportive of military missions. Above, a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

People who believe that soldiers join the military for intrinsic reasons — out of a sense of patriotism or duty — were more likely to approve of military missions and the use of military force, according to a new study that indicates how much rhetoric around soldiering matters to people's fundamental attitudes toward the military.

The study, published May 13 in International Studies Quarterly, investigated how perceived motivations for military service shape public support for the use of force and military missions that put soldiers in harm's way. The researchers found that people who believed that soldiers joined the military for extrinsic reasons — either as an employee receiving pay and benefits or because the person was desperate with no other options — were less likely to support military operations. 

In the Western world, and in the U.S. in particular, there is an acute gap between how soldiers are recruited into the armed forces and the rhetoric used to discuss the nature of military service, according to Ronald Krebs and Robert Ralston, the co-authors of the paper. Krebs is a professor at the University of Minnesota, and Ralston is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

Since 1973, the U.S. military has been a voluntary professional military, meaning it no longer drafts people into its ranks, and even though the U.S. military acts as an employer that competes with other businesses on the open market in recruiting people, "We never talk about military service in that way," Krebs said.

"We always talk about our soldiers not as if they were employees doing a dangerous job, but rather as if they were paragons of patriotism, paradigmatic citizens of the very highest order, which is precisely the way ... that we use to talk about the armed forces at the height of the mass army and the idea of military service as a duty of citizenship," he said.

Earlier research by Krebs found that Americans were surprisingly sensitive to military casualties because of the patriotic rhetoric surrounding military service. Partially based on that prior study, Krebs and Ralston thought that if people perceived soldiering in terms of patriotism, citizenship and sacrifice, they would feel a sense of obligation and feel reluctant to put soldiers in harm's way — but they found the opposite result.

The researchers fielded a national survey, which included both observational and experimental components, in September 2018, and it was administered to a representative sample of 2,451 U.S.-based respondents recruited by Lucid. Forty-three percent of respondents subscribed to the idea that soldiers join the military for the pay and benefits, while another 10% endorsed the view that service members primarily join because "they have no other options," according to the study. 

The other 47% of respondents subscribed to one of two intrinsic narratives: 33% of respondents believed soldiers join the armed forces because of a patriotic standpoint or for their love of country; and the other 14% said it was because soldiers were good citizens and they had a sense of duty and obligation.

Through the use of statistical models, the researchers found that when people believe soldiers join the armed forces because they are patriots or good citizens, they are more supportive of military missions. When people believe soldiers are motivated by the employment benefits they receive in exchange for service, however, they are less supportive of military missions. When people believe that soldiers enlist because they have no other way to escape desperate life circumstances — indicating lack of real consent — they are least supportive of military missions.

Thus, as it turns out, the idea of believing that soldiers are patriots and good citizens actually makes people "more comfortable with them dying on the battlefield," Krebs said. "How we talk about military services has very real consequences." 

Krebs and Ralston told The Academic Times that these findings partially define modern American militarism in a way that splits reality from rhetoric: Patriotic rhetoric about military service makes people more comfortable with sending soldiers into harm's way, but the recruitment of soldiers occurs on a market basis.

Though still speculative at this point, these findings present a key implication for U.S. militarism: Krebs and Ralston suggest that "Americans have a penchant for using force" and, while there are many reasons for that, this research indicates that the cultural tone underlying military service may partially drive that inclination.

 "In fact," Krebs said, "all of those many efforts to bring soldiering into the popular consciousness, rather than making people sympathetic to soldiers in the sense that they now don't want to send them into harm's way, is propagating a narrative of soldiering that is having exactly the opposite effect. It is making people more open to sending those heroes and patriots into harm's way."  

The study "Why they fight: How perceived motivations for military service shape support for the use of force," published May 13 in International Studies Quarterly, was co-authored by Ronald R. Krebs, University of Minnesota; Robert Ralston, Harvard Kennedy School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Aaron Rapport, University of Cambridge.

We use cookies to improve your experience on our site and to show you relevant advertising.