PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans believe that the U.S. Army and Marines are the most important to national defense, followed by the Air Force and Navy. This differs from the years prior to the start of the Iraq war, when Americans named the Air Force as the most important branch of the armed forces.
Gallup first asked Americans about the importance of the military branches in the 1940s, and began using the current question wording in 2001. Regardless of exact question format, at all points prior to 2004, Americans -- by very substantial margins -- have named the Air Force as the most important branch of the military.
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. 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.
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. The percentage of Americans naming the Navy as most important has dropped from 17% in 2002 to 11% today. Gallup first included the Coast Guard in the question wording in 2002, but this branch has received few mentions as most important since that point.
Air Force Dominated "Most Important" Rankings From 1949 Through 1960
Gallup first measured Americans' perceptions of the importance of the branches of the armed forces in June 1949, using this question wording: "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 -- the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force?"
At that time, 81% of Americans chose the Air Force, followed by 6% who named the Army and 4% the Navy. In August 1951, in the middle of the Korean War, the Air Force continued to dominate these "most important" perceptions, with 70% choosing it. And, in 1960, before an election in which two former naval officers -- John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- were battling for the presidency, 62% of Americans named the Air Force as most important, while 5% picked the Army and 6% the Navy.
No Change in Views of Marines as Most Prestigious Branch
Americans have named the Marines as the most prestigious branch of the armed forces in each of four surveys conducted between 2001 and 2011. Thirty-six percent named the Marines as most prestigious in 2001, while 46% do today.
Americans' view of the Air Force's prestige has dropped over this time period. In 2001 the Air Force was a few percentage points behind the Marines as most prestigious. Now, in 2011, the Army has moved into second place in prestige behind the Marines, while the percentage mentioning the Air Force has dropped by more than half, from 32% to 15%.
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.
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 shift in perceptions occurred between 2002 and 2003, when the U.S. first became involved in the Iraq war. The Air Force and the Navy have been heavily involved in fighting these two wars, of course, but despite this, public perceptions of the importance of these two service branches have waned. The high levels of visibility given to the role of the Navy SEALs in the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in May, additionally, apparently has done little to significantly enhance the perceived importance or prestige of the Navy.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 9-12, 2011, with a random sample of 1,020 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
The results reported in this analysis for the perceived importance and perceived prestige of military branches are each based on random half samples of 496 and 524 national adults, respectively. For each of these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.