Ever since World War II, the army and the navy have been most upset at how their wayward children, the air force and marines, have dominated when it came to public relations and general popularity.
The air force split off from the army in 1947, and it was quickly noticed that the public considered the air force more important than the other services. A Gallup Poll in 1949 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?" Some 84 percent of Americans choose the air force. Two years later, with the army bearing most of the burden in the Korean War, 70 percent of Americans still considered the air force the most important service. By 1960, the air force was still on top, at 60 percent. What was going on here was that the American people were finally realizing how the clever public relations efforts of air power enthusiasts during World War II was, well, more style than substance. Combat aircraft were still a new and glamorous weapon during World War II, and the air force leadership was quick to work this angle for all it was worth. Then the atomic bomb came along, and two of them were dropped by air force bombers. The air force grabbed more of the glory than they had coming, and it took decades before most Americans figured this out.
Just before September 11, 2001, 42 percent of Americans still felt the air force was the most important service. The army got 18 percent, the navy 15 percent and the marines, 14 percent. Most defense analysts would pick the navy as the most important, but thats another story.
By 2002, after the Afghanistan campaign, the air force had slipped to 36 percent, and the army was still 18 percent (the navy moved up to 17 percent and the marines to 16 percent.) But then came Iraq, with constant media coverage of the army at work. Yes, the marines are there as well, but the war on terror is mostly an army show. By May, 2004, for the first time since the Gallup Organization began measuring this sort of thing, the army came out on top, with 25 percent of Americans choosing the G.I.s as the most important service. The air force and the marines were tied for second place, at 23 percent each. The navy came in last, at nine percent. Part of this is the navys fault, as they have always been recognized as the least effective in the public relations department. Plus, the navy, being, literally, out to sea, most of the time, have also been somewhat aloof.
In contrast to the navy, the marines, which, seventy years ago, were a small component of the navy, have grown into a separate service. The marines have done this partly through very smart public relations. The other assets the marines have are excellent combat skills, a powerful can do attitude, and spiffy uniforms. The marines have, for over a century, worked hard at being the most prestigious service and they have maintained a lead in that department since World War II. Before September 11, 2001, the marines were considered the most prestigious service by 36 percent of Americans. They were followed by the air force at 32 percent, then the navy at 14 percent and the army at 11 percent. As of this month, the marines are looking even better, with 44 percent of Americans seeing them as most prestigious. The air force is down to 20 percent, but the army is up to 15 percent and the navy has slumped to eight percent.
The public is slow to catch up with reality when it comes to military affairs. The army, since it went all volunteer three decades ago, has become a much sharper outfit. Even older marines have noted (during last years Iraq fighting) that the army combat troops are more like marines. But most of the army troops are not in combat jobs and are much less on the ball than the marine non-combat troops. So the marines maintain their edge. Many army combat troops are agitating for a better looking dress uniform. So the marines know they have some serious competition in the prestige department.
The navy, alas, is a case of out of sight, and out of luck" in the opinion polls.
All of this attention to public opinion does have an impact on military affairs. The air force has consistently, since its founding in 1947, obtained a disproportionately high chunk of the defense budget. Legislators will admit that much of this has to do with the higher public support for the air force. Now the army is top dog, and is planning to make the most of it, when it comes to the budget wars, while it can.