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A nation must think before it acts.
During unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public’s confidence in the U.S. military surprisingly rose to all-time highs. Confidence had been thought closely linked to battlefield success, so that increase was unexpected, and very unlike the crisis of confidence after Vietnam. Confidence can be better understood considering four dimensions: performance, professionalism, partisanship, and patriotism. The military has kept the public’s trust in part because, despite disappointing outcomes, it has not suffered organizational and professional breakdowns as happened after Vietnam. In addition, in the post-conscription era, expressing “confidence” is a low-cost way for disconnected citizens to express gratitude—even if they largely disagree with military preferences. Finally, a wide partisan confidence gap opened after 2003, suggesting that confidence increasingly reflects political identities rather than objective assessment of the state of the military.