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Remembering Afghanistan: Attitudes and Support Amongst the British Public

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Remembrance Sunday is an annual opportunity for the British public to pay their respects to those who have died during service to their country. By taking part in wreath laying ceremonies, observing two minutes silence at 11 am, or wearing a poppy, the public can express their appreciation for the role of the Armed Forces in ways that they might not wish or feel able to do at other times. This show of respect extends to those who have served, as donations to the Royal British Legion help provide support for ex-Service personnel through out the UK.

As in previous years, this Sunday is likely to trigger discussions about the UK's continued military presence in Afghanistan, shaped by public doubts about the mission and the rising death toll amongst UK troops (particularly those resulting from caused by so-called 'green on blue' attacks). Also important are the mounting financial costs, which have reportedly led the Chancellor, George Osborne, to press senior military officers on why withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot happen earlier than scheduled, if not immediately.

The more recent controversies of alleged defence contract lobbying by retired military leaders, and the four Royal Marines charged with murder in connection with the death of an Afghani insurgent are also likely to be debated. Both have the potential to cause a drop in support for the Forces.

These discussions are extremely important as public attitudes can affect the morale of deployed troops and their families, the operational effectiveness of personnel and the successful reintegration of military personnel to civilian society after service. Politically, public support can also alter the legitimacy of military operations and influence the size of defence budgets.

Over the last decade, any debate about public attitudes to the Armed Forces and their missions has been based on opinion poll data, but there are problems with their accuracy and whether they represent opinion across the whole of the UK population. There have been some interesting results, but we find ourselves in the position of not knowing that much about what the British public really thinks about the Armed Forces, or the mission in Afghanistan.

The first in depth look at these issues has been carried out by our team at the King's Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London with NatCen Social Research and the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research, Robert Gordon University. With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, we used data from the 29th British Social Attitudes survey to look at these questions.

So what do the public think? Our results show public attitudes are much more nuanced than they are given credit for. Half of the public disapprove of UK involvement in Afghanistan and less than a third feels the mission is achieving success. But while there may be repeated calls for withdrawal from both the public and political sources, just over half of the public think that the UK military should stay until the Afghan government is able to protect its own territory.

Despite most of the public being opposed to Afghanistan, there is a lot of support for veterans of the campaign. Regardless of their own feelings about the mission, more than 85% say they support Forces personnel returning from it. The high volume of donations to military charities is also evidence of this support; Help for Heroes has made more than £120 million since it was established in 2007 and the survey we used showed that 78% of the public had bought a poppy in 2010.

These findings seem to suggest that the public has little trouble separating the politics of military missions from their attitudes towards the service men and women taking part. This has been a big worry for military leaders since the well-publicised reports of physical and verbal attacks on US soldiers returning from Vietnam. However, there were instances of hostile behaviour towards members of the Armed Forces during the London Olympics, although these were not widely reported. Why these might have happened, or how common they are is, as yet, unknown.

Overall, our results are promising for the future relationship between British society and the UK military. Despite opposition to the Afghanistan mission, the public holds their Armed Forces in high esteem and understands what is potentially at stake in the campaign. We can therefore be fairly confident that on this Remembrance Sunday, the efforts of the UK's Armed Forces troops, and those we have lost, will continue to be warmly remembered, and appreciated, by the British public.

Further information on this project can be found in the 29th British Social Attitudes report, the King's Centre for Military Health Research website, or follow us on Twitter @kcmhr