Developing Trust

There is no shortage of historical stories, anecdotes and remembrances that highlight the importance of personal trust as an absolute requirement for the success of military operations.

The Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, has made the development of trust a concerted effort. It is a requirement that permeates all echelons of the Army, beginning with the trust every soldier must have in the other members of his or her squad, squad leader and the chain of command that directs his or her action.

The same trust is essential to every general who must believe in his or her mission, the resources he or she can employ and the soldiers who will conduct the campaigns. It is the prime requisite of the operational concept of Mission Command. It is the characteristic that underlies most, if not all, of the success the Army has enjoyed for a couple of centuries.

The role of trust in today’s Army is beset with too many forces and factors that undermine it – notably, the personal conduct of leaders who have been publicly identified as violating our Soldier’s Code, disregarding the Army Values and even perpetrating crimes. Their behavior, no matter how few in number, reflects upon the reputation of the entire body of leaders, especially in those instances when their actions are ignored, covered up or go unpunished by the chain of command.

West Point’s Cadet Honor Code is not imposed on the total Army, but lying, cheating, stealing and tolerating those who do are characteristics that undermine trust. The act of soldiers policing themselves – a responsibility of officers and NCOs alike – is the best guarantee of the integrity of the whole and of developing the belief among soldiers that they are among those who live by the codes and values. Adhering to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and assisted by the layered judicial system, the inspectors general roles and the record of command decisions of the past, the Army has collectively maintained the honor of the profession ever since Gen. George Washington set the original example. Upholding that honor is a sacred trust.

A second problem is the periodic appearance of articles alleging the inferiority of Army equipment, usually a weapon or weapon system. The latest ”revelation” identifies the M4 carbine as a faulty rifle. The Army is accused of having changed the findings of certain accounts and equipping our superior soldier with inferior weapons and is thereby responsible for unnecessary casualties having been suffered. The articles are quite convincing regarding the shortcomings and the fixes found in the field by ingenious and inventive soldiers. They are less attentive to the fact that the M4A1 has incorporated those fixes and is now the weapon being procured and issued. This may have happened later than it should have, perhaps, but in the normal functioning of a system controlled by a bureaucracy and Congress that did not provide rapid response to such needs.

I have no direct knowledge of the shortcomings found in the M4, though I carried one in Vietnam. Back then, the big controversy was over the shortcomings of the M16 rifle, which some said was no match for the Russian AK-47. That charge must have had some validity, as the AK-47 became the world’s weapon of choice for the rest of the 20th century, but the M16 weathered the storm and has demonstrated some superior features of its own.

We started World War II with a 1903 rifle, and ended that war with two machine guns designed in 1917 and 1919. We began training with broomsticks for rifles and stovepipes for mortars. It took three years to get to the M4 tank, which had gone through seven upgrades to the M4A3E8 model – still no match for a ”high-noon” shootout with a German Tiger, but nevertheless a tank that ran rings around the Axis forces in Europe. That tank evolution went through a few other iterations, then died as the Main Battle Tank (MBT)-70, after years of development, was abandoned as a new start and more years brought the M1 Abrams. During those years, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was the whipping boy that armchair experts regarded as a waste. Those complaints died down when the focus shifted to a replacement for the 1911 .45-caliber automatic.

This does not excuse the procurement or issuing of inferior equipment. There have been many mistakes; Army research and development has had a difficult time keeping pace with the progress of technology. Despite that history, in every war of the last hundred years, when ”our” equipment fought ”their”, we were never seconded-best. Today, no army has better armed and equipped soldiers, no army is better supported logistically, and no army wants to confront ours on the battlefield. This all stands in spite of the situation once identified by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who observed: ”We go to war with what we have, not what we need.” He was roundly criticized, but I will attest to his accuracy in each of the wars in which I was personally involved. What we should have had would have saved lives and may even have speeded results, but so far it has not resulted in disaster because what we had was plenty good enough. I want today’s soldiers – and tomorrow’s – to believe it will always be thus.

There is a third problem that affects trust: centralization, the tendency of higher echelons of control to reserve the authority to make decisions, issue directions and then specify ”how to do it.”

The tendency reached its apogee (some would say nadir) during the Vietnam War with the ”squad leader in the sky” and the White House dictating bombing targets and rules of engagement. Unfortunately, the tendency has not died. Technology allows ever higher echelons to collect more intelligence, and an improved communications system allows commanders to direct actions that are much better decided closer to the scene.

The echelon at which a leader, aware of the mission and his or her commander’s concept of an operation, can employ forces, request fire support and make recommendations for improving his or her capabilities begins at the squad level. Squad leaders make squad-level decisions in accordance with the education and training the Army provides. When platoon leaders, company commanders and battalion commanders do the same in their respective spheres we have a chain of command that establishes trust among subordinates and superiors and one that is a greater guarantee of operational success.

When a night-watch officer on a fire-base in Afghanistan is faced with a chalkboard filled with regulations, rules of engagement, cautions of what to do, and whom to contact before firing a flare or initiating counter-action (and when to do it), he is not being trusted. The chalkboard carries directives from the White House, the Pentagon and too many echelons of command where mission accomplishment is secondary to ”doing it right”, avoiding collateral damage and civilian casualties, and costing the minimum of resources. It also protects the higher echelon’s right to say, ”I told those company commanders…” It is testimony to a lack, not a promotion, of trust up and down the chain of command.

History has a magnificent record of the initiative and ingenuity of soldiers entrusted with a mission, sent off to accomplish it with no further instructions, many of whom then adapted to their environment and did their best. The Lewis and Clark expedition is a prime example, but as late as World War II, both Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower were issued mission orders without ”how to do it” guidance. They and their subordinates were trusted to find the best way. Neither employed corps commanders who issued specific orders controlling squad and platoon actions (Korean War-Style) or squad leaders in the sky (Vietnam-style) when battalion, brigade, and even division commanders stacked up in helicopters to guide troops on the ground. The natural result is always that lower-level commanders become hesitant or unwilling to make decisions that might be over-ruled or countermanded by the practice that breeds distrust. It is a practice that should – and can – be eliminated through education and training.

Assignment to a leadership position in the Army establishes responsibility and authority to satisfy the requirements of the orders of superior. That authority is not questioned and soldiers carry out the directions they receive, but trust must be earned, and a leader’s effectiveness, honesty and fairness have to be demonstrated. The opportunities are boundless, and success almost guarantees achievement.

Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA Ret., formerly served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe. He is a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare and 1st Vice President of the American Security Council Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from ARMY Magazine, Vol. 64 #5. The Association of the United States Army.

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