Share this Post
The Dynamics and Value of “Trust” in the Military
The importance of “trust” as a unifying force in military organizations and their battlefield operations is often hidden behind a ‘vale of obviousness’ and given second order attention in relationship to the importance of various external steering mechanisms, ‘command’ and ‘control’ in particular, for preserving unit and operational cohesion. This mindset tends to hold true in military training programs, field practices, and is reinforced by everyday military protocol. It also prevails as a mind set in the classical and contemporary literature on ‘regular’ warfare. Although, emphasized in ‘irregular’ warfare at multiple levels, the social science supporting the importance of trust is often vaguely articulated, or misunderstood, in the relevant literature on the topic. This paper asserts the position, in concert with recent statements afforded by US Army leadership, suggesting that “trust” is the more primordial and organic factor that provides organizational cohesion and effectiveness: (1) throughout the organization; (2) in relationship to the citizenry of the host countries served; and (3) in relationship to the home country of the military personnel. It is further suggested that attitudes of trust, and mistrust, are directly communicated at three simultaneous levels that are isomorphic to one another, that is, ‘one form’ manifesting at multiple levels of observation, including the: (1) psychological (self-observation); (2) bodily (expressive gesture, attitude, tone, manner, style, or bearing); and (3) interpersonal, or social-relational. In our everyday military activities, observers, including our fellow cohorts and leaders, host country citizens, and our citizens at home, directly witness these communications at the sensory level and form immediate emotional responses, as well as secondary judgments, that build, are a caustic to, or sabotage the trust alliances at each of these levels necessary for sustaining an organically united, functional, army. Media has accelerated and amplified the significance of these manifest observables and their impact on operations in a myriad of ways. A theory consistent with the described phenomenology of trust is referenced in support of these recent significant explicit ‘turns’ in leadership emphasis on trust.
‘Trust’ as a Dynamic Binding Force During the American Revolution
In his book, The Crises, Thomas Paine (1776) speaks of “the times that try men’s souls”.[i] His observations refer to the American Revolution, but are not confined to politics. They afford insights into human nature, our capacity to trust in ourselves and others, our adherence to basic values, and their influence on our actions.[ii]-[iii]-[iv] He makes clear that our everyday world presents situations that require us to make manifest our commitments to the essentials of life, those we love, our work, beliefs, principles, and well being. In critical moments we make, or fail to make, choices that declare who we are as individuals and as a collective.[v]-[vi] In so doing, we claim our sense of human dignity, assert our “natural rights”, or fail to do so.[vii] In extreme circumstances, as portrayed in “The Crises”, for example, citizens, and citizen-soldiers, were called upon to respond, even “take up arms”, despite fear, and the temptations of various affordances to withdraw from the field of conflict. Responding resolutely, and in union with others, bound by trust, a vision, and common purpose, now, just as was the case then, requires sustained individual and collective acts of emotional and moral courage, actions that express the values and commitments of local actors. These commitments motivate, organize, and empower our actions, shape our sense of agency in the world, and our resolve.
Our fundamental values: (1) empower action in one situation, self-restraint in another; (2) animate our fundamental beliefs; (3) provide continuity and stability in our personal and professional identity, in our sense of who we are; (4) influence how we comport ourselves towards others, as well as guide their expectations of us; and (5) when we hold true to them, make demands upon us in their requirements for certain actions. We face these situations in ways consistent, or inconsistent, with our values and experience emotional rewards (e.g., contentment, pride, freedom, etc.) or self-disappointments (e.g., guilt, sadness, shame, self-directed anger, etc.) accordingly. Relationally, that is, interpersonally, others respond to our stance favorably, or unfavorably, as well. In crises, mutual trust is concentrated, amplified, and tested to the extreme. When they took up arms, the fate of the citizen-soldiers and their revolutionary leaders, required, and depended upon, this kind of concentrated mutual trust, sense of unifying purpose, and shared vision of a path, to sustain the course of action taken and its predictable sequel.
Experiential Sources, Capacities, and Functional Importance of Trust and Trust Building
To be able to trust in ourselves, in ‘who’ we are, and ‘what’ we stand for, and trust in the commitments of others in the same respects, is essential, and forged over time through the trials of life. Trust provides mental clarity to emotionally or morally ambiguous situations, particularly in battle where the “fog of war” can have lethal consequences.[viii] The loss of control in war, and the anxieties that accompany this, can be debilitating.[ix] Cognitive capacities often become compromised.[x] Under these circumstances, external ‘control’ is a poor substitute for a felt, embodied, and enacted trust. Control is a prosthetic device for propping-up a crippled trust. Mutual trust in general, encompassing a trust in ones shared training, discipline, and mission, provides the soldier with the mental clarity and inspiration for the endurance needed to overcome obstacles, even when external command and control functions fail.
Personally and professionally, trust is essential to our life and work. It is the basis of meaningful relationships, and a value codified in family, ethnic, religious, and professional traditions. It is, for example, central to both my work as a psychologist where the ethical code specifies that “psychologists establish relationships of trust” to facilitate emotional affinity, rapport and assistance[xi] --- consistent with the Hippocratic oath “to do no harm” --- and to my military work where, with a similar intent, we follow the Department of Army Civilian Creed intended to inspire trust in those served.[xii]-[xiii] General Odierno, for example, states that the “foundation” of our proficiency and strength in war, is our “character”.[xiv] Specific “characteristics, and qualities” sustain the “sacred obligation” to our mission, each other, and the nation.[xv] “Trust”, he states, is “the sine qua non of our Profession of Arms”.[xvi] It “extends laterally and vertically, and it is two-way”: “between soldiers”; between “soldiers and leaders”; between the institution of the “Army and soldiers”; and between the “army and the American people” [xvii].Trust is an “enduring” bond “forged in mutual privation and shared experience” and the “very essence of our Warrior Ethos”.[xviii] It arises from the mutual respect for shared deeds and competence displayed on the battlefield.[xix] It is a “sacred trust” inspired by a specifiable way of being, one that displays itself in the quality of ‘openness’ not only to trust, but to new pathways (in perceiving, thinking, learning, creating, and connecting with others), coupled with the “courage” and “strength” to persist on these pathways.[xx]-[xxi]. Such codes are ubiquitous to most professions.
Philosophical and Neurobiological Evidence for the ‘Embodied Mind’ and Primordial Trust
Trust, then, is ‘isomorphic’, meaning ‘one form’ whose structural and dynamic equivalences are manifested simultaneously at multiple levels of organization and observation, including the: (1) psychological level by a specific attitudinal style; (2) bodily level by a corresponding mode of comportment displayed, a specific way, or manner, of being, conveying a distinctive form of presence; and (3) interpersonal or social level through our expressive comportment which communicates to those around us, the nature of the attitudinal felt bond, directly perceivable as such, just as their comportment communicates the same to us.[xxii]-[xxiii] They are not only sensorialy observable communications, but resonate within us, as a “bodily-felt sense”.[xxiv]-[xxv]-[xxvi]-[xxvii] It is a two-way multi-directional bond between ‘brothers and sisters in arms’ that makes for a team, hence the expression “One Army, One Fight”. Through its allegiance to our Nation, the ‘Profession of Arms’ opens itself up to the public trust, and through its honoring of the sacrifices rendered by this profession, the public communicates its trust and appreciation as well.[xxviii] It is an embodied, organic, and dynamic, structure and, as such “vital”[xxix] “trust is both the fuel that drives the Army and the glue that holds it together”.[xxx] It provides structural integrity and dynamic energy to the organization, its mission, and transcends to the mutual relations that connect the Army to the citizenry. [xxxi]A breakdown of this vital integrity at any level threatens the bonds that trust serves on all levels, there is no equivocation.[xxxii]-[xxxiii] Active vigilance to the nurturing of these bonds is essential to fostering an atmosphere of trust and for preserving and protecting its function as a primordial bond supporting the organizations unity of purpose and integrity.[xxxiv]-[xxxv] Living, which is always embodied living, entails an intricate, highly situated or localized, and ordered interaction with the environment that precedes all abstract knowledge about the world. [xxxvi] The latter, intellectual abstractions about the world, are derived secondarily, and thus always parasitic upon, immediate and direct sensory understanding.[xxxvii] Our interaction with the world is more primordial then our concepts about the world. Our bodily-felt sense is part of this interaction[xxxviii]-[xxxix], and the immediate sense of trust or mistrust is part of this primordial experience.
Mutual trust is rooted in, and thus inspired by, direct behavioral “evidence”.[xl] In our comportment we display our valuations (i.e., fairness, helpfulness, ethics, and morality).[xli] In turn, “mistrust” is inspired by displays of evidence that disregard these values.[xlii] All such displays are, by definition, open to sensory observation or inspection, and perceived directly.[xliii]-[xliv] Trust, and its loss, has effects that are all encompassing. They range from the indigenous people of the host country to those of our homeland extending through all of the intermediary organizational elements that bridge the front line soldier to the Commander-in-Chief. Notably, the vast proliferation of technological based media devices has amplified the significance, frequency, and speed at which such evidence is witnessed and responded to by the world. Our response to affirmations, or breaches, of our trust is delimited to three basic modes of agency, moving us either towards, away, or against, others.[xlv]
We can conclude with Thomas Paine who also observed that “it is dearness that gives everything its value”.[xlvi] Yet, this “dearness”, this honorific and protective “sacred bond” of trust, is forged at a price.[xlvii] Trust is often hidden behind a veil of obviousness and taken for granted. The cost of this ‘sacred trust’ is the pain inflicted on soldiers for whom this emotional bond becomes everything on the battlefield, and what they lose upon what Abraham Lincoln eloquently described as, “the sacred alter of freedom”, namely, their brother and sisters in arms, and their physical or psychic well being.[xlviii] Consequently, they need to trust that the care of their leader’s, and the American people, will continue beyond the battlefield and follow them back home and through life. Again, as Lincoln prescribed, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan”. Only by fulfilling this promise is the circle of trust completed, and that which it safeguards sustained and replenished.
The opinions and analysis presented in this paper are the authors’ only and, unless otherwise stated, do not reflect the views of the Department of Army, the Human Terrain System, or any other institution referenced.
[i] Paine, Thomas (1776-1777) The Crises.
[ii] Arendt, Hannah (1971/1978). The Life of the Mind. (One Volume Edition)New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, Publishers.
[iii] Arendt, Hannah (1960/1998). The Human Condition, 2nd. Ed., with an Introduction by Margret Canovan (1998), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iv] Arendt, Hannah (1951/2004). The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951; with a new introduction by Samantha Power
(2004), New York: Schocken Books.
[v] Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). How Little Things can Make a Big Difference. New York, NY: Little Brown.
[vi] Gladwell, Malcolm (2007). Blink. Back Bay Books.
[vii] Jefferson, Thomas (1776) Declaration of Independence.
[viii] Grossman, Dave (2008) On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Warrior Science Publications:
[xi] American Psychological Association (2010) Code of Ethics: Principe B, Fidelity and Responsibility. Washington, D.C.: APA.
[xii] Odierno, Raymond T. (2011). Forward: The Profession of Arms. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September,
[xiii] Warner, Volney Jim and Natalie Lui Duncan (2011). Army Civilians --- Professionals by Any Definition, Military Review: The Professional
Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp.56-66.
[xiv] Odierno, Raymond T. (2011). Forward: The Profession of Arms. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September,
[xxi] Cone, Robert W. (2011). Enduring Attributes of the Profession: Trust, Discipline, Fitness. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp. 5-9.
[xxii] Arnheim, Rudolph (1949/1966). A Gestalt Theory of Expression. Towards a Psychology of Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
[xxiii] Henle, Mary (1984). Isomorphism: Setting the Record Straight. Psychological Research, 46, pp. 317-327.
[xxiv] Sniffen, David E. (1994/1995). The Embodiment of Common Sense. Doctoral Dissertation, Fogelman Library, New School for Social Research, NY, NY.
[xxv] Gendlin, Eugene T. (1962) Experience and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective.
[xxvi] Merleau Ponty, Maurice (1945/1962) The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith, New York, NY: Humanities Press; and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
[xxvii] Varela, Francisco J.; Thompson,, Evan; and Rosch, Eleanor (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
[xxviii] Odierno, Raymond T. (2011). Forward: The Profession of Arms. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September,
[xxix] Cone, Robert W. (2011). Enduring Attributes of the Profession: Trust, Discipline, and Fitness. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp. 5-9.
[xxx] Caslen, Robert L. and Nathan K. Finney. The Army Ethic, Public Trust, and the Profession of Arms, Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 2011, pp.12- 13
[xxxi] Volker, Paul (1990). Leadership for America: Rebuilding the Public Service. United States Commission on Public Service. Lanham, MD:
[xxxii] Cone, Robert W. (2011). Enduring Attributes of the Profession: Trust, Discipline, Fitness. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp. 5-9.
[xxxiii] McCrystal, Stanley (2013) Are You Grounded in Trust? Linked-In Profile and Leadership Organization
[xxxiv] Dempsey, Martin E. (2011) Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 2011.
[xxxv] Pfeffer, Jeffery (1992) Organizations and Organization Theory. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, pp. 227-28.
[xxxvi] Varela, Francisco (1999) Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
[xxxvii] Kohler, Wolfgang (1946) Gestalt Psychology. NY, NY, Liverright Press.
[xxxviii] Damasio, Antonio (1994/2005) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Revised Ed.) Penguin Books.
[xxxix] Damasio, Antonio (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt Press
[xl] Cone, Robert W. (2011). Enduring Attributes of the Profession: Trust, Discipline, Fitness. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp. 5-9.
[xlii] Caslen, Robert L. and Nathan K. Finney. The Army Ethic, Public Trust, and the Profession of Arms, Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 2011, pp.12- 13
[xliii] Arnheim, Rudolph (1949/1966). A Gestalt Theory of Expression. Towards a Psychology of Art. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
[xliv] Sniffen, David E. (1994/1995). The Embodiment of Common Sense. Doctoral Dissertation, Fogelman Library, New School for Social Research, NY, NY.
[xlv] Horney, Karen (1950) Neurosis and Human Growth, New York: Norton
Horney, Karen (1945) Our Inner Conflicts,. New York: Norton
[xlvi] Paine, Thomas (1776-1777) Common Sense
[xlvii] Cone, Robert W. (2011). Enduring Attributes of the Profession: Trust, Discipline, Fitness. Military Review: The Professional Journal of the US Army, September, 201, pp. 5-9
[xlviii] Lincoln, Abraham (1862), Letter.