Thursday, September 15, 2005

Public Trust

When I was at the Naval Academy, one of the Naval Leadership professors talked about public trust and he said that the US military has the highest public opinion rating of any organization in the United States. Better than the President, better than Congress, better than the Supreme Court. And it’s not to hard to believe. Our government has been wracked by scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica-gate, etc), bad decisions (internment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow laws, the Tuskegee Experiment, etc,) and poorly executed duties (the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina) and there are more, and probably better, examples to describe how the US government, in all of its branches, has through it’s own actions and inactions, raised doubts and concerns and basically failed in the public’s trust. Despite all of these issues, the US military has retained its position as an institution that the public trusts.

But in recent months, I’ve begun to doubt how long the US Military will be able to keep public’s trust. The military is the instrument by which the executive branch implements a lot of its policies and can shroud them in a cloak of secrecy.

My first example is the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay. The US government (as executed by the military) is holding hundreds of enemy detainees who we have stripped of many basic human rights. There are military tribunals where there are no civilians present and the detainees are represented by military lawyers. In fact, I’ve read that some lawyers asked to be reassigned rather than support the tribunals which they considered unfair and unjust. Without any additional information, are the American people just supposed to trust the military?

The US Military is also supporting the ban on the taking of pictures of coffins returning to the US at Dover AFB. After WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War, I’m confused as to why there is now this restriction, however neatly it is wrapped in the cover of respect for dignity of the dead. These soldiers returning home to the US, drapped in the US flag, have all the dignity in the world. They have gone off to serve their country and have paid the ultimate sacrifice. To prevent the American people to stand witness to their sacrifice and honor them is dis-heartening and suspect. Why doesn’t the government (as implemented by the military) want us to see these caskets draped in flags? Today I also read that the government is now requiring journalist to be 300 yards away from the military led victim recovering operations in New Orleans. That’s three football fields. Again, there has to be a question why. After 9/11, there wasn’t this type of restriction. And of course, the easiest answer is that the government doesn’t want the American public to see how poorly they’ve executed the war (so no pics of coffins) or how poorly they responded to Katrina (so no pics of the victim recovery ops). While the loss of life lost in Iraq and Katrina is staggering, they are just numbers. They go in one ear and out the other. But pictures will make these numbers real. And while this is all part of the government’s plan, it’s being executed by the US military. How long before the taint of these deceptive actions finally stain the military?

Recently there have been questions about the role of the military in regards to Hurricane Katrina. Apparently there were National Guard units at the New Orleans Convention Center, with weapons, who sat around and did nothing to stop the horror that was going on in the other parts of the center. When questioned why they didn’t help out, the battalion commander responded that they were never asked to help and that they were preparing for their next mission. They knew the horror that was going on in another part of the convention center and yet since they weren’t asked to help, they didn’t. While the National Guard troops there may not have been trained in crowd control, they should have atleast tried. The National Guard isn’t part of the active duty forces, but they wear the uniform and need to represent it properly. The military expects you to think on your feet, see the next objective and adapt as necessary. And that didn’t happen, and people were beaten to death and women raped because the troops didn’t even try to stop it. Would you trust the military ever again if you had been in the Convention Center and had seen people beaten, killed, and raped and knew soldiers were nearby doing nothing?

There have been two other recent issues where the military has been deliberately deceptive with information regarding soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. First was the case regarding the death of Pat Tilman, the former professional football player who joined the military after 9/11. It took over a year for the Pentagon to tell the Tilman family the truth. And just earlier this week, the Pentagon admitted that it knew for a year that an Army 1stLT wasn’t killed in action and only just told the family the truth last week. You’ve given your son, brother, husband, or father, to the military to serve his nation and he’s made the ultimate sacrifice and what you get are lies in returns. Why would you ever trust the military again?

I’m proud of my time in the Navy. And I’m proud of America’s armed forces. On the whole, they do an exceptional job. But after these recent events, I’ve taken off my rose colored glassed and started to ask questions. The American people give their money and their sons and daughters to the US government and the military and they expect the truth in return. Over the years the American public has learned to expect less that the truth from the US government (and how sad is that), but they still look at the military with respect and trust. I just don’t know for how much longer.


At 8:17 PM, Blogger d.K. said...

I think the examples you use are anecdotal and won't have a long term negative impact, with the major exception of Abu Garaib. The damage done there to the image of the military in the U.S. and the world really has been hugely besmirched, and it will take many, many years to mitigate (much like Mi Lai in my opinion).
I hear what you're saying about the Guard's lack of action in the Convention center. Interestingly did you read about the pilots from Pensacola who diverted their missions to save desperate and stranded people in New Orleans and were later reprimanded? They were out of radio contact, and made a snap decision to rescue since there was a need. So there is a huge problem with not taking the initiative for fear that you will suffer reprisals.
I agree, the great reputation was hard earned but it is only as good as the last scandal. It must be nurtured and reinforced. I think this war and a few bad leaders could do a lot of harm, but I still believe that the majority of Americans will look at the military with pride (in fact, the New Orleans case is really more of one where people saw really good shit start to happen when the uniformed guys were finally unleashed.)

Good post, as always!

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Trey said...

The examples may be anecdoctal, but I remember a time when the modus operandi wasn't whether something was right or wrong, but whether it even gave the APPEARANCE of being wrong. It seems no one is concerned about the appearance of being wrong. It sure I did it, and prove I'm wrong. Which is hard with the military since access is restricted. And group think in the military is really bad like you mentioned. Fear of retaliation, that one bad FITREP that will ruin your career. I fear that the miliatry is becoming politicized. Shinseki was fired becuase he said we needed more troops in Iraq. When does a senior officer stand up and come out publicly to say that this is wrong and I'm willing to resign rather than acquiesce to something I believe or know if wrong. I hope my fears are unfounded, but recent events have started to eat away at my trust.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger d.K. said...

I remember in ROTC learning about how whether or not an officer had violated a rule (say, fraternization) wasn't the most relevant consideration in determining wrongdoing; rather, it was whether he/she allowed the appearance of something inappropriate to occur, as you point out. I thought this was so wrong, unreasonable, and unfair at the time. After being on active duty a short while, and coming to really understand the culture of the military, it became clear to me why this (i.e. appearance) was the standard. And it made complete sense to me and still does.
I didn't mean to dismiss what you said by saying your examples were anecdotal. That doesn't make them any less important or reduce the impact that the events have. I guess I'm still a little defensive and protective of the reputation of that our armed forces have earned, and that was reflected in my comments. But denying the problem won't make it go away, for sure. Your point that all that work to earn that trust and respect is in danger of being lost is, of course, true. But it can still be turned around with some hard work by strong leaders with an unquestionable sense of integrity. Let's hope that's what happens.

At 11:10 PM, Blogger Washington Cube said...

Well written.

Washington Cube was here. #199


Post a Comment

<< Home