Words keep losing their meaning.
One of my grandmother’s favorite descriptors was “gay”. By that she meant someone, male or female, who was happy and carefree, light-hearted and friendly. I do not begrudge the GLBT community the use of the word, but I do miss, just a little, my grandmother’s felicitous use of the word also.
“Hero” was a word, used universally, and somewhat in awe, to describe valorous action, so remarkably beyond normal human character as to be elevated and admired. I do begrudge the loose application of such a wonderful word to just anyone in uniform.
“Freedom” meant not license, but individual sovereignty in all thought and in all actions except where societal sovereignty superseded, and that only when agreed to in common understanding. I hate the use of “freedom “ to mean subordination of others to my country’s world view.
“Intelligence” used to mean the unbiased product of the processing of the best information available, coupled with the best understanding of the total environment and the specific problem. It did not mean finding information that proves someone’s point.
“Truth” meant simply both “not false” and “complete”, as in “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Truth did not mean “my extremely heartfelt and/or faith-inspired opinion”.
Faced with these and other important words that have slipped away from us, along with their attendant concepts, I want to defend one word in particular, that holds such importance for serving military and veterans. That word is “trust”.
Trust is what holds military service together, and it is not a simple concept.
Civilians often cite “camaraderie” as a defining characteristic of those groups of usually underpaid public servants who band together and swear an oath of public duty such as soldiers, firemen, and police. But that is a weak concept for the glue that binds them together. Football teams have camaraderie as do social clubs and others. Camaraderie isn’t deep enough a concept to fully embody trust.
“Friendship” is a wonderful concept but it is insufficient to describe soldiers’ feeling of trust for each other. They can trust each other without even truly being friends.
Trust is both broad and deep. Trust involves an extraordinary level of confidence that those above you, next to you, and below you will keep foremost in their minds the safety and well-being of the group, which means your safety too.
Trust is an expectation that your superiors will do everything possible to train you well, to equip you with the best that is available, and will never send you into an impossible situation; not because they might fail, but because you might be harmed without reason.
Trust is a belief that when the going gets tough, everyone around you will strive with you to get through it. Trust is a conviction that if the going gets impossible, your leaders will reinforce you to a level where the mission is achievable, or will honestly, and without fear for their personal reputation, declare the situation untenable and will pull you out, perhaps to fight another day.
Trust is a reliance, not on some “system”, but on the real people around you every day. In battle that focuses mostly on the people in your fire team, your platoon, your company. It this trust that lets soldiers obey orders that they might not always understand completely.
Most of all, soldiers have to trust that they will be sent into danger only if it is absolutely necessary. They trust that their leaders will make every effort short of war to avoid war, and that when war comes, they trust that it is truly the only choice. If they come to think otherwise, trust starts to crumble.
Both before and after the battle that reliance expands broadly to include not just your boss’s bosses, but everyone responsible including the nation as a whole. After the battle, soldiers who have depended only on the guys close around them transfer that dependence to you and me.
Soldiers trust that the nation and its leaders will prepare them, will share completely in their sacrifice, and will provide whatever it takes to make them whole upon their return to society.
We don’t send them enough help, or equip them with the best equipment, then let contracts to commercial firms to put others next to them who are paid a great deal more, get better treatment, get the best of weapons, and who never have to make a moral decision. If soldiers fail we court martial them, fine them, imprison them, and disgrace them for life. If the mercenaries we send in place of real reinforcements commit the same or worse crimes, we spirit them out of the battle zone – no fault, no foul – and give them a bonus to boot. The inequity causes trust to tremble.
They know that their buddies will never leave them on the battlefield, but they have to trust that we will not leave them on the post-conflict, everyday battlefield.
Unfortunately, that is what is happening, and trust is getting very shaky.
If they are hurt in body we patch them up and try to get them back into the battle. If they can’t get back in we try to cover up their wounds, hiding them in substandard conditions in out of the way places. We don’t even count them as wounded if we can find a way around it. Trust fragments.
If they are killed, we hide them from their nation, and dishonor their families by refusing them the public honors they deserve. Trust disintegrates further.
If they are hurt in mind we try to ignore it; if we can’t ignore it we try to deny it; and if we can’t do that, we blame them for it. We cut them off without benefits, claiming their deep wounds are the product of a “preexisting condition”, blaming their genetics or their upbringing. Trust shatters.
If they try to re-start their lives, we quibble with them over what they are owed in education and other benefits. We use technicalities to deny them what we have promised them, and excuse ourselves for what we characterize as their failure to prove their case.
When they seek help we tell them “get in line”, and we make the line impossibly long. If we have managed to get them to agree with our diagnosis of a “preexisting condition” there is no place in line for them at all. Trust is gone forever.
We have not yet completely lost the meaning of the word “trust”.
If you want to know, ask a soldier – but ask him or her very soon.
True trust may not last much longer.
“For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. Our friends seldom profit us but they make us feel safe.”
H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)