Writing you this letter regarding the video below, which you sent to airmen in response to the recent Marine Corps scandal involving the use of social media to exploit female Marines by sharing their private images on social media without authorization.
I understand why you released the video. Truly, I get why it was necessary. The politics of the moment require that you say something forceful about this issue in order to forestall a legislative firestorm that could threaten many other things. Things that must be held without challenge in order for you and your team to take care of airmen and keep our service ready.
But I beg you, in the most earnest and solemn of terms, please do not let this get out of hand. Please do not let this issue become the predicate for a broad crackdown on legitimate free speech. Please do not let your generals, colonels, commanders, and chiefs interpret this video as a green light to coerce, hound, and punish airmen for freely expressing themselves on social media in ways that do not break the law or actually threaten good order and discipline. As you consider what I have to say, bear in mind how much trust was lost in the past few years as your predecessor and his team sought to curtail the privacy and free speech rights of airmen.
Please do not let the actions of a few imbeciles (and yes, I freely label them as such) send the pendulum reversing so violently that in its rush to reach full throw, it crushes the liberties of people who don’t need to be parented, policed, monitored, surveilled, or scolded. Let’s not asphyxiate the free spirit of airmen who have not and would never dishonor themselves or their teammates by their conduct on social media or anywhere else. I think you know this already, but I’ll say it anyway: the vast majority of our airmen understand the value of trust.
They know we can’t prevail unless we can rely on one another, confide in one another, and make ourselves otherwise vulnerable by depending on one another … without worrying about the risk of doing so or hesitating for even a second to incur that nobly uncalculated risk.
They know this innately. They know it without being told. Because we’ve conditioned them to see the world in these terms by putting them into a team environment where they can only win by working together, a prospect within which the need for trust is implicit.
We’ve taught them that without trust, we don’t work together effectively. That without trust, teamwork gives way to self-interest and anarchy, with individuals unwilling to share enough information to create unified action. We’ve taught them that such a development will necessarily spell defeat on any field of battle in any warfighting dimension under any set of circumstances.
But with all of the effort to underscore the importance of trust, we’ve taught an unintentional lesson in recent times as service communications have been increasingly captured by bureaucratic politics and the perceived need to align with various pet motives in order to secure budgetary favor.
We’ve taught airmen that trust is frail. We’ve taught them that a trust bond is only as strong as good times allow … and that when the going gets tough, trust will be promptly tossed aside.
Based on what I know of you and all I’ve learned from your example, I can’t help thinking you must find this as deeply concerning as I do.
Trust should be hard-earned. Once earned, it should form a bond stronger than steel. Betrayal of trust should lead to the harshest of judgements. But unless and until betrayed, it cannot and must not be questioned. That’s the whole point of trust: assumed behavior that needn’t be monitored.
All of these conditions obtain at the individual level. The breaking of trust by one person cannot implicate a group. That’s not how trust works. On some level, we know this. And yet, we let our judgements about whether to trust certain individuals impact others who have done everything right. Who deserve trust.
What’s more, they know they deserve it, which is why they take unwarranted revocation as a moral injury, and seldom seek to reform the same bond again. Look no further than our Air Force’s retention numbers for evidence of this.
What those numbers may be evincing is a wholesale laziness on the issue of trust. It’s one thing to let rotten apples ruin whole bunches. It’s another to allow trust to function along the contours of social status, rank, or longevity. When our policies or pronouncements imply or outright argue that trust is a matter of stripes, stars, age, or image, we have missed the target widely. This happens too often in our Air Force. Commanders policing social media and hanging airmen over penny ante comments under the guise of “good order” is an example of failing to trust based on rank. This hurts us tenfold more than it could ever help.
I guess what I want to say is that trust is a two-way street, General. No one should assail the trust bond by engaging in the despicable acts we’ve seen recently showcased in national media. By the same token, no one should assume or pre-judge the commission of such acts without evidence, and in fact it should be presumed they will not occur.
This doesn’t mean I blame you or CMSAF for putting out this video. It was politically necessary, and in truth I like the way you went about it. Making this a trust issue was exactly the right move, and in keeping with the superior tactical awareness you’ve always displayed.
But I beg you to continue tactically maneuvering on this one. The fight’s not over. Don’t let your airmen develop the notion they’re not trusted. Make it clear you do trust them. Tell their commanders to trust them. Tell their chiefs to trust them. Don’t make social media a battleground as your predecessor did. This is a lost cause for you and a recipe for alienation.
Instead, just reinforce what you always have: that teams run on trust, and that trust must be given and earned in equal measure. Your airmen will respond to such a message, and we’ll all follow your leadership to a big win for our team.
For what it’s worth.
Anthony B. Carr, Lt. Col., USAF (ret.)
for John Q. Public