The Mystery of Trust
The Mystery of Trust

The Mystery of Trust

What the military can teach Congress, news outlets, and churches about winning back the faith of the people.

Appears in Winter 2021

When Michael Jarnevic enlisted in the Marine Corps as a skinny, seventeen-year-old kid, it was a countercultural decision. It was 1973, and a low point for the US military, which was trying to extract itself from the war in Vietnam. His boss at the store where he worked bagging groceries told him it was a terrible idea. So did his friends.

He did it anyway, filling his pockets with two pounds of pennies so that he could make it through the Marine Corps weigh-in. He wanted the $2,500 bonus. He wanted out of Kansas City. “I wanted to be something other than what I had been,” he said.

Jarnevic went to the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier in May of 1974, after troops had pulled out of the country and before the fall of Saigon. He returned to America that fall, six months early, because of a crack in the hull of the ship, and continued what would be a remarkably long career in the military. After serving in the Marine Corps, he transitioned to the Army, becoming part of the Special Forces group known as the Green Berets. But for the next fifteen years or so, he rarely wore his uniform in public. He didn’t brag about his service in bars. He knew to keep his head down.

Then something changed. It probably happened slowly, but he noticed it all of a sudden—when he came back from the first Gulf War in 1991. First, there was a welcoming party waiting for him at the airport in Missoula, Montana, where he was living. Then, there was a parade. A parade! He walked in it, but he didn’t wear his uniform. He wasn’t sure what to make of it all. At a Missoula park, beside an only recently installed Vietnam veterans memorial, a US Senator gave him a pin in recognition of his service and shook his hand.

“It was such a strange experience, to have this 180-degree shift,” Jarnevic told me. “I was uneasy about it, but at the same time, there was a certain relief that ‘God, finally, we’re not the bad guys.’”

The Elusiveness of Something Real

The story of trust in America is mostly a story of scarcity. For decades, at least four different research organizations have been surveying the public about its confidence in public institutions and their leaders. The findings are consistently grim: trust in most organizations, from banks to church to Congress to newspapers to big business, is on the decline, and the decline has accelerated recently.

There is one exception, a mystery embedded in the volumes of data. The only large institution that Americans trust more now than they did in 1981 is the US military. This trust in the military is consistently high and resilient. Even after nearly two decades of costly, destructive, unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this trust has not wavered.

Today, 72 percent of Americans say they trust the military a great deal or quite a lot, according to the Gallup 2020 survey. That’s fully 30 percentage points higher than the share with similar trust in the church or organized religion, and it’s a staggering 59 percentage points higher than the share that trusts Congress.

“They are amazingly high, amazingly stable, those trust scores,” says Frens Kroeger, a trust researcher at Coventry University in the United Kingdom. “It’s quite interesting.”

It’s tempting to assume Americans trust the military for the glaringly obvious reason: because it’s the most expensive, best-equipped fighting force on the planet. But America also has the largest economy in the world, and Americans do not trust big business and banks. Size and power are impressive, but they don’t incubate trust on their own.

The story of trust in America is mostly a story of scarcity.

Deepening the mystery, public trust in many militaries, even far more modest ones, is higher than trust in other institutions today. In France, 84 percent of people say they trust the military somewhat or a lot, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Only a third, give or take, say the same about parliament, banks, or the news media. A similar trend emerges in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. Across the developed world, the most trusted militaries appear to be in Finland and Iceland, of all places, according to 2019 Gallup data.

The question is, Why? What does sustained trust in the armed forces reveal about the nature of trust, period? And is there anything that the rest of society can learn from the military about how to rescue trust from extinction?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this may be the most important question of our time. Society grinds to a halt without trust, as we get brutally reminded every news cycle. We cannot contain a pandemic unless we trust politicians and scientists. We cannot educate our children unless teachers, families, and mayors have some level of faith in one another. We cannot keep our communities safe without trust between police and the public. We will never reckon with climate change without trust. Trust has become the nonnegotiable prerequisite to a functioning civilization in the modern world.

The research on trust is at once interesting and incomplete. Typically, trust gets traced back to three central ingredients: ability, benevolence, and integrity. Ability captures the obvious, rational reason to trust something or someone: they seem to know what they are doing. Benevolence reflects the sense that an organization has our best interests at heart, that they are motivated by the forces of good. And integrity means that the institution has strong, admirable values to which it adheres, even under pressure to do otherwise.

When it comes to big business, for example, the public may award places like Google or Uber high marks for ability but low marks for benevolence and integrity. So trust, as a result, is low. (Trust is much higher in small businesses, it’s worth noting, where the motivations and values seem less about avarice and power, and there is greater proximity to persons and particularity, to the likelihood of seeing and being seen.)

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about trust. Which is why it makes sense to investigate the outliers: the institutions we trust when trust is decidedly out of fashion. The military doesn’t give us a formula, because trust doesn’t follow algorithms. It is complicated and organic, like shimmer in the distance—not a mirage, exactly, but not something you can touch. But you can get much closer, and you should. If you look away for too long, it can vanish, without a sound.

Layers and Paradoxes

It’s encouraging to remember that the military was not always so trusted. Feelings can change, even at scale. The low point for the military arrived in 1981, when only half of Americans expressed significant trust in the military, according to the Gallup poll. It was a gloomy time, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and a disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. This was around the time that Jarnevic was changing out of his uniform before going out to dinner in Missoula.

Typically, Americans’ trust in the leaders of an institution clocks in a little lower than their trust in the institution itself, but both measures rise and fall together. In 1980, only 28 percent of Americans said they trusted the people running the military a great deal, according to the General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. But in 2018, 60 percent of people said so.

So what happened to cause a doubling in trust in military leaders in fewer than forty years? At least three changes stand out. First, the draft ended in 1973, and slowly, the military adapted to being an all-volunteer force. This change had many implications, of course, but one paradoxical result was that it made it harder to know the military—and easier to trust it.

In 1950, more than one in every three men had served in the military, according to the US Census Bureau. Everyone had someone in their family who understood the good, the bad, and the ugly about the armed services. Today, only about one in eight men (and one in one hundred women) have ever served. Our current active-duty force represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the American population. By comparison, more than twice as many Americans work as truck drivers.

Meanwhile, the end of the draft has also removed the military as something to fear in the looming horizons of families and young men. Unlike in other countries, American civilians rarely encounter soldiers in their daily lives. They don’t see their successes, their failings, and their prejudices up close, the way they do with the police. Nor do Americans have to risk their own lives and separate their own families against their will.

“Not to sound cynical, but it’s a lot easier to applaud somebody else’s kid coming back from Afghanistan than it is to worry about sending your own kid over there,” says James Wright, a Marine Corps veteran and the author of the 2017 book Enduring Vietnam.

Financially, Americans pay dearly for the military. But that burden is mostly hidden from our view, coming in the form of extraordinary national-debt levels and other, bundled taxes. The public’s “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military” makes politicians reluctant to hold military leaders accountable and to keep military budgets out of the stratosphere, as The Atlantic journalist James Fallows has written. But it also protects the military from the creeping distrust that has invaded other parts of life.

Still, this unnatural distance between civilian and military life cannot explain everything. If it did, trust would have shot up after the draft ended. But that’s not what happened. Instead, trust hit its lowest point six years afterward. Trust did not really boom until the 1990s.

So what else happened? The second major change may be the most replicable one for other institutions: The military got more trusted as it became more trustworthy.

After reaching its trust nadir, the military underwent big, visible, transparent reforms. When Jarnevic joined the Marines in 1973, he says, “the quality of the people was, hmmm, scary. It was all over the map. It was the best and the worst but mostly the worst.” Back then, the military was younger, more drug-addicted, less diverse, and less educated than the military today.

In 1980, over a quarter of surveyed military members admitted to having used an illegal drug in the past month. By 1998, that rate had dropped to less than 3 percent. In 1973, women represented just 2 percent of enlisted forces and 8 percent of the officers. Today, women make up 16 percent of enlisted forces and 19 percent of officers. Back then, blacks made up 2 percent of commissioned officers; today it’s 9 percent. Huge disparities remain, but the progress was significant and noticeable to people inside and outside the military. It became a more meritocratic institution, which translated in the public’s eye to more integrity. It got closer to acting on the values it espoused in theory. And that shift comes through in the survey data: on average, the Americans who trust the military less tend to be Vietnam veterans specifically and baby boomers generally. They remember the old military, and not all that fondly.

The military-reform movement culminated with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which was a direct response to military failures, including the Iranian hostage crisis. In that botched rescue mission, only six of eight helicopters arrived at the rendezvous point in the middle of Iran. Another helicopter experienced failures at the site. All of which meant that the mission, which required at least six helicopters, had to be aborted. Then, when the helicopters lifted off, one crashed into a C-130 aircraft carrying servicemembers and fuel. Eight Americans died. Other losses included seven helicopters and that C-130 aircraft, along with weapons, communications equipment, secret documents, and maps, all of which were left behind. No hostages were rescued. The enemy was never engaged.

The fiasco revealed that the different services were unable to operate as a unified force. The Air Force had provided the fixed-wing aircraft; the Navy had contributed the helicopters; the Marine Corps had furnished most of the pilots; and the Army had contributed Special Forces personnel meant to rescue the hostages. But the different groups had trained separately. The helicopters and C-130 aircrafts had never gone through a full-scale rehearsal of the refuelling process. The different services had their own lines of authority and absurd rivalries. Even their radios were not compatible. The institution was set up to do something different than what was needed—much like Congress today.

To make an institution more trustworthy when the conditions animating the trust from yesteryear have shifted or frayed, you need to take risks. You need to be willing and able to change the structure and incentives (and often the people). You need to make genuine strides toward public accountability. This is not just technical or cosmetic; it is moral. It requires acknowledging, out loud and in public, some of your greatest failures. It requires trusting that there is grace yet in the civic bloodstream—grace, which, not unlike oxygen, society needs to circulate regularly to survive.

“Most organizations say, ‘Trust is so important.’ But they think it is self-explanatory, soft. They don’t have an actual commitment to creating a culture of trustworthiness,” says Kroeger, the trust researcher. “They want somebody like me to tell them what to say to people to get them to trust them—without changing anything about how they work.”

The Goldwater-Nichols legislation clarified the chain of command from operational commanders all the way up to the president, incentivizing joint operations among the services. This did not happen without great controversy, as you might imagine. Many voices, particularly in the Navy and the Marine Corps, predicted that the reforms would degrade the military’s readiness. And there were huge problems that the reforms failed to fix, including reining in wasteful defense spending.

But by reforming the organization’s structures and incentives, the military closed some of the gap between its stated values and its actions, boosting its integrity. Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry called the reform act “perhaps the most important defense legislation since World War II.”

Then, in 1991, the military finally had the war that Americans wanted. The first Gulf War was over just five weeks after the US-led offensive began. It ended with a decisive victory for the coalition of thirty-nine allies. While tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, only 219 Americans died.

It was around this time that Jarnevic started wearing his uniform out in public again. Sometimes he’d go out to lunch with a whole group in uniform—and some stranger would pick up the tab. It was incredible! “People were going out in public and not feeling ashamed,” he says, chuckling. “It took me a while to get over that.”

Ten years later, the country was attacked by terrorists on 9/11. It was the bloodiest loss on domestic soil since the Civil War. Standing on the Capitol steps, Democrat and Republican Senators hugged one another and sang “God Bless America.” The country united in grief and fury, causing a spike in trust—not just for the military but for the government generally. After the attacks, 79 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the military, Gallup found. And a whopping 57 percent said they trusted the federal government to do what is right just about always or most of the time, according to a Brookings Institution survey.

Just eight months later, trust in the government had fallen back down to earth, dropping 17 percentage points to 40 percent. But trust in the military never followed suit. Even as the military struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public kept the faith.

The Power of Our Affections

We don’t blame soldiers for battlefield failures; we blame politicians. Which is as it should be. Civilians oversee the military, and so they should be held accountable. But what about generals? Shouldn’t they bear some accountability too? Military leaders are responsible for turning short-term operational victories on the ground into strategic success. They helped spend over $4 trillion in national treasure in wars that have killed nearly seven thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.

And yet, the public trusts the military’s leaders at about the same rate today as in 1991, after the heyday of the first Gulf War. The one that lasted five weeks, not nineteen years, like the one in Afghanistan. How to explain this devotion?

One clue may have to do with the two different kinds of trust. There is cognitive trust, which is what I’ve been describing so far. This is trust built on perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity, the kind you feel for a co-worker who always shows up on time and does good work you can rely on.

But there’s also affective trust, which is more emotional, less logical. It’s the kind of trust you feel when you’re talking to your oldest friend: a sense that this person “gets” you. Affective trust runs deeper, more like faith.

In the classic study describing these two types of trust, published in 1995, Daniel McAllister explained that cognitive trust usually comes first in the order of trust operations. And that makes intuitive sense. Once a person or organization establishes a track record of reliability, then we might start to trust them more deeply. Gradually, the dynamic can sometimes start to run on automatic—a sort of positive feedback loop of trust. In these cases, affective trust begins to boost cognitive trust, rather than the other way around. “In time, ascribed motives are taken as permanent and left unquestioned, even in the face of disconfirming evidence,” McAllister wrote. Think about all the famous actors, politicians, musicians, and athletes who have committed odious acts—but are still beloved by fans, who simply dismiss any information they don’t want to hear. “Transgressions are discounted in advance or explained away.” If affective trust is high enough, cognitive trust is no longer required.

The mind is funny this way. We don’t like to give up deep trust once we’ve found it. “It is actually emotionally very difficult not to trust anyone,” Kroeger told me. “You need to find something to trust. It’s how we deal with uncertainty, to be able to function in daily life. Otherwise, everything is just chaos.”

If every other institution has been weakened by scandal, greed, and corruption, or so it seems, we may find ourselves more stubbornly dedicated to the few, the proud, the ones that remain. And we are not wrong. We need something we can trust, and the military has earned at least some of our trust, and it continues to demonstrate a level of integrity that has become exceptionally rare.

Seth Moulton has seen this difference up close, in a way few other Americans have. He went from serving in the most trusted large institution in America, as a Marine deployed to Iraq, to serving in Congress, the least trusted institution, as a Democrat representing Massachusetts. And he could tell the difference, right away.

“When you sign up for the Marine Corps, one of the first lessons you learn is, you can fail a test or drop out of a run, and they’ll let you try again the next day,” he told me. “But if you lie about anything? You’re out that afternoon. Trust is fundamental to the experience of being in the military. And that’s not the case in Congress. And it’s a shame, because trust should be fundamental to Congress and to all politics.”

In other words, the military remains more trustworthy than Congress, and it is not acceptable or inevitable. “There are reforms we can make to institutions to make them fundamentally more trustworthy,” Moulton said, making the case for National Service and for campaign finance reform and term limits. “I believe we could get there in Congress, but we’d have to change the incentive structures of the institution. And you’d have to replace a lot of people. The people who have gotten there under the present incentive structure just aren’t as trustworthy.” In other words, Congress would have to go through the public reckoning the military went through—acknowledging its failures and changing its incentives, structures, and personnel.

Today, The Army Profession, a booklet that describes the core values of the Army, dedicates an entire chapter to trust, titled “Trust: The Bedrock of Our Profession.” It repackages the three trust ingredients (ability, benevolence, and integrity) into a military-friendly three C’s: Competence, Commitment, and Character. And it details how trust must be earned internally, within the military, and externally, with the public. “The Army Profession has been successful in sustaining the respect and trust of the American people. However, this trust is fragile and easily damaged if we do not understand who we are, who we serve, why we serve, and how we serve.”

Kroeger, who pointed me to the Army’s trust chapter, has read many corporate mission statements and advised governments and businesses. This document, he said, stands out. “I haven’t seen an organization that seems to have such a firm grasp on what it means to be trustworthy. It’s very rare.”

Imagine if the US Congress, big businesses, police, and all major media outlets underwent a period of collective reform over the next five to ten years, with input from the public and major structural changes to their incentives and personnel—all designed to put trustworthiness at the centre of their mission? It sounds inconceivable. Almost laughable. But that’s how military reform once sounded too.

Narratives That Stick

One way to boost trust, then, is to make an organization less threatening, as the military did by eliminating the draft (and as police departments can do, by getting rid of stop-and-frisk tactics, for example). Another way is to reform the organization to make it more trustworthy, by design, as Congress and other institutions could do.

The third and final lesson from the military is just as important. The military didn’t just improve its ability, benevolence, and integrity; it told everyone all about it in every conceivable medium. In 1980, a Madison Avenue ad executive wrote the jingle for “Be All That You Can Be!” The ad-saturated TV markets, with images of young men flying helicopters or conducting missions with night-vision goggles, alongside the promise of a college education. The sheet music for the jingle was distributed to sixteen thousand high school band directors. Half a million bumper stickers went out across the land, as detailed in the book The Generation of Trust by David C. King and Zachary Karabell.

Boosting trust requires telling different stories.

The military began actively working with Hollywood movie directors and video-game creators, glorifying the military for generations of young Americans. The list of movies receiving Pentagon subsidies since 1970 includes Top Gun (1986), A Few Good Men (1992), and Armageddon (1998). The Navy even set up recruiting booths outside of theatres showing Top Gun.

A lot of this PR was straight hype, glamourizing violence and romanticizing the work of the military, which can, in real life, be miserable, slow, and bureaucratic, not to mention destructive and traumatic. But stories matter. As Jonathan Haidt has said, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”

Boosting trust requires telling different stories.

This, too, is something that government and other institutions could do much more effectively. When is the last time you saw a sign celebrating an amazing piece of infrastructure dreamed up by federal policy-makers and paid for by federal funding? To the contrary, politicians, particularly on the right, have been actively denigrating the government since Ronald Reagan, telling sweeping stories of boundless waste, inefficiency, and sloth, which are about as accurate as Top Gun.

And in the end, these stories cannibalized the spiritual resource America needs to thrive in the twenty-first century, the kind of trust that is mostly true and partly a shimmer in the distance.

Decades ago, the military earned our trust by becoming less domestically threatening and more convincingly trustworthy—and by telling that story with artistry. But trust is a two-way street. We have chosen to trust the military, as much as it has made itself deserving of our faith. At a certain point, our affective trust in this institution became a positive feedback loop. We started to forgive its mistakes and excesses, most of the time, because we need to believe in something strong and true, something that transcends petty political self-interest and hyper-capitalist greed.

The military has become a symbol of not just American greatness but also human potential, here and elsewhere. We trust the armed services because we have to believe that it is possible, even now, for great masses of people to train up, sacrifice a good deal of comfort and safety, and commit to something bigger than they are. As everything else around us becomes fluid and capricious, the military is there. It reassures us that there is more to life than stock buybacks, clickbait, and super PACs.

That feedback loop is not invincible, of course. Militaries can destroy public trust too. On June 1, authorities used pepper spray, tear gas, rubber-ball grenades, and batons against American citizens in Lafayette Square in front of the White House, clearing largely peaceful protesters before a presidential photo op. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the nation’s top military officer, then joined Trump on a cringeworthy walk through the park, wearing the combat fatigues he normally wears to work. Suddenly, Americans got to see the US military up close and threatening, the way citizens in other countries do. It was a shocking breach of trust by the last trusted institution.

But the military brass understands trust unusually well. And so it did not take long for Milley to apologize. “I should not have been there,” he said ten days later. “As a commissioned, uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all have learned from. We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation, and we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic. And this is not easy.”

On his sixtieth birthday, in July 2015, Sgt. Major Jarnevic retired at a ceremony at Fort Missoula. He was one of the last Vietnam vets on active duty in the military. He’d deployed to Vietnam, Central America, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan in his forty-two-year career. He’d seen the military at its best and worst, but mostly, almost always, somewhere in the middle.

The truth is, the people in the military—including the four-stars—are just people. “We have all the same failings as everyone else,” Jarnevic says. Some enlisted for the education and the benefits. Some stayed for the travel or the camaraderie. Many enjoy the non-financial compensation they get in the form of pride and social status. All were civilians once and almost all will be again.

Maybe the military is a beacon of hope for our distrusted institutions not because it is unique—but because it is made up of humans, like us. Imperfect and subject to bias and generally well-intentioned. Yet in the midst of these relatable features the military has found a way to transcend them, proving that large human institutions can be designed—and redesigned—to cultivate character and serve the public good. And the rest of us will notice.

Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley

Amanda Ripley writes magazine articles and books about human behaviour and public policy. She is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, a New York Times bestseller, and The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why. Her next book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.


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