Where's the Special Trust and Confidence?

By Captain Brian Donlon, U.S. Marine Corps

Eighteen months later, now a first lieutenant, he spends two hours one morning in a gym as civilian instructors teach classes on driving safety and suicide prevention. As he watches the bored Marines of his platoon mill about the gym, his executive officer leans over to say, "Before you leave, make sure everyone's name gets on the roster." He spends the next four hours reviewing each Marine's plans for the long weekend. The company commander approves his work, and the executive officer inspects the first lieutenant's vehicle for safety. At the end of the day, the battalion is formed and a detailed liberty brief is held, with the battalion commander and the sergeant major reviewing some of the same subjects the civilian instructors addressed drinking and driving, wearing a seatbelt, etc. After a similar brief from the company commander, the company is finally released for 72 hours of liberty. The first lieutenant, walking to his vehicle, wonders aloud, "Whatever happened to special trust and confidence?" 

Garrison vs. Combat Expectations

Although intentionally melodramatic, this vignette nonetheless depicts experiences common to many of today's company-grade Marine Corps officers. As it suggests, there is a fundamental disconnect between the special trust and confidence referred to in the commissioning document and common garrison procedures. The latter undermine the implicit responsibilities of the officer corps and retard the development of staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). This is a disturbing trend, especially when the decentralized nature of our present conflicts lends strategic implications to the decisions made by some of our most junior leaders.

The decline of special trust and confidence is not a new issue. Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. addressed this very question in an article by the same name, originally published in the May 1956 Proceedings . Describing what he called the "alarming erosion" of the "status, privilege, and confidence" of Corps leaders, Heinl faulted six ills of his age. While "egalitarianism," "the UCMJ," and "the large size of the armed forces" are now either foregone or anachronistic conditions, his fourth cause, the "tendency of administrative thick-headedness to override individual discretion and common sense," appears to be alive and well today.

Heinl claimed that a truly professional officer corps "doesn't require a large, highly codified body of regulations to enable a trusted executive to recognize and do what is right." By this standard, today's Marine Corps falls short of the standard articulated in 1956.

As the introduction to this piece implies, liberty procedures in some commands rely on extensive risk-management documentation. In the best cases, these checklists are designed as a "decision-making and counseling tool" to "foster conversation" just as a platoon commander might use a list of defensive considerations to supervise his Marines in the execution of a defense (see I MEF Holiday Accident Reduction Program Forms). Unfortunately, sometimes the process exceeds a simple two-page checklist. In these cases, a Marine must fill out a package of documents before departing for leave or liberty, including a detailed leave plan, travel plan, vehicle inspection form, record of counseling from his chain of command, and finally, a document in which he swears to uphold his core values and remain a Marine 24/7. This mountain of paperwork is then reviewed and endorsed by a leave-granting authority. In short, the commander's discretion over liberty has been second-guessed by a bureaucratic paper trail. Perhaps what is most shocking about this process is that it is designed for and sometimes applied to all personnel, including officers, SNCOs, and NCOs—precisely the leaders to whom the commander should delegate his special trust and confidence.

Safety First?

Another symptom of this problem is the evolution of the safety brief. Where once a first sergeant would sternly remind Marines of what was expected of them, now the process has evolved into ever-more detailed briefs, annual training, and safety stand-downs. So deeply rooted is this custom that not to give a detailed weekend safety brief, even to a classroom of captains or majors, is regarded as poor leadership. During annual training and safety stand-downs, issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, venereal disease, driving safety, and suicide prevention are taught, often by civilians. These classes are an all-hands requirement. Typically, the greatest pressure from higher headquarters during these evolutions is to ensure that every Marine signs the roster. Such a "check in the box" approach trivializes potentially serious concerns and could lead Marines to regard the counseling from their platoon commander or platoon sergeant as equally superficial. The question of the measures' efficacy aside, at what point did higher headquarters lose confidence in their junior officers' capacities to lead their Marines?

A common refrain in the Marine Corps lexicon is to "train as you fight." In practice, however, the commander typically is denied the freedom to entrust the training to the very subordinates who will lead in combat. Marine Corps Order 3570.1b states that "the commander is responsible for the safe conduct of Soldiers/Marines involved in training operations," and per Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA PAM) 385-63, the commander "establishes, maintains, and documents safety certification procedures for unit range OICs and RSOs" from a baseline established by the range-control officer. This clearly intends that subordinate commanders emphasize safety in live-fire training and ensure that personnel are adequately prepared for their assigned tasks.

This is simple to understand and execute. Yet, rather than trusting in commanders to act within this intent, range regulations go much further in prescribing exactly what rank may supervise what type of range, on some installations completely excluding the rank of sergeant from the duties of officer in charge (OIC) or range safety officer (RSO). For example, no matter how practiced and knowledgeable a staff sergeant may be in the use of rockets, perhaps even including combat experience having this specialty, a commander is not permitted to entrust that Marine as OIC or RSO without the presence of another senior Marine. This is one example of a trend that implies a commander's inability to correctly select, develop, and empower subordinates in accordance with safety and mission accomplishment.


Such examples have implications for the organizational culture and norms of the Marine Corps as a whole. Seen through the lens of liberty policies, safety, and range regulations, organizational norms appear risk-averse, centralized, inward-focused, with an intolerance of defects. In short, the freedom of action and implicit trust afforded First Lieutenant O'Bannon now appears lost in the quicksand of Colonel Heinl's "administrative thick-headedness."

Surely some of these impediments to special trust and confidence stem from avoidable errors and poor leadership. The saying goes that "each warning briefed in a safety brief has its basis in at least one Marine already demonstrating that he was dumb enough to do it." Despite this admission of culpability, these regulations restrict the actions of the commander and co-opt the decision-making process, thus discouraging the "willingness to act on one's own judgment" that is both implied in the phrase "special trust and confidence" and specifically prized in MCDP 1 Warfighting . From another perspective, just because some individuals do not grasp the responsibilities imbued in the oath to "well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office" does not mean that the rest are similarly ignorant or malfeasant.

This lack of confidence creates additional, troubling effects on the conduct of war. Just as a corporation manages its business based on organizational values, it is a precarious assumption, in a military context, to expect subordinates who are unaccustomed in garrison to having their superiors' trust and who rely on regulations, to demonstrate the initiative that our Warfighting philosophy demands. It is illogical for the same sergeant who apparently cannot be trusted to go on leave to New Jersey without detailed supervision to be depended on to lead a patrol in combat. There are no "field Marines" and "garrison Marines"; the experiences of the garrison should translate to those of combat. 

Checking too Many Boxes

Some might argue that the paper trail of "administrative thick-headedness" does not undermine special trust and confidence but in fact teaches planning, a valued skill in combat. While this may be true, there is a difference between planning and making decisions. The latter requires experience, education, and trust. Procedural restrictions rob young leaders of the chance to practice judgment and instead consign them to being mere masters of a checklist. The lack of trust then trickles down to subordinates. Take, for example, the hypothetical case of a young corporal who makes ethical decisions throughout a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan, yet on his return to the United States is greeted by an "under 21" sign on the window of his room-implying that his integrity is already in question. If developing "strategic corporals" is a serious goal, then a higher premium must be placed on the judgment and initiative of the officers and SNCOs chosen to lead them, lest they become less willing to delegate that trust to their subordinates.

The question remains whether the hour has passed for the special trust and confidence enjoyed by First Lieutenant O'Bannon and even by Colonel Heinl in supposedly more centralized, doctrinal ages than our own. Despite the many pressures weighing against it, the prestige afforded in the commission of officers does exist in the willingness of some commanders to accept risk both in garrison and on the battlefield. Make no mistake; this trust is both a prerequisite for initiative and a privilege that can be lost. As Colonel Heinl wrote, it "is the easiest thing in the world to tear down; building it up is something else again."

Therefore, in closing, I suggest five fundamental measures to reinvigorate the special trust and confidence endowed by the President to commissioned officers and through the Commandant to the SNCOs and NCOs:

1. Continue to screen, evaluate, train, and educate company grade officers to a rigorous degree.

2. Continue to hold officers, SNCOs and NCOs to a higher standard. Be unsparing in disciplinary measures taken against officer and SNCO malfeasance.

3. Ensure that the commander's judgment is preeminent in deciding the promotion of Marines to NCO. Enforce greater separation between NCOs and other Marines in the form of added responsibility and privilege. Make it mean something to be a corporal or sergeant.

4. Empower field and company grade officers by reevaluating existing centralized garrison procedures and, where possible, eliminate requirements that impinge on the responsibility of subordinate commanders to exercise judgment and initiative.

5. Improve the training and education of SNCOs and NCOs to adequately prepare them for the increased responsibility of a more decentralized and strategic 21st-century battlefield. A specific focus should be on education for decision-making in ethically and tactically challenging environments.

The Marine Corps should further imbue special trust and confidence in its officer corps and strive to prepare its SNCOs and NCOs for the decentralized fight in the current operating environment. If the Corps wants capable leaders in the mold of First Lieutenant O'Bannon, it must curtail bureaucratic procedures designed merely to compensate for failures of leadership.

Captain Donlon was commissioned in 2002 and served as the Combined Anti-Armor Team Platoon Commander from 2004-2006, deploying twice to Iraq. He is currently an infantry officer and instructor at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership