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Building Our Best Weapon - Trust

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By Mike Mullen
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thomas F. Madden's book "Empires of Trust" begins with the story of Rome's conquest of Locri, a small Italian city-state.

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A Roman lieutenant named Pleminius maintained order there in a heavy-handed manner, sacking and looting religious shrines and enslaving the Locrians. When Locrian ambassadors later assembled in the Roman Senate chamber, it was not, as many senators expected, to beg for forgiveness and charity but to lodge a complaint.

Pleminius, they charged, was a tyrant. "There is nothing human except his face and appearance," cried one. "There is no trace of the Roman except in his clothing and speech."

Though they had rebelled against Rome -- siding with archenemy Hannibal -- the Locrians expected better. "They trusted the Romans to act responsibly," writes Madden, "and even when that trust was violated, they trusted the Romans to make it right."

Such was the reputation for equanimity and fairness that Rome had built. Such were the responsibilities of leadership.

We are not Romans, of course. Our brigade combat teams are not the legions of old. Madden makes that clear. But we in the U.S. military are likewise held to a high standard. Like the early Romans, we are expected to do the right thing, and when we don't, to make it right again.

We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm -- that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.

That's why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it's why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years.

It doesn't matter how hard we try to avoid hurting the innocent, and we do try very hard. It doesn't matter how proportional the force we deploy, how precisely we strike. It doesn't even matter if the enemy hides behind civilians. What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it. In the end, all that matters is that, despite our best efforts, sometimes we take the very lives we are trying to protect.

You cannot defeat an insurgency this way.

We can send more troops. We can kill or capture all the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders we can find -- and we should. We can clear out havens and shut down the narcotics trade. But until we prove capable, with the help of our allies and Afghan partners, of safeguarding the population, we will never know a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan.

Lose the people's trust, and we lose the war. The strategy reviews for Afghanistan recognize this and seek military, economic, political, diplomatic and informational approaches to regaining that trust. We know that the people are the real long-term hope for success. No single solution or preventative measure will suffice in protecting them.


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