Where is the tipping point for America’s trust in the military? And are we near it?

Where is the tipping point for America’s trust in the military? And are we near it?

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief military culture correspondent

Back in 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey wondered aloud at a National Guard leadership conference why the U.S. military had scored the highest among Americans polled on what institutions they trusted most. “Maybe if I knew what it would take to screw it up, I could avoid it,” he said.

The numbers haven’t wavered outside of statistical error since then. Despite highly unfavorable public opinion of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls by Gallup and Pew back in June showed public confidence in the military holding above 75 percent. The implication appears to be that no one blames the military for failing to achieve distinct victory. It leads one to wonder just what the American people will blame the military for. In the last year, the military has run some of the biggest governmental scandals this side of the fiscal cliff. To recap, by service:

Air Force

  • Two high-profile sexual assault fiascos, one of which by a sexual assault prevention officer
  • A massive cheating conspiracy among nuclear missile officers
  • The discovery they lied about the severity of a B-2 crash years ago


  • A bribery scandal involving top-ranking officers, high-level security clearances, millions of contract dollars, hookers, and Lady Gaga tickets
  • Nuclear reactor officers cheating on their tests (what is it about cheating on nuke exams?)


  • Potential undue command influence of a trial by the commandant
  • Potential tampering with evidence in a trial by the commandant
  • Petty, vindictive reprisals against the press for covering the commandant’s indiscretions … probably enacted by the commandant


  • A recruiting fraud scandal running up a $100 million tab
  • The discovery that a four-star general turned the National Security Agency into the biggest American diplomatic catastrophe since Dick Cheney.
  • “Minor” sexual indiscretion among senior officers is so rampant that it’s futile to try to parse out cases among each service.

Then there’s the massive waste occurring in the Defense Department’s accounting systems. But with tens of billions involved, there’s plenty for everyone to lay claim to. Dempsey’s question almost deserves a comedic rephrasing. “What’s a military gotta do around here to lose the public trust?” Or is it perhaps that we’ve run out of other places to put it, and it’s going to rest with the military no matter what?