In June 1803, Meriwether Lewis wrote a letter to William Clark conveying that President Thomas Jefferson had received approval from Congress allowing the exploration of “the interior of the continent,” the unknown land of the U.S. between St. Louis and the Pacific Northwest.
Jefferson ordered Lewis to lead this exploration, which eventually would identify hundreds of plants, animals and geographical landmarks that are well known today.
The exploration would require tough, smart and innovative professionals to trek, portage, experiment and prepare for unknown challenges and uncertain environments. It also would require strong leaders with resolve and focus, and the ability to think critically and apply professional judgment in austere environments.
There would be limited communication except for a small travel party, and logistics would be sustained by living off the land. This mission would be one of the most difficult operations known at the time. The uncertainty and difficulty was such that Lewis could not envision conducting this mission without his friend Clark.
In the June 1803 letter, Lewis draws on his friendship with Clark to ask him to participate with him in the journey and “it’s fatigues, it’s dangers and it’s honors” as there is no other person with whom Lewis feels “equal pleasure” sharing those challenges.
Relationships in the Army matter. Genuine friendships built on a foundation of personal character in the profession of arms should be sought out. Following the example of Lewis and Clark, genuine military friendships can be built by pursuing the virtues of trust and honesty.
Facing the Unknown
Both Lewis and Clark knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Lewis explains to Clark in the letter that their “long and uninterrupted friendship and confidence which has subsisted between” them over years of shared experience allowed for transparency in asking for support and help in any area, specifically this great and dangerous exploration.
This intimate knowledge was built over time during the Northwest campaigns of the 1780s and 1790s as a young American nation was still trying to rid the West of European influences. During those campaigns, Lewis and Clark shared misery with one another, whether it was cold, wet nights in the forest or skirmishes on the Western front.
A respect developed between them, initially based off professional confidence, and was only strengthened through development of trust and shared character virtues. They deliberately built confidence and faith in one another, bringing Lewis, some 10 years later, to ask Clark to join him on the most dangerous of missions.
Build Faith, Trust
Genuine friendships require deliberate attempts to build faith and trust in one another. Most likely initially built off competence, military friendships should be strengthened by one another’s values. A good starting point for this can be found in Army Doctrine Publication 6-22: Army Leadership and the Profession, in which the Army explains its ethic and values. When their relationship is formed on a foundation of shared character virtues, friends likely will inspire trust in one another in the most difficult of environments.
In his letter to Clark, Lewis is open, honest and caring. Aware of the dangers and uncertainty the exploration will most likely bring, he hid nothing from his comrade. He wrote: “My friend you have so far as leisure will at this time permit me to give it you, a summary view of the plan, the means and the objects of this expedition.” Lewis considered Clark a better person than he was, and wanted his dear friend to be clear about what was being asked of him.
The reliance and confidence of these two officers was built on their willingness to share one another’s burdens—physically, mentally and spiritually. They were not ashamed to be friends and, in fact, were willing to be subordinate to each other in command. Their friendship was more important than rank or position. Although Clark was commissioned in the rank of lieutenant for the expedition, Lewis, commissioned in the rank of captain, devised a plan for Clark to wear the same rank during the expedition. Their unit only knew and understood Clark to be a captain; Lewis never once “pulled rank” on Clark, a great testament to the friendship and humility of both explorers.
Genuine friendship is honest and caring. In the Army profession, friends critique, care and provide. They share each other’s burdens. They seek help and ask to help. Friends are open with each other and look out for one another’s best interests. There is no backstabbing and gossiping, but simply care and hard work. These qualities transcend rank. Army professionals provide respectful counsel and are humble enough to accept the advice of a friend regardless of the rank they hold. To manipulate the relationship would dishonor it.
At the end of his letter, Lewis told Clark he would “be extremely happy in your company.” In the most dangerous and austere environment, Lewis simply wanted a friend—his friend. On current and uncertain battlefields, friendships will matter. Seek them out, and build trust through honesty.
Lewis and Clark accomplished their mission of exploring the interior of North America largely due to their friendship. Find a friend.
Lt. Col. Tom Dull, an infantry officer, is the executive officer for the Character Integration Advisory Group, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He also leads a Character Growth Seminar at West Point.
Maj. Marc Meybaum, an armor officer, is the executive officer for the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, West Point, where he also serves as an instructor of officership.