A Conversation with the Chairman: General Martin E. Dempsey


We sat down with General Martin E. Dempsey in his office to talk strategy, the profession of arms, military compensation reform, and professional military education.

Dempsey-Evans-Fritz (450x321)

Interview Transcript (courtesy Federal News Service, Washington, DC):

RYAN EVANS:  Hi, this is Ryan Evans with a very special War on the Rocks podcast.  I’m here with General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I have Jason Fritz, one of our editors at War on the Rocks, also joining us.  And we’re going to talk about profession of arms, which is, General, a big passion of yours, or one of your central efforts, actually, ever since you were TRADOC commander.  How much has your – did your experience joining the post-Vietnam Army in the mid ’70s, which sort of went through some similar challenges that we’re about to see now, shape your approach to profession of arms?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY:  Well, you know, I think you’re shaped by the accumulation of your experiences over time.  So I entered West Point in 1970, and you know what kind of climate there was in the country in 1970 – not just related to the Vietnam War but related to just a whole bunch of social issues inside the country.

So, you know, in that environment, the military had kind of lost its standing with the American people, you know, simply stated.  And so even as a very young officer, it occurred to me that if we are to live up to our – and especially as we transition to an all-volunteer force, by the way – it occurred to me that this issue of professionalism would have to become more prominent.  And, in fact, in 1998, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I studied for a master’s degree and took as my thesis that issue. And in that particular treatise, if you will, I came to the conclusion that the single most important value in our long list of professional values was the – was the duty – was the value of duty.  By the way, I wasn’t the first one to turn that up.  You may remember that Robert E. Lee said that duty is the sublimest virtue.

So that started me down a path of studying what it means to be a professional.  How is it different from simply a job?  What is it that we owe ourselves internally?  How do we hold ourselves to a higher standard?  How do we identify that standard?  What are the key leader attributes that define us?  And how do we deliver them?  And how do we make sure we know we’re delivering them?

And so that’s the context in which I entered TRADOC, did some things there, did a few things as chief of staff of the Army, knowing that after 10 or 12 years of conflict we had gotten sloppy.  It’s not – I’ve said this before.  It’s not that the war caused this misstep, if you will, but rather that the tools that we had at our disposal, whether they were education, oversight, surveys, command climate assessments, fitness reports, mentoring and – you know, mentors and protégés, we had kind of broken – you know that – we had kind of broken some of those relationships because of the pace, and in some cases because of modularity, this notion in the Army, anyway, that you can kind of plug and play with units.  Well, you can, actually.  They’re very fungible.  But when you do that, you break the mentor-protégé relationship as you plug and play.  So we’re looking back now and looking forward as well.  That’s a long answer, but that’s how I came to this conclusion that it was time to take a very close look at this.

RYAN EVANS:  That’s a good answer, actually.  And I know Jason, a fellow armor officer, experienced – I don’t know if, Jason, you want to comment or question based on what you saw.

JASON FRITZ:  Yeah, I would agree, particularly on the issues of mentor and protégé issues.  I was in the first modularized brigade, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and, you know, we – going through the pains of transitioning to that model and some of the repercussion over the years with them.  I was a brigade planner during the surge, and we went into an area of Iraq where we – well, al-Qaida owned the battlespace, but what ended up happening was they took all of our battalions away.  We took one battalion, and we got another light battalion from somebody else, and so we had to fight a fight underhanded.  We had – commanders didn’t know each other.  It was a very challenging situation.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  I hope you mean “undermanned,” not “underhanded,” by the way.  (Laughter.)

JASON FRITZ:  That is correct.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  But anyway, you’re – so you experienced it, but that’s the point.  I grew up in a military with a very defined chain of command, and that chain of command was sometimes criticized for being extraordinarily hierarchal.  And it was.  So we corrected it by this concept of modularity, where battalions could be interchangeable.  You really – you could plug yourself into a heavy unit, a light unit, a Stryker unit.  And you can.  The unit – the units, they are extraordinarily flexible.  But when you do that, you break that leadership chain and that – and that relationship of trust, and it has to be kind of rebuilt constantly.  Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to go back to the – you know, to what it was before, but I think we need to look back and decide, maybe we – maybe the pendulum swung a bit on this issue of flexibility and modularity.

RYAN EVANS:  And you’re just getting ready, you’ve announced recently, to evaluate this sort of campaign on profession of arms, and you’ve seen it very much as a military campaign, you’ve said.  How are you going to evaluate that, and what are the sort of results you’ve seen so far?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, first let me say the reason I see it as a military campaign is two reasons.  One is we really need to own this issue.  I mean, we’re the profession, and we are responsive to the direction, the guidance of our civilian elected leaders.  But we are the profession, and so we need to own it.  And I can assure you that the Joint Chiefs – that’s the service chiefs – and the combatant commanders, and all of us – all of us are not only very much aware of that, but also very much committed to it.

How am I measuring it?  Well, I’ve had – I’ve had a couple of key engagements over the past year or so that I’ll share with you.  One is kind of a group of outside experts, academics, business leaders, retired senior leaders, both enlisted and officer.  And I asked them at a Saturday session over at Fort Myer – I said, you know, tell me what you see looking in.  And so that was a data point.

The other thing is I – when I travel, this is – the principal reason I travel, by the way, is not to inspect motor pools or to – or walk into arms rooms or into the engine room of a ship or – you know, or climb into a really cool-looking aircraft and –

RYAN EVANS:  Although that is fun.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  It is fun.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to climb in.  But that’s not why I travel.  Why I travel is to get to touch the issues and get a feel and encourage leaders at every rank to engage with me on this issue, because you know, I’ve got – we’ve got plenty of things going on out there, most of which are tended to and measured quite accurately and with any number of metrics.  I’m talking about your preparedness to deploy, how you do on deployment and so on and so forth.  But what tends to not be touched or measured or felt, maybe is the even better way, is how does the profession feel about itself?  And that’s why I travel.  And so – and I travel a lot, mostly overseas, but we’ve got plenty – we have, you know, 250,000 or so at any given time overseas, so I’m always touching some young man or woman serving and trying to get their insights.

And then internally, we have a – we have a routinely scheduled meeting we call the Tank.  It’s in a big room, and historically the tank was over at National Defense University.  It was shaped like a tank, and the chiefs met there in the conduct of World War II.  And that name, Tank, has carried forward in history.  It’s actually quite a nice conference room now, not a tank at all.  But we meet on Mondays and Fridays when we’re all in town, and if we’re not in town, we send our deputies.  And about once a month, this is one of the topics of conversation.  And then finally, on my staff, my J7, a three-star Marine general, he’s my, let’s call it, point man for the staff actions related to these initiatives.

So whether it’s 360-degree assessments, changing fitness reports, refreshing key leader attributes – we’re now calling them directed leader attributes – monitoring whether those directed leader attributes are making their way into our curriculum at schools, all of the things policies – so for example, one of the things we learned in some of the recent challenges is we’ve got – this is going to shock anyone who knows the Pentagon – we’ve got a bit of inconsistency from service to service on how we might provide policy guidance on things like travel, spouse support, enlisted aides.  Gifts tend to be fairly well-understood, but there’s plenty of space out there where some of our more senior leaders might not have the guidance that they need in order to act both ethically, but also to be careful of the perceptions that they create.

So that group in J7 is – monitors for me the implementation of all these initiatives, and then, again, about once every quarter, we have a session, and they give me a stop light briefing; you know, this is green, this is amber, this is red, which means this is good, this is working and this is not good.  And we had one two days ago, in fact.

RYAN EVANS:  How has the issue, increasingly political issue of military compensation reform, played into all this and affected this, not just in terms of men and women currently in uniform but the next generation of recruits?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  You know, it’s not political for me.  I mean, it’s – it has been politicized, the issue.  And, you know, in some cases for good reason.  I mean, you know, I think those outside the service, our elected leaders, want to be seen as taking care of those who serve, especially during time of war.  On the other hand, I often remind anyone who will listen is that we senior military leaders have one sacred responsibility, one sacred responsibility, and then we have a number of other very serious obligations.

The sacred responsibility is to ensure that we never send a man or woman into combat unless they are prepared – best-trained, best-led, best-equipped and prepared to overmatch any adversary decisively, you know.  And those words are carefully chosen.  You know, we don’t want to just win.  You know, we want to win 50 to 1, not 5 to 4 because we should be able to do that, you know; the nation has given us the resources necessary to do that.  And that’s where these other obligations come in.  So I – we also clearly have an obligation to make sure that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and, of course, the Coast Guard follows our policy – our personal policies.  And their families are well cared for.  I mean, they deserve it, they earned it, and we need to preserve it.

The challenge is, sometimes those two obligations, one sacred obligation and one extraordinarily important obligation, will rub uncomfortably against each other because as you distribute the resources you’re given, if – you tend to have to distribute them in about four, five key places:  You distribute them into your manpower costs, into your training costs, into your modernization costs, into your infrastructure costs and then on operations.  And so – and there’s no magic to the distribution of a budget.  You make deliberate decisions every year where to put the money.

If anyone of those – let’s call them bins – is over full, it puts enormous pressure on the other bins.  And so we certainly don’t want to be the military, the all-volunteer force, that is extraordinarily well-compensated but is not well-trained, well-led and well-equipped.  We just can’t be that military. Nor do we want to have it the other way where we are so Spartans, so well-trained, so well-equipped, so well-led that – but we don’t care about, really, the compensation side.  And so really trying to strike a balance.

And as we try to find that balance, at declining resources, we just want to do what’s right.  And that means, for the foreseeable future, we need to slow the growth.  And that’s really the right phrase.  It’s slowing growth.  It’s not turning the glide slope downward; it’s slowing growth.  Now, that briefs well.  It’s harder to explain because the, you know, pay compensation, health care and retirement are enormously complicated systems and really hard to explain.  But we’ve done our best.  We’ve made some proposals.  We owe it to both the field, those who we serve, the young men and women in uniform and their families, and we owe it to the veteran support organizations.  And we owe it to the executive branch and the Congress to explain what we’re doing.  And actually, we’re just now beginning that process for this budget cycle.

RYAN EVANS:  And, you know, as we enter this new budget environment, one of those things that’s being reassessed and is already taking some cuts and might take more is professional military education, which I also think relates to the profession of arms campaign that you’ve been leading.  Could you give me your thoughts on you think the future professional military education, what do you think the cost that have been invested can be sustained?

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, whenever I do here – like, for example, I mentioned I travel out.  So I go to the military academy.  And the first thing I say to the superintendents is, is this budget uncertainty and the declining resources having – what kind of effect is  that having on you?  That’s the question.  Or – whether that’s at a military academy, a war college, intermediate-level education, which is really for majors, the captains career courses, you know, the Navy’s department head schools, SEAL training at BUD/S out at San Diego, wherever I go, the first question I ask those who are running a school, have you felt the impact of this budget crisis?  In every case, they have felt some impact.  But generally speaking, the services chiefs and I have prevailed with our budgeteers on the issue of protecting professional military education.

Now, are we makings some minor, modest and probably prudent adjustments?  Sure.  For example, let’s just take Capstone, which is the charm school for new generals and admirals.  By the way, I’m only kidding about it being a charm school.  (Laughter.)  But it’s the – kind of the brigadier general entry course or the – or the flag officer entry course.  And you know, we used to have a certain curriculum where we’d have part of it domestic and part of it overseas travel.  Well, we’ve scaled back on the overseas travel to save some money.  But in so doing, we’ve prevailed the core curriculum, in particular that which relates to professionalism – and, by the way, civil-military relations is a core component of that particular course – we’re preserving that which has to be preserved.

One last thing – and I know this is a longer answer to what was actually a pretty simple question – the other thing that happened to us over the course of the last 10 or 12 years in conflict is we stopped sending kids to school on time.  Why?  Because they were needed.  You know, the pace was just overwhelming.  And it was very uncommon – one of my sons, class of 2000 from West Point, who should have gone to the Command and General Staff College at a certain point in the last three or four years, but because we have created such a dramatic backlog because we weren’t sending them when they should have gone because someone said, hey, we can’t let them go right now, we need them in Baghdad or wherever, we created – this was the Army, again, but each service has some similar challenge.

We created such a backlog that we had to actually lop off three year groups – ’99, 2000, 2001 in the Army – and say:  You get constructive credit.  You have to do it online in a – you know, in a nonresident status, but we can’t send you.  We just can’t catch up unless we lop off a few year groups.  That’s awful.  So because it’s a year when – in former times, that young man or woman would have a year to go and immerse themselves in what it means to be a professional, study it, interact with their classmates at their midpoint in their career and refresh themselves for the second half of their career.  And for three year groups, we just couldn’t do it.  And so – in fact, I was the chief of staff of the Army and just about to hand it off to General Odierno when we had to make that decision in order to catch up.

So the point is we can’t underinvest in PME or we will suffer challenges in the future.  You just mortgage your future when you underinvest in PME.

RYAN EVANS:  Well, I got – I got two proud West Point grads in the room.  I’d love to hear you guys swap your favorite West Point stories, if that’s all right.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Well, I’ll let him go – age – yeah, beauty before age.


RYAN EVANS:  This was unscripted, so –

JASON FRITZ:  Unscripted, yes.  Unprepared for this question.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  (Chuckles.)  That’s why I let you go first.  (Laughter.)

JASON FRITZ:  Thank you, sir.  Thank you.  (Laughter.)

GEN. DEMPSEY:  That’s why I’m the chairman.  All right, I’ll go. I’ll give you time.

JASON FRITZ:  Oh, yeah, please.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  I’ll give you time.  (Laughter.)  My favorite West Point story is that I almost wasn’t there in the first place.  I actually applied to Annapolis and did not –

RYAN EVANS:  I didn’t know that.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, I didn’t get in because of eyesight.  And you know, they’re – over the course of different generations, the Naval Academy either ratchets up or back its standard for eyesight, because it has to produce a certain amount of naval aviators.  So anyway, in that particular, I applied; didn’t get it.  But because it was 1970 and because the – you know, the climate in the country was so corrosive toward the military, it wasn’t all that hard to get into the military academies.  And therefore, the military academies were have a bit a challenge filling the class.  So they were passing – they were passing applications around, frankly.

So I didn’t get into the Naval Academy, passed it over to the – to the military academy at West Point.  And two days before I was supposed to enter I got a telegram – that tells you how long ago that was; here we are talking, you know, on a blog – but I got a telegram that said, congratulations, you’ve been accepted into the United States military academy and you’ll report in two days, on the first of July.  And so I said:  Oh, hell no.  You know, I was already enrolled in another college.  You know, in my mind I had completely clicked off the whole military discipline thing at that point.  Remember, it was 1969-1970.

And I went home, got the telegram.  My mother said, isn’t it great news?  I said, yeah, it is pretty cool to get accepted, but I’m not going.  And she said, oh, you have to go.  It’s such an honor.  And I said, no, Mom, I really can’t do it.  And she burst into tears.  And I said, really?  And so this, you know, huge blanket of Irish Catholic guilt, you know, wafted over me.  (Laughter.)  And I said, OK, I’ll go.  I’ll give it a shot in the summer, but I’m coming home in September and I’m going to go to Manhattan College, which is where I was enrolled in the Bronx.

And so, you remember, I walked into the first day of what’s called Reception Day.  An upper classman with a red sash greets you rather warmly by yelling at you and explaining to you that, you know, you have no business being here, you’re never going to make it.  And in my mind, as he’s yelling at me and telling me I’m not going to make it, I’m thinking to myself, yes, I am, I’m going to make it.  And then I said, well, wait a minute, I don’t want to make it.  And here I am.  And in fact I’ll have 40 years – I will have graduated 40 years ago in June.

RYAN EVANS:  Congratulations.  You certainly made it, for someone that almost didn’t –

GEN. DEMPSEY:  I made it, yeah.  I’m actually now thinking about making it a career.  (Laughter.)

RYAN EVANS:  Yeah.  I’m glad your mother guilted you into it.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  She did.

RYAN EVANS:  Jason, you got something?

JASON FRITZ:  Yeah, I think I have one.  So there’s – I don’t think it’s a tradition in the West Point sense, but – so I’d heard that if you go to – that there’s a way to find – to get to the top of the Bell Tower of the Chapel.  I don’t know if you had any classmates –

GEN. DEMPSEY:  No, I was a real well-behaved kid.  (Laughter.)

JASON FRITZ:  It’s not something that – you know, it has to be done in the middle of the night, as many of West Point’s traditions do.  And so a couple of my friends and I went up there during Plebe Parent Weekend.  A bunch of us upperclassmen were stuck behind.  And we went up there and we were amazed that there were a number of people who had already been up there and who had scratched their name in the wall, and one of them included General Eisenhower in 1912.  So he was – I guess he was a yearling then.  So that was pretty neat because we thought were just, you know, going to be doing something a little new and – no, not even close.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  By the way, you see that oil on the wall right there?

JASON FRITZ:  Mmm hmm.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  That was painted by Eisenhower.


GEN. DEMPSEY:  He was chief of staff of the Army, and then, of course, became president.  When he retired, he became quite an accomplished landscape and portrait artist, and even had the courage to paint an oil of his wife, which hangs in Quarters One over at Fort Myer.

RYAN EVANS:  Oh, how about that.

I guess what I’m really curious to ask you about is – you know, as principal military adviser to the president, you know, we write – War on the Rocks is about strategy, fundamentally, and strategic theorists talk about this sort of neat connection between ends, ways and means.  And it sounds simple, but the reality is obviously very different because things are changing all the time.  And I would just love to hear from you how you sort of – as someone that engaged in strategy at the highest level – rectified this sort of simple construction with the reality of strategy making.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  Yeah, I will say up front that normally we talk about ends, ways and means mostly during the budget season, when the means become the prominent feature in strategic discussions.

The other way we talk about strategy throughout the year is choices and consequences.  You know, we are blessed as a nation to have, you know – we have multiple options in how to deal with issues, in ways that some other countries – most other countries around the world have far, far fewer options.  And we never let ourselves forget that, that, you know, we have literally myriad options to deal with, everything from let’s do nothing about that to, you know, let’s bring on the band.

And we don’t want to lose that, because – the way I describe the role of the military, by the way, to – internally to our audience is our job is to make us immune from coercion, make the nation immune from coercion.  And actually we’ve been extraordinarily successful about that.  You can’t take it for granted, because the homeland is less sanctuary than it certainly was even 10 years ago, at least for things like ballistic missiles and cyber.

So, you know, choices and consequences, and we have to understand both.  Immune from coercion.

And then the other interesting thing about strategy, to me, is whether it’s best to define an end state and then deliberately plot a series of actions to achieve that end state.  That’s the traditional thinking, by the way.  You identify the end state and then you back plan from that and you chart a course with milestones to decide whether you’ve got it right or not; or whether the world in which we live today actually is one where, kind of like the Heisenberg principle in physics, where you should touch it and see what happens.

RYAN EVANS:  Mmm hmm.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  You know what I mean?  So there’s some – you know, the Heisenberg principle, of course, says once you introduce yourself into an experiment, you change the outcome.  And I think that’s true.  And that’s somewhat how I’ve watched the use of the military instrument evolve over time, where, in particular in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think we’d have to admit that although we had what we thought was a definable end state and a series of objectives, that when we touched it, it changed it.  And when it changed it, we then had to adjust the end state because some of it became literally infeasible and others opened up opportunities.

So, you know, back to developing strategic thinkers for the future, I think we’ve got to develop strategic thinkers who, although they understand how to – how to identify an end state, back plan, phase – you know, put in these extraordinarily exquisite phases – that’s all important work, but it’s not actually the way it plays out.  The way it plays out is once you touch it, it changes and then you’ve got to be adaptable.

It’s kind of like – I used to teach English; you know, I have a master’s degree from Duke in literature and I taught English composition at West Point.  So here’s another West Point story.  (Laughter.)  And I had a young lady turn a paper into me as – when I was assistant professor there.  And she obviously had done a lot of work on it.  There was good thinking in it, but it was a grammatic debacle.

And so I brought her in, you know, to explain why she’d gotten a C- on the paper when she was clearly expecting an A+.  And I let her, you know, chat on about why she thought I was, you know, the worst English professor she’d ever met.  By the way, she was a Plebe, so I’m not sure how many she’d ever met.  (Laughter.)

And she said, haven’t you ever read Faulkner?  (Laughs.)  I thought – I said to – you know, of course Faulkner was another – he didn’t care much about grammar actually. But I said to her, I said, you know what?  Until you demonstrate that you know the rules of the road, I’m not going to let you violate them.  So I said, if you can convince me that you understand how to put a sentence together with the proper construction and you know the rules of grammar and punctuation and spelling – how about spelling?

I said don’t – you know, I’m not going to allow you to be Faulkner.  I said once you convince me, then you can wander off the reservation because, I said, when you get into the – to the Army and, you know, somebody asks you to write a memorandum or draft an order, we’re not looking for Faulkner in that particular environment.  But I don’t want to stifle your creativity, just prove to me that you know the rules of the road.  And that’s kind of what strategy is.  You’ve got to know the rules of the road – that is to say, end states, you know, ends, ways and means – but you also have to know how to adapt because the rules of the road generally are not what gets you there.

RYAN EVANS:  That’s a great answer, and I think that’s a great place to end.  Thank you so much for doing this, General.  We really do appreciate it.

GEN. DEMPSEY:  OK.  Good luck to both of you.  Thank you.


Image: Department of Defense