“For the first time our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight.”
That was Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey speaking frankly to field-grade officers graduating June 13 from National Defense University (NDU) about what he called “this time of turmoil” when the military is “working hard to adapt to uncertainty and rapidly changing geopolitical, budgetary and cultural landscapes.”
President Obama said last week that he plans to reappoint Dempsey for another two-year term. That makes it worthwhile to take another look at this career Army officer who likes to quote Yeats, is a straight talker on tough issues — including to Congress — and enjoys singing in public, as he did Memorial Day weekend with a silly song about unicorns for hundreds of children whose fathers or mothers had died in combat.
A 1974 West Point graduate and an armored cavalry officer who commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dempsey has a master’s degree in English from Duke University. He taught English at West Point, fought in Operation Desert Storm, was a special assistant to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton, and for two years trained and advised the Saudi Arabian national guard. He did the same recently for Iraq’s army and other security forces.
Four appearances during the past five weeks give some insights into Dempsey’s character.
At the NDU event, he raised questions for the military: “Winning our nation’s wars is no longer enough. How we win is becoming as important as the fact that we win,” Dempsey said. He didn’t mention torture, killing innocent civilians, corruption in contracting or even sexual harassment of U.S. service personnel. He didn’t have to; it’s on everyone’s mind.
Dempsey recalled a 1991 talk when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf told West Point cadets, “I wish I could say that our profession of arms has always exuded high character and competence, but it hasn’t.”
Dempsey not so subtly drew a parallel between the past and Iraq/Afghanistan, saying, “As with Vietnam, negative impressions about our character eclipsed the courage and sacrifices of many of the men and women who served honorably.” He added, “As we emerge from more than 10 years of war, we’ve got some rebuilding to do,” which Dempsey compared to Yeats’s famous quote about “the struggle between the swordsman and the saint.”
A day earlier, on June 12, Dempsey appeared with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in sessions with the Senate and House budget committees.
Senate Republicans brought up Benghazi, the attacks last Sept. 11 against a U.S. consulate and CIA annex building in Libya that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Some GOP legislators have kept the issue alive hoping to use it politically against the Obama administration and/or as a failure of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should she run for president in 2016.
Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) mentioned the testimony of a “whistleblower” who said that a special forces rapid response unit could have been on the scene within four to six hours after the first attack.
Dempsey said, “I would not agree to that timeline. The travel time alone [from where the unit was in Europe] would have been more than that and that’s if they were sitting on the tarmac.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) challenged what he called too-constrained rules of engagement in Afghanistan. “We’re not allowed to pursue insurgents into a mosque” he told Dempsey, adding that a World War II veteran told him that if a German had run into a church, “We would have blown up the church.”
Dempsey: “Despite what the veteran told you from World War II, it’s never been the tradition in our country to use force indiscriminately. . . . Some of what you’re referring to, I’ve seen myself . . . a good bit of it is misinformation.”
Rep. Vicky Jo Hartzler (R-Mo.) asked about a report by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) listing odd Army, Navy and Air Force research projects that she called “waste.” Dempsey hadn’t seen it, but said, “I’ll be interested to see whether we put it in there or somebody else put it in there when it became part of the bill.”
That drew laughter from the audience because lawmakers have often pushed such projects on behalf of constituents.
Last Thursday at a Pentagon news conference with Hagel, Dempsey explained his position on Syria, which has drawn criticism on Capitol Hill.
Regarding a no-fly zone, he said, “My concern has been that ensuring that Syria’s airplanes don’t fly addresses about 10 percent of the problem in terms of the casualties that are taken in Syria. And if we choose to conduct a no-fly zone, it’s essentially an act of war, and I’d like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war.”
A less-public side of Dempsey was on display May 24 when he spoke to families who had lost loved ones over the past 12 years — part of the 1 percent of Americans who have borne 100 percent of the burden of the fighting.
A young boy asked, “Why did you join the Army?”
“I thought it stood for the right things,” Dempsey said. “That it would allow me to be around people who knew that there was something more important in life than just making money and having a job, who might actually some day have to protect this country. Which by the way is exactly why your moms and dads joined the Army and in the case of some . . . gave their lives.”
He told the adults, “It must be something extraordinary for you to listen to the national anthem, because no one has had the experience of being handed a folded flag. You have.
“And those of us who haven’t experienced that don’t know, really, what that — I can’t even conceive of what it must be like.”
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.