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General Dempsey Has Got His Hands Full

June 25, 2012

General Martin E. Dempsey has five years to make a difference.

Like a lot of career military men, he’s conservative by disposition–Roman Catholic, married for 35 years, kids and grand kids. This doesn’t mean he’s stuck in his ways. He may be old, gaunt, and skull-faced but he’s still sharp. He even has a Twitter account.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS), General Dempsey has the ear of both POTUS and whoever is Defense Secretary. An Army man who fought from inside tanks, Dempsey’s wars were in the Middle East. During Desert Storm he was a colonel in the 3rd Armored Division, part of the VII Corps ‘right hook’ Gen. Schwarzkopf used to decimate Iraqi armor.

12 years later, Brigadier General Dempsey would roll into Baghdad with the 1st Armored Division. He would remain in Saddam’s former capital for almost two years, bearing the brunt of the nascent Iraqi insurgency. At the time Dempsey was very vocal about challenging and ‘taking out’ a then-troublesome Shia cleric named Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose militia was harassing his troops.

Suppressing insurgents is just one part of Dempsey’s resume. Dempsey has assumed many roles throughout his 37-years in the US Army. The whole point of this profile is to chart his career and give special insight on his biggest job yet. His most important job as JCOS chairman is implementing the much-hyped ‘pivot’ of US military might in the Pacific; a strategy he helped devise. But first things first, who is Martin E. Dempsey?

 “We still aspire to be and need to be a world power.”

General Martin E. Dempsey is part of a new generation of soldiers whose outlook was drastically shaped by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the military leadership of the Bush and Clinton eras, Dempsey was not molded by Vietnam. In fact, the Vietnam War was finished by the time he enrolled in West Point. During a ceremony to commemorate the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary last year, Dempsey’s address mentioned how the death of a war hero named John Graham inspired him to become a soldier.

The only notable fact about Dempsey’s youth prior to the army is his staunch Catholic upbringing. He was raised in Goshen, a small town outside metropolitan New York. Being of Irish-Catholic stock, his education in John S. Burke Catholic High School was just as conservative. Almost four decades later on June 9, 2012 he beseeched the senior class of his alma mater to “push the envelope.”

Upon graduating from West Point in 1974 and getting his commission, Dempsey would spend his early career in Germany and the United States. His only notable advancement would be a masters’ degree from Duke University. It’s safe to assume, however, that as a young armor officer in Germany Dempsey war gamed World War 3 in case the Warsaw Pact’s tanks came rolling in. This is pure speculation of course.

Dempsey’s two years at Duke was a historic event in a very minor way. At the time West Point was placing young officers in select institutions to broaden their grasp of liberal arts. Together with former Army Chief of Staff Walter Shinseki, Dempsey is the only other high-ranking officer to have attended Duke. He took English and wrote a paper on William Blake, which he recalls earned him a C-minus. Duke University had a more important role in Dempsey’s thinking than just literature though.

After getting his degree in 1986, Dempsey taught English at West Point for three years. His first real war would be Operation Desert Storm. In 1995 Dempsey earned another degree from the National War College.

As a tanker, much of Dempsey’s field experience would be divided between postings in Germany and the Middle East. From 2000 to early 2003 he was training the Saudi National Guard. During Operation Iraqi Freedom Dempsey blitzed his way across dust storms and enemy strongholds until reaching Baghdad. After a prolonged tour of duty, Dempsey was back in Germany as CO of the 7th US Army/US Army Europe.

Dempsey’s last posting in Iraq was from 2005-2007 to re-train a new Iraqi Army. No doubt his armor background factored into this experience—was he responsible for Iraq’s impressive M1 Abrams fleet and new T-72’s?

Helping rebuild the Iraqi Army was followed by a year in CENTCOM.

“We’ve discovered—rediscovered—that technology provides important enablers but can never entirely life the fog and friction inherent in war.”

His most important non-combat post prior to becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was in the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) from 2008 until 2011. As its head, Dempsey made it his mission to formulate a new approach to organization whose unofficial catch phrase was “from the bottom up.”

It may sound mundane, but it was informed by the Iraq and Afghan wars and the ever present threat of asymmetrical warfare.

General Dempsey’s rise to the chairmanship began in earnest at the twilight of Admiral Michael Mullen’s own five-year tenure. By April 2011 General Dempsey accepted his nomination as the Army Chief of Staff. Before the year was out—in October—he became Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff.

Among Dempsey’s first jobs upon assuming office was to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran. Dempsey actually met both Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assure their acquiescence. He is also critical of the situation in Syria without sounding too hawkish. Dempsey also acknowledged in an interview that he regularly meets with his Israeli counterpart Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz at least once a month.

Months after assuming his chairmanship last year, Dempsey returned to Duke University for the Ambassador S. David Phillips Family International Lecture. Titled “American Grand Strategy In An Age of Austerity,” Dempsey’s January 12 speech in a packed Page Auditorium revealed much about his thinking and the broader mission of the US military.

Among the points discussed were the great Pacific pivot, cyber threats, and laying the ground work for the US military after 2020. The lecture also showed Dempsey’s lighter side. Far-removed from the stereotype of a tight-lipped hard ass, the lecture’s transcript reveals Dempsey reserves his sense of humor for public occasions. But like most high-ranking officers, he does descend into military-lese quasi-technical jargon when discussing big ideas, most of which emerged during his time as head of the TRADOC.


“Lethality, if you will, is the foundation on which everything we do must be built, but lethality brings with it incredible obligations and responsibilities.”

Based on his speeches and interviews, Dempsey has made it clear—explicitly so—that the Asia-Pacific is the strategic focus of this decade. Although Dempsey chooses his words carefully, it can be surmised that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been written off. Both theaters simply don’t register in importance anymore.

By close reading and simple connect-the-dots, General Dempsey public statements repeatedly enumerate the goals of the US military for the next ten years. In no particular order, Dempsey considers his priorities to be cyber warfare and information technology; the Asia-Pacific; the Iran nuclear question; and the US Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force that will emerge past 2020. During another interview Dempsey spoke of “an army in transition,” harking back to his time at TRADOC and its focus on a less rigid order of battle.

Indicative of Dempsey’s goals are his early-June visit to the Philippines, which is currently locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China. On the afternoon of June 4, Dempsey was briefed at Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and met with President Benigno Aquino for 20 minutes. Although the brevity hardly compares to Dempsey’s interaction with the Israelis (it is a good indicator of the Philippines’ place in the pecking order) or his extended tours in the Middle East, it serves as proof that even minor spats in South East Asia deserve his attention.

Prior to his Philippine visit, Dempsey was in Singapore for the Shangri La Dialogue (it was the venue) of the  11th Annual Asia Security Conference. His presence basically confirmed the future deployment of littoral warships in the city-state. Hardly a year in office, and Dempsey is wasting no time getting the new Pacific strategy off the ground.

While his predecessors grappled with quagmires, Dempsey has a unique role to fulfill. He’s out to build an army for the future, the kind that will deliver US hard power in the era of perpetual conflict.

…and here’s Mr. Chairman performing his own version of “New York, New York.”

Note: All the research for this profile came from Google. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to gather information on high-ranking US generals…if only the same were true of their Chinese or Russian counterparts.

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