Dempsey's Wise Words on the Military Profession

Gen. Martin Dempsey has the right ideas about the military profession.

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Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013.
Gen. Martin Dempsey

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey delivered a speech at the National Defense University where he spoke about the current strategic environment, the military instrument and the military profession. On the current strategic environment he stated that:

Rising powers, non-state actors, criminal organizations, religious groups and a handful of ideological agitators, all with strategy to simply change the way the world does business. They don't collectively agree on what they want, only on what they don't want.

As the architect of the status quo, the United States, therefore responds when North Korea enters one of its provocation cycles. We surge when Iran makes threatening gestures. We anguish over conflicts in Syria and South Sudan. Threats have changed, not revolutionary maybe, but more evolutionary and have become somewhat of a devolution of high technology. So you've got this really interesting nexus of high-tech and low-tech and this disparate threat that makes it very hard to pin down exactly the approach. We on the other hand have gone from being … a force oriented early in my career on high-end, high-intensity deterrence, to a far more flexible and expeditionary force and we better be thinking now about the "what comes next" because there is always something that has to come next.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

On the U.S. military instrument, he argued that today "in some ways it's more often used to prod, to test the waters, to see what shakes out, to change the dynamic." But he warned that the notion that our increased capabilities for the application of precision in the use of force do not mean that we can exert control, particularly over foreign populaces. "We don't deal in Newtonian terms of equal and opposite reactions, we work in a quantum world where a tactical judgment can have a butterfly effect on a strategic relationship," he noted.

Just as was the case with Europe after the Second World War, the transition to democracy can be messy and requires patience. He fears such patience may be waning today. He stated, "What I've come to understand over 40 years, it's not just about the people gaining control, it's about wrestling control away from centralized power and redistributing it, often to those unprepared to manage it."

He told the assembled officers and civil servants that uncertainties of both the strategic landscape and of the budgetary variety would require a recalibration of risk. Dempsey stated that:

Going forward the force that you lead will have to be more agile than the one I currently lead. We'll have to be able to throttle up force and just as quickly throttle it back. We'll have to embrace change, not just accept it or riskier elements. And while we have achieved a degree of certainty in our budget for the next two years, we still don't yet have the full flexibility we need to rebalance the force for the challenges that we see ahead. We'll buy back some readiness in the near term and we'll [avert] a short-term crisis, but we still need to address the long-term pressures.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

On the military profession he expressed the importance of professional military education, particularly in the current age of uncertainty. He also stated the importance of explaining to the American public about the military profession, where it is headed, and what it can do and what it cannot. Dempsey imparted that, "the country must know that the men and women who serve have the soul of the servant that the only entitlement we feel is that we are entitled to serve the nation."

The speech said nothing particularly new, but was most interesting, perhaps, in its implicit messages. For starters, it seemed to amplify the chairman's concerns about using force during the debates about Syria (I previously wrote about this here) without stating them outright. (It also seemed to offer somewhat of a critique of his predecessor Admiral Mike Mullen's conceptions on the use of force – see here.) The section on service and entitlements also seemed to offer a critique about the current uproar by some veterans' organizations about the adjustment of cost of living allowances for military retirees who have not yet turned 62.

The chairman is certainly in an unenviable position due to international and domestic uncertainties and the push and pull of various inter- and intra-service battles over budget priorities in a time of austerity. His commitment to service and his determined leadership at this time, however, are refreshing. Hopefully his commitment to professional military education and deep thinking will be matched with necessary funding commitments moving forward because they will surely be critical for dealing with and preparing for the threats and opportunities of the current and emergent disordered world.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  • Read Andrew Scobell: China, North Korea and the Fallout From Kim Jong Un Executing His Uncle
  • Read Michael P. Noonan: There Are Legitimate Reasons the U.S. Has Special Forces Around the World
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