FORT LESLEY J. MCNAIR, D.C. —
In an era of burgeoning social media and budget uncertainty, competence and character are vital to maintaining public trust and confidence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in his address at the National Defense University graduation here today.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told the 658 students from the College of International Security Affairs, the Eisenhower School, the Information Resources Management College and the National War College that leaders must embrace selfless duty as the unifying moral force for decisions.
“While competence is built over a career, high standards must start from the very beginning,” Dempsey said. “In all we do, … our actions must be clear, consistent, values-based and intimately tied to the defense of the nation, without flourish or fanfare.”
Dempsey told the graduates that pluralized partnerships with other services, agencies and nations increase the U.S. military’s capability, capacity and credibility.
“These relationships of trust and context provide you with a network of resources that make us far more informed about the decisions we need to make amid uncertainty, and they create process where none exists,” Dempsey said.
The world now finds itself in an unprecedented information exchange era, the chairman said, with more than 6 billion cell phone subscribers in the world and one in every three people using the Internet.
“News and information arrive in a continuous stream, and we’ve seen what happens when social media [rally] like-minded people around a common cause,” Dempsey said. “When we chose this uncommon profession, we subscribed to unrelenting scrutiny, … and in the post-modern era of war, we expect an accounting of our conduct.” And missteps of confidence often are perceived less harshly than stumbles of character, he added.
“Our world’s speed and our mission significance converge in the present,” the chairman said. “For the first time, our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight.”
Ultimately, for those who serve the public’s trust, winning the nation’s wars is no longer enough, Dempsey said.
“How we win is becoming as important as the fact that we win,” the chairman told the graduates.
And this reality, he said, is not limited to military operations, but is applicable to almost any government agency.
“The people of all of our nations -- those who we serve -- are speaking loudly with a consistent message,” Dempsey said. “They require that we are both extraordinary and extra-ethical -- that we are men and women of the highest character and competence.”
Dempsey cited a speech by Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s speech at the U.S. Military Academy in 1991, in which he said he based his ideas of competence and character on his experiences in Vietnam.
“He noted that some highly competent leaders with little character were in it for themselves,” Dempsey said. “They sought rewards through promotions, awards and degrees that, in turn, would lead to faster promotions -- all too often to the detriment of those that they led and the causes they served.”
In contrast, the chairman said, Schwarzkopf noted that leaders of low competence but of high character weren’t willing to go the extra mile.
“He bluntly told his audience that, in his judgment, we had lost our integrity in Vietnam -- not everyone, of course, but the institution had lost the trust because of its missteps,” Dempsey said.
After Vietnam, Dempsey said, the services had to consciously and consistently rebuild both the readiness and reputation of the armed forces. And with that progress came setbacks, the chairman added.
“Seventeen years after I joined, we emerged, like the cicadas this spring, in the desert of Kuwait as the world’s pre-eminent joint force,” Dempsey recalled.
With the passing of nearly another 17 years, Iraq and Afghanistan tested the U.S. military’s competence, calling for troops to relearn counterinsurgency tactics and strategies and adapt to new types of conflict.
“Several instances reminded us that character is always tested in war, no matter how we wage it,” the chairman said. “As with Vietnam, negative impressions about our character eclipsed the courage and sacrifices of many of the men and women who served honorably … in that war.”
But the chairman reminded graduates that they don’t have another 17-year cycle to rebuild and regain the trust of the American people in its military force.
“There will be an ever-increasing expectation of servicewomen and men to achieve that intricate balance of high character and high competence,” Dempsey said.
Roughly 50 percent of the graduates are senior officers from the U.S. armed forces. Federal government and private-sector civilians and international students from 62 countries make up the other 50 percent