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Gen. Dempsey at the National Defense University Graduation

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks. I leaned over to Steve Pietropaoli, and he said, well, when the time comes, I know who’s going to do my eulogy. (Laughter.) I just hope it doesn’t come too soon, you know. (Laughter.)

But congratulations. I’ve enjoyed very much the chances we’ve had to interact through the year in various settings. I’ve come over to NDU often. I brought heads of state and counterparts over here for conferences because there is something that comes out of the walls at a place like this, something that you put into it. And it’s been a – it’s been a special place in my life, and I hope – and I trust that it has been a special place in your life.

I’d like to add my thanks and appreciation to the staff and faculty. You know, you will be – you are their legacy. I mean, Gregg used the old 8th Infantry Division Army phrase, you are our credentials. That’s really true. It’s not about the brick and mortar. It’s about what you deliver when you leave – when you leave today.

And I also want to mention your families. It is unfortunate we couldn’t include them. But if the weatherman is even half right about what’s coming our way, this will have proven to be a good decision to come in here.

And by the way, the metaphor about the tornado throwing you across the river, if you’re going to be assigned in the Pentagon after this – (laughter) – perfect. (Laughter.)

So it is – it really is great to be back here, and I want to – I want to thank Gregg and Maggie for their leadership here and their friendship through the years and today for inviting me to witness you, the next generation of leaders, as you depart for the force, for the fleet, to a department or agency or back home to leadership positions in the 62 nations that are represented here today.

And it really is I hope a great day for you and for your families, those that have supported you. I know that they’re proud of their M students – (laughter) – and for the opportunity to see you all a little bit more than usual. I will also believe they’re probably just as anxious for you to return to the force or fleet.

But hopefully, this has been time – you know, because after a while, you get old, probably, and – (laughter) – the whole deployment thing doesn’t look so bad at that point. (Laughter.) But hopefully, you have had some well-deserved time to reconnect with your families and to think.

Today’s a special day for another reason. On this day, in 1865, William Butler Yeats was born. And I know a little bit about Yeats because I’m Irish. And, you see, that’s what we Irish do: We sit around, we recite poetry, and occasionally, we slip into song, as Gregg mentioned.

And today, here at this institution, I’m reminded of a Yeats play entitled “The Land of Heart’s Desire.” In it, he describes a land where the old are fair and the wise are merry of tongue. Isn’t that somehow your experience here at the National Defense University?

Of course, Yeats was describing an enchanted land. And while I’m keenly aware that the blunt edge of sequester invaded your land, compared to the goings-on outside these gates, this year must truly have felt somehow charmed.

It’s not to say you weren’t challenged. In fact, I’d be supremely disappointed if you weren’t. But between crafting grand strategy and nursing pulled hamstrings, I hope you made lifelong friendships, relationships that you’ll come to rely on in the months and years ahead.

So there is much to celebrate today. In the midst of this celebration, though, we know there is something missing. We remembered two of our own, Joe and Sue Brown, leaders and lovers of this university, taken far too early. Susan Eisenhower reminded us of their humility, their purpose and their commitment, and I know that their enduring spirit will live on in the NDU family and in all who were fortunate enough to know them.

You see, that’s the influence that leaders of character and competence have. And that’s the legacy that they leave behind. This is, in fact, the topic I want to talk to you about today, the last chance I have to ask you to think about something before you get pulled into the maelstrom of current events.

And that is, as you prepare to re-enter your respective organizations, whatever they may be – now at the senior level, by the way – what will be your legacy? And I’m not referring to a book deal or the number of RBIs in the National War College Eisenhower School softball game. I’m actually referring to your legacy of leadership. You and the faculty and staff here have invested a significant of time this year adding to your body of knowledge and in terms of competence that is the outward expression of your expertise. You wouldn’t be at this premier institution of learning and military education if you weren’t highly competent. But what about character, the inner competence that guides this expertise? This is one of those soul-searching rhetorical questions. Know this: that outside these grounds, such questions are no longer rhetorical, because the challenges that confront us all are very real and they’re very vexing.

The solutions to these problems require decisive leaders who exhibit moral courage as well as unparalleled expertise. Before you depart this magical land – that is, National Defense University – I’d like you to invest just a few more moments of unflinching introspection. I promise you it will turn out to be worth it. In the coming months, others will be examining you, just as they are examining the services, agencies and the nations to which you will return.

This isn’t new, by the way. 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 it’s happened, by the way, after each period of conflict in our nation’s history. But we are in a different era now. We’re exchanging information like never before. There are over 6 billion cellphone subscribers in the world today. Globally, 1 in every 3 people use the Internet. News and information arrive in a continuous stream. And we’ve seen what happens when social media rallies like-minded people around a common cause.

Our world’s speed and our mission’s significance converge in the present. For the first time, our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight. What this means to us, to all of us who serve the public trust, is that winning our nation’s wars is no longer enough. How we win is becoming as important as the fact that we win. This reality isn’t limited, by the way, to military operations. You can equally apply it to any agency of our government or to the government of any country represented here today.

The people of all of our nations, those who we serve, are speaking loudly with a consistent message. They demand that every one of us raise the standards of our professionals and that we then meet those standards. More than that, they require that we are both extraordinary and extra-ethical, that we are men and women of the highest character and competence. And we have to answer this call because it’s our duty to do so, because it’s right.

I wish I could say that our profession of arms has always exuded high character and competence, but it hasn’t. General Norman Schwarzkopf spoke in 1991 in an address at the United States Military Academy about some of his experiences in the Vietnam era. Perhaps some of you were in that audience. He based his ideas of competence and character on his experience coming out of Vietnam. And he noted that some highly competent leaders but with little character were in it for themselves. They sought rewards through promotion, 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 that they served.

In contrast, he observed that leaders of low competence but high character weren’t willing to pay the price of leadership, to go the extra mile and put forth the extra effort. And 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.

I actually remember those years immediately following Vietnam, and across the services, we had to consciously and consistently rebuild both the readiness of the armed forces and their reputation. There was progress, but there were also setbacks. 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. It was hard slogging in those intervening 17 years. And even in 1991, we still didn’t have it all together. Nearly 17 years later from then, Iraq and Afghanistan tested our competence and we were forced to relearn counterinsurgency tactics and strategies and we had to adapt to a new kind of enemy and a new kind of conflict.

And several instances reminded us that character is always tested in war, no matter how we wage it. As with Vietnam, negative impressions about our character eclipsed the courage and sacrifices of many of the men and women who served honorably and are serving honorably in that war. The fact is that missteps of competence are often perceived less harshly than stumbles of character.

So as we emerge from more than 10 years of war, we’ve got some rebuilding to do. And when I say “we,” I mean “we.” You’re the ones going into the positions – into positions that will be an important part of making whatever changes we decide we need to make. Problem is, we don’t have another 17-year cicada cycle in order to accomplish those changes. The tyranny of time no longer allows the protracted rebuilding that I just described to you.

Think about this. When you take the real time scrutiny that I mentioned before, and you couple it with what I predict will be a period of persistent conflict, it becomes clear that there will be an ever-increasing expectation of servicewomen and -men to achieve that intricate balance of high character and high competence that I just described and that Yeats actually described when he talked about the struggle between the swordsman and the saint.

Now, there is good news about achieving this balance of high character and extraordinary competence. Leaders are already doing it. They’re out there. I see it every time I visit our troops, wherever they’re serving, in the 49 countries around the world and in particular in Afghanistan. I see it in them on the land and in the air and on the sea. I see it in them when I visit wounded warriors at Walter Reed or at Landstuhl. And I see it here today. But we haven’t gotten that balance right everywhere, not yet.

So I need your help to be part of achieving this balance of character and competence across the services and within the interagency. NDU is part of the solution, certainly. But while competence is built over a career, high standards must start from the very beginning. We have to define for our young leaders the characteristics that we expect will make them successful in joint interagency and multinational arenas.

In the end, it boils down to good leadership. And there is no – that’s no new policy. No new technology can replace that. In all we do, in every place we operate, our actions must be clear, consistent, values-based and intimately tied to the defense of the nation without flourish or fanfare. We must be a steel-plated organization with a gold standard of excellence. And that’s the way we engender trust.

Leaders of high character inspire trust. Our relationships with others, men and women from across the base or across the globe, rely upon that trust. More than any other profession, ours cannot succeed without trust in each other. When partners engender a deep, lasting respect, relationships can truly transcend disagreement and hardship.

And that’s more important than ever because it’s absolutely unlikely we’ll ever operate alone again. The pluralization of partnerships of other services, agencies and nations increases our capability, our capacity and our credibility. The relationships that you form this year will allow you to better understand and therefore take into account perspectives outside of your particular service or institutional boundaries, and these relationships of trust and context provide you with a network of resources. They make us far more informed about the decisions we need to make amid uncertainty, and they create process where none exists.

Finally, our leaders at all levers – levels must embrace selfless duty as the unifying moral force for all of our decisions. You re-enter organizations at a time of turmoil, when they’re working hard to adapt to uncertainty and rapidly changing geopolitical, budgetary and cultural landscapes. You could look around and believe that these challenges are insurmountable, or you can use them to inspire both yourself and those you lead into action: to learn, to risk and to lead.

Yeats understood turmoil. In his time, Ireland was defined by outsiders. But Yeats drew on Ireland’s heritage to express what it meant to be Irish. He was active in trying to revive the Irish culture from the inside, and that’s you will need to do.

Leadership is about optimism – and by the way, Gregg, you got to get over your shyness. (Laughter.) But one thing you should take, among many, from your president here is that leadership really is about optimism – I mean, not everybody can pull that off, by the way – (laughter) – but leadership is about optimism, about creating ways forward, and it’s an honor that we should never take for granted. That’s why we have to recommit ourselves to our profession and remake the force in your image, men and women of high character and unparalleled competence.

I want to thank you again, congratulate you again, thank your families again for your choice to live an uncommon life of consequence. Best of luck to each and every one of you.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)