RACHEL MARTIN: This is “Weekend Edition” from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It's been about a year and a half since General Martin Dempsey left his job as chief of staff of the Army and became the president's top military advisor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When Dempsey moved into his new office, he wanted to hang up a picture of one of his heroes.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: And that's the original oil portrait of George Washington.
MARTIN: The general had to ask for the portrait to be hauled out of Pentagon storage.
DEMPSEY: I think Marshall is kind of the exemplar of professionals, so I wanted her staring at me all the time …
MARTIN: It's kind of nerve-wracking. (LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: While Marshall was responsible for building up a U.S. military that could fight World War II, which meant a massive force expansion, Dempsey is responsible for reshaping the U.S. military after 10 years of war, which means scaling the force down. At the same time, General Dempsey is fighting to stave off across-the-board cuts to defense budget - the so-called sequester - that could happen in a couple of weeks if Congress fails to reach some kind of deal. When I sat down with General Dempsey in his office a few days ago, I asked him to explain what kind of impact these cuts could really make.
DEMPSEY: I'll give you two words and then I'll defend them: time and casualties. The way this plays out, when you hollow out readiness, it means that when the force is needed, when an option is needed to deal with a specific threat, you know, whether it's a terrorist organization or a state actor - should Iran decide to do something or should a Korean provocation occur? And, by the way, these are well-known scenarios that we always posture ourselves toward - it would take us longer to react to those. I mean, so, time is the issue. Now, some people might say, well, so what? We'll just take a little more time to do this. But time generally translates into casualties in my line of work. And so what we're doing here is we are taking what I consider to be unacceptable risk in time and casualties.
MARTIN: Let's say sequester happens and the cuts happen and the military is able to meet the threats that we're faced with in that period of time and the Pentagon weathers this. Is this a risk that Congress could say, well, you're just doing fine with a smaller budget. You're incredibly efficient and maybe your budget should stay smaller.
DEMPSEY: Well, if somebody ever accuses me of being incredibly efficient, I'm going to write their name down and I'll carry it with me always. Is there a risk that we would weather this? Well, we will weather it. We will weather this, Rachel. Look, the military is never going to fail to answer the call when the nation is threatened. But remember what I said - time and casualties. So, we will weather this, but shame on us all if we weather it at the expense of those who choose to serve in uniform. That would be immoral.
MARTIN: I want to move to a different subject, and that is the big cultural changes that the military is going through currently. In just the last couple of years, the military has changed its policies now making it OK for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. And most recently the change that now officially allows women to hold combat jobs. This is a different military than the military that you joined after you graduated West Point in 19 ...
MARTIN: ... 74. Could you have ever foreseen those changes?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I'm not trying to act like Nostradamus here. But, I mean, look, the reason that we have taken these steps is that we actually do foresee a military that has to adapt to a changing world, not just socially changing world but literally a demographically changing world, a changing character of warfare. And so what we did as chiefs - and this was really truly the joint chiefs coming together looking out to 2020. And I would almost ask a question in return.
Can you imagine in 2020 that some of these changes would not have been both prudent in terms of doing what's right for the young men and women who serve but also necessary? Because I think it's fairly common knowledge that our population of military-age young men who qualify for the military is declining. And so as a very practical matter, we decided if in 2020 we're going to need these young ladies, and we're going to need to attract as much diversity and as much talent as we can possibly attract, if that's going to be the case, what are we waiting for? Let's get on with it so that when we get to that world, we're better prepared for it.
MARTIN: But this is not without controversy. Some of your own service chiefs have raised a lot of concerns about this. The commandant of the Marine Corps has suggested that they're not going to suggest standards, and they can make a case as to why certain pockets of the Marine Corps should not be open to women.
DEMPSEY: Well, yeah, that actually could happen. You know, there are currently 66 military occupational specialties that are not open to women. So, what you've seen us do is - let's call it invert the paradigm. The paradigm was: these are closed to women so we don't have to explain why. And now the paradigm is these could be open to women, so we'd better explain why not. And what that's done, by the way, is it will actually make us wrestle standards to the ground and figure out if we've got them right. And if we've got them right and women meet the standard, they'll open. I can foresee most of them opening but there's some that may not actually.
MARTIN: So, let's talk a little bit more about that standards question. This is something that you have spoken of before. Presumably, when you went through your own training, there were standards. Someone at some point said, you know, Martin Dempsey needs to be able to do 62 pull-ups - not 63, not 61. That's not arbitrary. There’s a reason.
DEMPSEY: No, no, that's correct. There are existing standards, many of which haven't dusted off in a very long time, many of which have been kind of narrowly focused just on physical standards, but without the - pardon me - companion piece of potentially psychological and intellectual standard. And all I'm suggesting is now taken holistically and looking at, again, the changing character of war. I think this will be a very healthy thing for the institution. And it'll also have the added benefit of allowing a greater part of the population to compete.
MARTIN: You have also said that you believe that incorporating women into the combat arms positions could actually reduce case of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
DEMPSEY: What I said was that when people are treated equally, they tend to treat others equally. When you have groups within the same institution that are treated differently, I think it can set a condition for an unhealthy relationship. I will be pleasantly surprised - and I might be pleasantly surprised - that this initiative over time - over time, and that's the important point - could reduce some of the problems that we do have with sexual harassment and sexual assault. It's sort of a provocative thought and I'll be eager to ...
MARTIN: That somehow there's a power dynamic that ...
DEMPSEY: Sure there is.
MARTIN: ... that makes sexual harassment creates a culture where that's OK.
DEMPSEY: Climate, maybe not culture. Leadership is the key to this. And there are - the vast majority of units in the military have leaders who commit themselves to helping settle this problem and establish a climate that prevents it and deals with it. There are other parts of the organization where the leadership may not be quite as effective. And to that extent then, as we go down this path, opening up more opportunities for women, I think it could change the climate. I don't think we have a culture problem, I really don't. But I do think in some parts of the institution we might have a climate problem, and this could help with that.
MARTIN: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, we spoke with him in this office in the Pentagon. General Dempsey, thanks so much.
DEMPSEY: Thank you.