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Gen. Dempsey's Town Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey
United States Air Force Academy, Colo. —

MS. : Hi. If everyone could sit in your seats, we’re about to begin. And after General Dempsey finishes speaking, if you can stay in your seats until he leaves that would be great.

General Martin Dempsey is the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. Armed Forces and a principal military advisor to the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council. Prior to becoming chairman, he served as the Army’s 37th chief of staff.

A New Jersey native and career Army officer, General Dempsey is a 1974 graduate of West Point. During more than 39 years of service, he has commanded at every echelon from platoon to combatant command across the United States and the globe. General Dempsey is married to his high school sweetheart Deanie. Each of their three children, Chris, Megan and Caitlin, has served in the United States Army. They have eight grandchildren.

Ladies and gentlemen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you. Please have a seat – but don’t get too comfortable. (Laughter.) I know what it’s like to teach English at West Point to plebes, and every once in a while they’d have a hot turkey sandwich for lunch. (Laughter.) I can remember thinking that I was about to expire and noticed almost immediately that there wasn’t a single one of them in the room – (inaudible). In fact, one time I actually dismissed them all. I said – (inaudible). This is not going to work out for either of us so why don’t you – (inaudible). (Laughter.) So – (inaudible). (Cheers. Applause.)

So I am the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but I have to pay a lot of attention and use that number to remind me of other things. One important thing is that there is a continuity in our profession. You know, you don’t a job like chairman and decide that you’re going to make – you’re going to change everything so much. There’s an incredible amount of important – sometimes your continuity, you know, you’d just as soon shed, but there’s a lot of continuity in our profession that I think we should embrace. I mean, the fact that I’m here with 40 years of service – almost; a few months short of 40 years, and you don’t have year one yet of time in the active Air Force. You’ve got – some of you have had four years of time having agreed to serve your country. But that’s a part of continuity.

It’s not lost on me that it’s a real challenge for my 40 years to connect with your minus one, so we’re going to try to do a little of that today, and I hope – I hope you’ll allow me to do it. And a lot of, well, the way we do that, that should be during the question and answers, where I can learn from you what’s on your mind, and where I hope you will learn from me what is on mine, because if we don’t take these steps together, we’ll be – first of all, we won’t be as effective as we need to be, and secondly, we won’t be setting up our successors to have any success in that.

About a week ago today, actually, I was the officiating officer with the chief of staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, at the funeral of the 9th chairman, General David C. Jones, who had done a tremendous job on his watch. In fact, he’s kind of the father of the Goldwater-Nichols Act which really identified the definition of jointness and vested in the chairman the authorities that I have today, which I can share with you – or the lack thereof is some of that too. But I can share some of that with you if you like.

Some of you – if you were in the mess hall today you heard me say that on this day in 1911, the Italians bombed the Turks in Tripoli. And that’s true. In turns out that there was four hand grenades, actually, which didn’t do much more than make them really mad. It didn’t really do any damage but it did start us on a path to understand that domain in a way that we hadn’t understood it up to that point.

We’ve come a long way. I remind people at every opportunity that the ground forces of the United States of America have not been attacked from the air since April 15th of 1953. Now, that’s – if you’re going to remember anything that I tell you today, don’t screw that up. (Laughter.) If you don’t do anything else in your career – you see how I’m dressed; you know who I’m rooting for tomorrow, but you also know that I care deeply about not being attacked from the air in my particular line of work. And it hasn’t happened in 60 years, which is a remarkable feat and one that we can’t take for granted, by the way, and we won’t.

And that same kind of pride and evolution – or revolution, really, from 1911 until now is I think one of the things you will experience in your careers in space and in cyber. And I spent some time this morning with some of your peers over in 21st or the 50th Wing, Space – (inaudible) – so over in B (ph) Field. And it reminded me that we’re really just scratching the surface of what is largely – and it should be – seen as clearly a convergence of intelligence information in space and cyber. That’s going to challenge our current framework. So you’re going to have plenty of challenges under your watch, just as I’ve had some pretty significant challenges on mine.

I’m going to leave here — after I talk to you — to the other end of the spectrum of your chain of command and talk to the three and four stars that have assembled here in this region. I’m going to talk in Corona – and talk about the future of the Air Force. And we’re going to have that kind of conversation about we know what we’re going to do today, or at least we think we do. We know some of the challenges we’re facing, or at least we think we do.

But we’ve got to make sure that if we don’t – that the one thing we can’t fail to do is to develop leaders, and that’s something we do, whether it’s those wearing stars or those wearing a cadet insignia, because we’ll probably get the future wrong; we’ll probably get our organizational design wrong. The weapons systems won’t be perfectly matched to the needs, but at the end of the day you’ll be the ones that help figure that out. You’ll be leaders who take imprecise information and take organizations not exactly – that don’t fit exactly right, and weapons systems not designed for every possible outcome, and make sense of it in the context of the – of the world in which we live.

I want to talk a little bit about the foundation of our profession – (inaudible) – and you’re part – you’re part of the profession. You’re kind of a consumer of the profession right now. You’re – you should be anyway. You should be learning about your profession. You’ve had leadership positions, those of you that are in the upper classes, but fundamentally we expect you to still be consuming information and thoughts about what it means to be a leader. Then when you graduate – which for some of you that will be about nine months from now – you become a – you can’t remain a consumer. You will; you’ll still have plenty of mentors and supervisors and commanders who are going to want to mold you and shape you, and that’s an important part of our profession, but you’ll also then be producing. You’ve got to produce leadership. You’ve got to be leader.

And if I could give you just one piece of advice – I already told you about not screwing up the whole air thing if we get attacked, but the other piece of it is – I want you to take away today is that you are leaders the minute you step on the playing field. It’s not that – you know, we don’t – we don’t expect you to understand everything, or we don’t expect you to be able to solve every problem, of course, but we do expect you to be a leader, and all that means. And there’s an important aspect of that and I want you to understand and hear it personally from me.

Over the past 10 years it’s my observation that because we’ve been so consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and deployments of all kinds – to increase our posture in the Gulf or to offset the threat and to deter North Korea, wherever it is, we’re really busy. But if any of you is worried that by the time you get to the force we may not have anything for you to do. Don’t worry about that. There will be plenty for you to do and you’ll be an important part of us producing our national security.

But the point I want to make is that over those 10 years we’ve tended to really value competence, not to the exclusion of character, but character took a bit of a backseat. We could spend all day talking about why that happened and where leaders like me may have taken their eye off the ball – something that had to do with our ability or our willingness or unwillingness to cycle young men and women coming back into our education system. We’ve just got to – we had a feeling we were too busy to do that so we deferred things, we shortened promotion time in the grid. We did a whole bunch of things to feed the beast of the conflict for the last 10 years. And in so doing we kind of took our eye off the ball of character and how important – really vitally important character is to our profession.

So you have to not only be the best at whatever you choose to be in this, the field of space, cyber – a fighter pilot, a bomber, whatever it happens to be – and then whether it’s administration or combat operations, you have to be – in our profession, by its very nature, you have to strive to be the best at whatever particular skill you choose or to which we assign you.

But you also own the institution in the sense that people will form an impression about it – about its values, about its relationship with the American people – through you, and based on your personal conduct on duty and off duty and – ready for this – also in the virtual world. It’s a new world out there and the way you make an impression on people – I’m not talking about you personally; I’m talking about those of us who wear the uniform of whatever rank.

And we do have that, men and women in the ranks today who think it’s OK to have one persona on duty, on persona off duty, and a different persona potentially entirely in the virtual world. And that – those worlds, just as I said, there’s a convergence of intel, information in cyber and space – there’s a convergence – there’s a convergence of those three worlds – the physical world, the world on duty and off duty, and the world of cyber – that you have to be alert to, and you have to help those that you will meet to be able to.

I guess stated another way, our profession, after having enjoyed almost 10 years of – of not just support but esteem at historic levels – 78 percent I think in the last few polls – 78 percent believe that your profession, the one you’re about to enter, is a noble profession. It’s a profession to be admired. And that’s how we have to have good people. You can’t take that for granted. There’s going to be a retraction of sorts as the nation continues to struggle with its monetary and fiscal policy, but also as you see the corrosiveness in government that will eventually wash over us in some way if we’re not careful. So I’m just – (inaudible) – character plus competence, and I don’t want to see those two – put them in that order – (inaudible).

Let me give you an example of how that plays out in the real world. There’s a – I was traveling through Alaska and I met a big, tall, six-foot-seven, really skinny Alaskan Air Guardsman who happened to be a parajumper. And he had just gotten back from Afghanistan and his award was pending. I was introduced to him as Master Sergeant Roger Sparks. And he was introduced to me as a recent returnee from Afghanistan. But I asked him – I know he was pending an award, and I think it was the Silver Star. I didn’t dig too deeply into it – a significant award.

I said, what did you do? And he said, well, my unit was responsible for airlifting wounded soldiers on the battlefield in the Hindu Kush, the mountain range in Northeastern Afghanistan, altitudes of 14(,000) to 18,000 feet. You know, it makes Pikes Peak look like, you know, an ant hill. (Laughter.) And these are – I mean, these are harsh conditions. Some of you in the Academy have no doubt served in those – in those conditions – really tricky navigation and really tricky density altitude issues and wind issues in those mountains. And this guy, all six-foot-seven of him, hovering with a – with a Black Hawk helicopter hovering, would lower himself, you know, on a cable, on a wire or rope, to pull wounded soldiers off a mountainside.

And the action for which he was being given this award was with the 10th Mountain Division. They had been ambushed on the side of one of these mountaintops. And he had gone to pull them off, fundamentally, but they were still under fire and were still in contact with the enemy, so he lowered himself down, and he eventually pulled 12 people up the side of the mountain – about the max load that the Blackhawk could actually carry under those conditions. Four of them died in his arms, and the rest survived – two or three of those were wounded.

But I said – you know, I said, what was – you know, you always have – even four-star generals ask stupid questions on occasion, and I said to him, what was it like? And as soon as I said that, I said, what the hell kind of question is that, what was it like?

But I asked it, and he said, well, you know, scary. You know, I was lowered – they were lowering me down with the – with the hoist, and three times, the cable was struck by rifle fire. And I said, you’ve got to be kidding me, man. You know, three times you lowered yourself, what’s it, 15(,000), 16,000 feet under fire, and the cable gets struck two or three times. And I said, you went down how many times? And he said, 12. But he said it with a nonchalance that was just disarming.

And, you know, I said – then I said to him the question I probably should have asked him the first time. I said, you know, why did you do that? And he said exactly what I thought he’d say: because they needed it. You know, my – these soldiers were trapped, and if I didn’t agree – and not that I agree, you know, explicitly – like, I’m a parajumper; that’s what I do. But he said, if not me, who? And if not then, when, and if not there, where?

I mean, it was unbelievable, really, the clarity that that young man spoke about in terms of his response to the – his personal responsibility. And I think it comes down to – I’m now at the point where I believe – you know, each academy has a long list of values – courage, selflessness, commitment. If you have to sign up for one – you really need to sign up for all of them, but there is one that’s more important than others, I’m convinced, and it’s trust. And you have it here.

You have to trust that man or woman to your left or right. You certainly don’t walk out of your forward operating base in Afghanistan unless you trust that the man or woman to your left or right, front or back, knows what they’re doing, first of all. And secondly, will feel the personal responsibility not just for themselves but for each other. You just won’t walk out that gate. You won’t walk out the gate if there’s not a medic with you who you trust knows what to do if you get into a fight.

You’re not going to walk out that gate unless you trust that if something bad happens to you, there’s this exquisite medical system, you know, that takes care of you and transports you – the golden hour inside the country, the C-17 lifters that bring you to Landstuhl – the doctors that care for you and – (inaudible) – you just won’t walk out that gate unless you know that that system is there and that it knows what it’s doing and you trust it. And finally, you’re not going to walk out that gate unless you know that if someone really bad happens to you, your family will be cared for.

Now, that’s the profession that you’re about to enter, where trust is the dominant feature that holds it together. And you don’t need to do anything with this information today, except, I want you to think about it. Now, let me bank shot back that thought about trust into something I know that you experienced about a month ago.

About a month ago, they asked you to read a book called, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” How many of you loved that book, by the way? Excellent. (Chuckles.) Tough book to read, man. And then, I know that you invited the author here to speak with you. And I’ve read the book, and several others that I can mention to you, but I knew he’d come, and I wanted to read what he said. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. If I had known that’s what he was writing about, I would have hated the book from the start. I don’t think he really even knew what he was writing about after I heard what he said to you in this – I guess it was this auditorium.

And you know, what he missed entirely – he swung and missed at the issue of trust. In fact, when you look at what he said, and many of you, I think, were here for his comments. What he really did is expose his own lack of trust in almost anything, and that’s a heck of a way to live, to be honest with you. He doesn’t trust a politician, he doesn’t trust a businessman, he doesn’t trust – I couldn’t find anything in those remarks where he indicated that he had trust in anything except his own arrogant, self-fulfilling ego. (Applause.)

Now look, I didn’t come here to bash Ben Fountain. I buzzed the damn book, and now I’m sorry I did, but (laughter) – and in fact, I – they asked what I thought of it, and I said “worth reading” now he’s using that to sell more books. (Scattered laughter.) But I wanted to make sure that you heard from me that, first of all, the value of reading – there is value in reading those kind of books, to challenge your thinking and to experience, you know, vicariously what veterans that’s the importance of the book, by the way. It’s kind of the miscommunication between veterans and society.

But you can’t use that to bank shot into the war in Iraq and whether it was worth fighting – that’s a – you know, I used to teach English, so I’ve got this penchant for language and also for logic. And I found it so distressing, and I wanted to mention it here today – what you should take away from that book, had you read it, is a lack of communication between the society and soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine and Coast Guard serving, but that doesn’t – that miscommunication is not reason to abandon hope that somehow we’re not going to figure each other out.

In fact, it’s actually more our responsibility than society’s to figure that out, just as in Washington, the world that I live in, it’s actually more my responsibility than it is our civilian leaders to bridge that civil-military relationship. Why? They come and go; we’re there for life. Fundamentally, we own the continuity in terms of national security, and it’s our obligation to actually help our civilian leaders understand how best we think they can meet the needs and give them advice to help integrate what we do into what they’re trying to do.

But I was so staggered by the lack of trust in those remarks that I didn’t want you to leave here without me having a chance to tell you, it’s not only – if we don’t have trust that this nation will remain exceptional, that we’ll be a global power, that we’ll be influential, that we’ll stand for the right things, we’ll do the right things – not all the time, by the way, or even the first time. We’re going to make mistakes, in case you haven’t noticed – everybody that makes these kinds of decisions, you know, they happen to be human beings; we haven’t figured out a way to have an algorithm do that.

And so there’s going to be challenges, problems, mistakes and opportunities, but don’t ever lose faith. And what I read in that author’s remarks is that he’s lost faith. And you lose faith, you surrender. And in our profession, you only lose when you acknowledge defeat. You only lose when you acknowledge that you’re defeated. And that’s the spirit that you need graduating from here. You need to – you need to understand that the nation cannot afford for you to be defeated as a group or individually. You have to leave here understanding that it’s trust that holds this profession together.

Will we argue with each other with different services? Hell yes we will argue with each other, especially as the budget begins to kind of navigate its way – you know, there’s – everybody opens up to the table, and everybody wants to argue for their share. And by the way, I actually think that’s the way the system was designed, and I actually embrace the chance to see if the best ideas could manage their way to the top.

But at no point have we ever – that’s the service chiefs and I – ever lost trust in each other, and we will not. We cannot, and you can’t lose trust in – (inaudible) – the profession that you’re going to serve. It’s an – you have chosen to live an uncommon life. And I think that’s why I can actually, at the end of the day, let Ben Fountain off the hook. He didn’t choose to lead an uncommon life. In fact, I think he actually took a common path, to just declare that everybody except him doesn’t see the way, really, things should be.

I think, in our profession, we answer that view – we answer – the way we look at the world should be through the lens of this uncommon commitment to trust as a starting point and as well to commitment and as well to try and make a difference and never acknowledging defeat. You do that, by the way – I – (inaudible) – what part of the service you enter, you’re going to be fine. And then I will feel that I can turn this incredible profession over to you with great confidence that it will be ready when the nation needs it, whenever and wherever to do – to do whatever.

So look – again, I didn’t come here to bash that book or that author, but I hope, as you think about this period in which we find ourselves, where generally speaking, what you’re going to hear is mostly the disagreements that people have – don’t let that cynicism creep into your lives. I mean, it will on occasion; my wife said back there, she’ll – you know, she’ll tell you – by the way – every once in a while, the little leprechaun in me jumps out and – (laughter) – I’ll be sitting over at a Congressional hearing and a Senator will – this will shock you, right? A senator will attack me, and you know, but – so she says to me, why don’t you tell them what you think?

And I said, yeah, I could, actually, and many times, I would like to, but what is it the American people expect out of their senior military leader, if they’ve chosen to live an uncommon life? I think they expect to see that we can rise above the pettiness that sometimes creeps into our system. And so, you know, the little leprechaun generally stays where he belongs and doesn’t leap out. It leaps out at home every once in a while – (inaudible) – or, you know, after two or three Guinness – (cheers, applause) – but anyway – so I really think that you ought to feel good about yourselves, the fact that you’ve been – you’ve come here. You were good enough to get here. Some of you are about to prove whether they’re good enough to leave – and then, when you get out there, you know, you’re going to be looked at as Academy grad you’re going to be looked as Air Force officers.

That comes with a certain responsibility – a responsibility that I have literally loved over the past 40 years. I’ve loved that challenge of living an uncommon life. Not without – look – believe me, I’m not an altar boy. My mother wanted me to be a priest; that didn’t work out for me. (Laughter.) I’m not an altar boy; we make mistakes. We move on, and hopefully, you’re in a climate where you can. But fundamentally, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and if you leave here with that commitment, I think your faculty members, your staff – each other will have done you a great service.

By the way, where is – are there faculty members present here? I can’t see the lights – if there are, will you stand up? And let me ask these two classes – give them a round of applause. They put a lot of heart and soul into making you want you are (cheers, applause). Yeah, so the dean he ran them all out so he could get all the applause. (Laughter.)

OK, look. I could fill the rest of the time, but I promised you that what I want to do is hear from you; we’ve got about 40 minutes to do that. So let me just I’d ask you to – whoever’s going to moderate this, to find a way to allow me to interact with the classes of 2014. (Cheers.)

Is that the interaction? Is that what – (inaudible) – (laughter) – what questions do you have? All right – (inaudible) –

Q: Sir, this is Cadet First Class Joseph Cole from Cadet Squadron D – (cheers) – sir, I was wondering if you could speak to how the government and the military is working with the international community to develop international drone law, and how this might affect the Air Force in the future.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. Is he the class – (inaudible) – by the way – (inaudible). OK, I’m going to talk about drones, also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft. What I think about the application of the use of force in general – we apply two standards, really. One, is it legal? Do we have an authorization of military force or do we have a declaration of conflict of some kind?

So there’s a legal – there are legal issues, and then there’s ethical issues that we – through which we filter the use of force. The point I want to make is, that same group of filters – legal filters, ethical filters – it’s true whether you’re talking about a bayonet or a Hellfire missile out of a remotely piloted aircraft – the drone has gotten a little more notoriety because it’s been used with greater frequency in areas that are kind of denied to us, but I’ll tell you that in every case we’ve used them with a great deal of – (inaudible) – legal and ethical.

Your point about – I think you said – so that’s internal to the United States government. And recently the president published a new presidential policy guidance that actually codifies it or made it more clearly than maybe it had been previously.

I think you said, though, are we working to, let’s say, harmonize our practices in international law?

Q: Yes, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, the answer is no. (Laughter.) I mean we’ve got some fora in which we’ve had conversations about that with our closest allies. Well, look, we haven’t been able to agree on a land and sea convention despite trying for about 20 years. I’m not – I’m not even sure what the international – who is the international community, anyway? You know? I mean there’s the assumption that there’s a way to build this kind of exquisite consensus on really contentious issues, which just hasn’t been my experience that we can. So on this particular issue, we generally deal with it in terms of our sovereignty, and we’re very clear that we pass it through the filter – the policy through the filter of all three sectors of our government: legislative, executive and judiciary. And then on a case-by-case basis, we apply ethical standards. And ethical standards can be risk of collateral damage, degree of confidence in intelligence and so forth.

Well, we’ve got some pretty – not pretty – we’ve got some very clearly defined metrics for the use of force. But I would like you to remember what I said, that use of force is both a legal and an ethical issue whether you’re talking about a bayonet or a Hellfire missile. (Inaudible) – story.

Yes, on this side.

Q: Yes, sir. I’m Cadet Dave Nabor (ph). I’m going to ask you a question about your academic career. Not because your’e in front of a hostile crowd, but you’re standing in front of a group of students known for pilots and an engineering programs. But the idea is being kicked around here that we’re a liberal arts school and not a technical school. And you talked about the technical aspect and danger of the character aspect. If you could sell to us your experience in the English Department or in things like history or philosophy, those kind of liberal arts programs and the importance of making officers of character, good character, rather, and making leaders.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. You know, as an academy grad myself, and I went back as a member of the faculty, in fact I sat on the superintendents board at the academy in the mid-‘80s trying to look at the issues of balance. You know, we – I think all the academies take a whole man or a whole woman approach. You know, leadership requires some combination of academic excellence, physical standing – you don’t have to be a marathoner, but you have to have certain bearing, if you will. And I think you have to have good communication skills that probably exceed what you might need somewhere else like Wall Street. So the academy does take a – have a very deliberate process by which they try to determine how that balance is achieved. Balance doesn’t mean equal parts.

So my own view of education is that – this will surprise you if you actually think if you want to tee me up for my answer, but my own view of education is that – I’ll give you the definition of an educator: somebody who’s able to hold two competing thoughts in their head comfortably and be able to at some point make his or her own decision, but that you don’t become so enamored of bumper stickers and platitudes that you lose the ability to think.

I also think communication – which gets back to the humanities. In case you hadn’t noticed, the reason I believe that the humanities are important in the military is, as I look around here, at least I think the vast majority of you are humans. (Laughter.) There might be a cyborg or an iRobot or something – (laughter) – I can’t find them. So I do think that your ability to understand what makes us tick, you don’t have to be philosopher – (inaudible) – necessarily, but I do think exposing young men and women here to a bit of that uncommon life that I described requires them to have uncommon experience.

So I’ve actually fought against, you know, skewing the military academies in any particular direction. Sure, we absolutely – especially in your service, there’s a higher degree of technical expertise required than probably there is in most parts of the military, and the Navy – (inaudible) – someplace halfway between, I don’t know. But I think that we need to – I just think we need uncommon experiences even in our education system to remain that uncommon profession. So for me it’s about balance.

I hated taking electrical engineering, by the way, for the record. (Cheers, applause.) I can tell you a story. We had a class reunion, and we had them to my house. I think there was about 25 or so of us left, and I think 12 or 13 showed up with their spouses, and we had them over to the house. And one of my classmates who got out at the five-year point, no I take that back, he went the full 20, he was an engineer – probably the geekiest engineer. I’ve ever known in my entire life. I mean, look but he was a genius. But at one point – now, mind you, this was like 9:00 at night and we had dinner, I think I had a few, you know, or maybe two – (laughter) – but anyway, me and my classmates, we’re all talking and stuff. And this guy hadn’t said a word, and all of a sudden he says – we’re all joking about our time as cadets and all of a sudden he starts talking about the right-hand rule. Right? If he had just stopped there, it might have been OK, but he wanted to actually explain the rule. Now, this is 9:00 at night with a bunch of 60-year old men, you know, after cocktail hour. I mean, we all – we were just stunned. I mean, we’re all like this, and our wives are going – (inaudible). One of them said, Jerry, what the hell are you talking about? (Laughter.) And I’m telling you, it was like he was talking in another language.

And so I personally – I don’t know what kind of commander he was, you know? I don’t know what kind of commander he was, but unless you have a whole command full of people like that, the chances that you really communicate with them effectively is probably pretty slim. (Laughter.)

So I think that language and culture and humanities and physical fitness and math, science, engineering I mean, I – you meets you meet some of all of that, and that later in life, you’ll actually begin to, you know, focus a bit more, pick a particular specialty, again, a master’s degree. Some of you will decide you want to go on through a doctorate, and you’ll get a doctorate. You can – you know, you can narrow your – you can narrow your horizons this over time, but I wouldn’t narrow it too much.

But that’s just my opinion. I get a pretty decent-sized vote in all this, by the way. (Laughter.) But that’s just – that’s kind of where I find myself on these issues.

What about over here.

Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. My name is – (inaudible). I really appreciate your remarks on trust today. And I was wondering, what do you do with some breach of trust when you start thinking that way?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, the truth is, you can see what happens. I mean, there is – you know, the – you know, we’ve had a series over the past I think two years now where senior officers – and I’ll define senior officers; you know, probably you begin to become a senior officer – (inaudible) – but where senior officers have forgotten about the character side of the equation and put themselves in – they put themselves in some really difficult positions.

I mean, the problem is they’re not putting themselves – they’re not uniquely putting themselves in that position. What they forgot is that they’re putting our profession in that position. So whether it’s taking gifts that are inappropriate, that’s an ethical issue, or whether it’s bribery or, you know, contracting fraud or, I mean – you know, you see some of the things we’ve been dealing with. We’re not done, by the way. We’re working our way toward a system to re-educate ourselves and to re-emphasize this issue of trust in the profession. But, you know, there is some vacancy here that I’m dealing with. There are still some investigations that are going to become prominent that are going to really give the profession a significant scar. And it is a scar. It’s not a sting; it’s a scar.

So what do you do? I mean, you have to deal with it. But, you know, individual misconduct, you deal with individually. What I’m worried about is that I do have come concerns that we’ve actually become a little too – here’s how I would describe it. And I – and I have to be really careful about this publicly. But inside the – (inaudible) – I’ll say this. I think that over the past 10 years, as we have asked so much of our young men and women in uniform, repeated deployments, you know, one year gone, one year back, and whatever the cycle is for a particular service, I think we’ve become too forgiving, to tell you the truth.

You can see that play out in the way we either do or don’t hold people accountable for some of these issues. And I think that – thinking that we were being more compassionate – you know, OK, you did this, but, you know, you have three deployments, and so maybe that was a factor. Yeah, probably, it was a factor. But to do something illegal and immoral, it’s illegal and immoral. And that factor – you know, that can be a factor in a nonjudicial system or a judicial system in terms of punishment, but it shouldn’t stop you from holding someone accountable.

So I think it’s time, and have expressed this to my fellow four-stars, that – it’s a matter of emphasis. It – you have some people who are going to do things wrong because they’re going do things wrong. You’re not going to take this to zero, by the way. But then you’re going to have to prove that they’ve just has gotten lazy and sloppy about taking gifts or inappropriate travel or using aides inappropriately. You know, you just get a little sloppy over the years. And we got to tighten that up.

But the simple answer to your question is you have to hold them accountable. You have to hold them accountable. And then you have to look and see where there is a system or a systemic problem and where our – you need to – (inaudible). And where you find a systemic problem, you got to deal with that.

Trust your instincts. By the time you graduate from here, and you matriculate through the ranks – you’ll develop that – you have already that little voice in your head. You know, that little voice in your head says “Don’t go to Jack Quinn’s and drink and drive” you already got that voice. Pay attention.


Q: Hello, sir. I’m – (inaudible). With this latest conflict coming to an end, do you think that the United States military will still be focusing on training more large-scale conflict, or will we continue training for a COIN campaign?

GEN. DEMPSEY: (Groan.) (Laughter.) Sounds like that’s the quadrennial defense review summary.

A couple of thoughts. One is whenever somebody says with the fog war is coming to an end, you know, it kind of – I kind of react to that. I mean, we’re going to – we’re going to reduce our presence in Afghanistan significantly. But al-Qaida and its affiliates are syndicating across a very large swath of the Mideast and North Africa. And so frankly, the threat right now on Syria and Yemen and Libya and probably Mali is greater than it is in Afghanistan.

So what we really ought to think about here is we – this is really the way to think about it – we need to rebalance our efforts. Mostly, what we’ve been doing is direct action. And I think you’ll find that most of what we’ll do in the next few years is more building partner capacity, and enabling partners to take direct action while we will retain the capability to take direct action when we need to take it. So it’s a rebalancing – (inaudible) – these two core competencies right now, direct action and building partner capacity, you know, we’re going to turn the knobs. We can’t turn them both down at the same time, or you’ll hurt yourself at a pretty significant rate. (Inaudible) – you know, major conflict, moderate conflict, little conflict – (inaudible) –this is a hideous argument. And I say it’s a hideous argument because I don’t – we’re almost – it seems to me we’re trying to talk ourselves into believing we actually know what the future is going to hold.

So here’s my view of that. My view of that is that we have to retain the capability to conduct major combat operations, combined arms maneuver. We’ll find a way that works. But as a – it’s a traditional form of combat enabled with all these other capabilities that are new. We have to maintain the capability to do that. But we’ve got to make sure that – because also that’s really where our deterrent value resides. Deterrence is a combination of this capability I just described and a perception of willingness to use it. And yes, we do have some challenges – (inaudible) – but we’re working through it. But we have to maintain the capabilities to perform or execute or employ a state-on-state conflict and combined arms maneuver with a joint force. But the force that would do that – (inaudible) – to do has got to be flexible enough that when we need less of it, we can use less of it.

To do it the other way around is really dangerous. If you do it the other way around, you say, well, really, you know, all you really need is the B-2 fleet with some – (inaudible) – submarines with – (inaudible). That’s not exactly the term, by the way – (inaudible). (Laughter.) But if you build the force on that line, it’s almost impossible to bring it together when you need it together. In other words, it’s easier to build this force with the capabilities that I’ve described as combined arms maneuver, and then disaggregate it as necessary, than it is to build it for a very limited conflict in aggregate. It’s just harder to do it the other way.

Now, by the way, budget questions are twisting us and turning us in different directions, and that’s one of the things we have to reconcile here over the next few months.

Q: Thank you, sir.


Q: Thank you for sharing your time with us today, sir. My question is, character often becomes a buzz word here at the academy, but I do sincerely want to ask you what your advice would be to us in how to achieve or maintain or recover good character.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, that’s actually a really good question. My Catholic upbringing will probably creep into the answer of that question, only because, you know, I don’t think that a failure of character is irrevocable, is irreducible.

You – now, I do think, as I said to the gentleman earlier, you have to hold people accountable. But, look. When I was a commander, I – and you’ll have this experience, too. You bring them in – you bring in soldiers or sailors you bring them in for nonjudicial punishment, things that don’t go to a court marshal and, you know, the thing that I always tried to remember was, you know, hate the sin, not the sinner, kind of. You have to hold that young man or woman accountable, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to declare them an abject failure.

Now, repeated failures, some failures you do once are too much for our profession. Integrity is actually one of those. I think it’s very hard in our profession to overcome a failure of integrity. Each academy addresses that a little differently, and I’m kind of fine with that. But I do think that once you’re commissioned, I think that’s one of those values that is enduring.

So, you know, I’m not sure. We almost have to – we almost have to have a few case studies for me to make a – put a finer edge on that. But I do think that – what I wouldn’t want to do is give anyone the impression here or anywhere else that you can’t fail every once in a while and recover from it. You can. I have.

And I think – by the way, one of the things I do worry about, with cadets in particular – not here, in general, midshipmen – is some of you are so good at – (inaudible) – you’re smart, you’re athletic, you’re – you know, that’s how you get here, by the way. You were – you know, you’re better than most of the rest of society’s young men and women. I do worry sometimes you’re so good that you don’t really have to – you know what I mean? I actually look back and I don’t think I was kid I probably should have been, to tell you the truth, you know? (Inaudible.) (Laughter.) So what I do worry about though is maybe some of you will leave here and never having even seen what failure looks like, let alone experience it yourself. And I am of the opinion that you have to have experience or in some way confronted failure in order to really know who you are. And so what we ask of the academy – (inaudible) – and if you’re wondering why it’s such a lovely experience at the academies, we actually asked – you know, that’s what we do try to let you see what that looks like and feels like. And importantly, we see who gets up and who doesn’t.

Now, sometimes you’ve got that – (inaudible) – this is like that old – (inaudible) – the academies. There’s only so much time. That’s why we – it’s why sports are such an integral part of our life, both inside the academies and even beyond across the force. We spend enormous resources allowing young men and women to compete inside of units inside the Army, Navy, Air Force. So I know I wandered all over the place on that answer, but maybe that’s where – maybe that’s OK, and maybe this is a kind of question where you circle it, and you might get closer to it, but you’re not going to ever really answer it to your satisfaction.

MODERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

Q: Thank you.

GEN. DEMPSEY: That was the English professor in me coming out. (Laughter.)

Q: (Inaudible) – 2nd class – (inaudible) – from – (inaudible). I was just wondering, playing off that answer, what was your biggest leadership mistake, and what and how did you overcome that to become a better officer of character?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. (Chuckles.) I was thinking about certain politicians who might ask that question – (inaudible) – I – you know, I’m not sure I can put my finger on one catastrophic mistake I’ve made, but there’s a theme when I think about my career, the times when I probably felt less positive about myself as a leader.

Two ways that I would answer that. One is when you commission, they’ll give you a rucksack. And in that rucksack, they’re going to hand you a rock. And on the rock is going to be written “guilt” because we have the uncanny ability to make you feel like if you ain’t working 24/7/365, you ain’t trying. And so I got the same rock when I graduated. And I think that there were times when I felt less positive as a leader when I didn’t try to help my unit balance its life, where I had artificially driven because somehow I felt like, you know, if we’re not – (inaudible) – so if you’re not – (inaudible) – or working on some maintenance issue at 8:00 at night, you’re not trying. I think I actually managed my way out of that, and especially once we had children, you know, there was a certain tug that probably helped me overcome it. But you have to help both yourself and your subordinates balance their lives.

And so part of my answer to your question is that I probably, on occasion, especially in command, because you’re very aware when you take command that you only have command for a certain amount of time, and you want to do as much as you can in that time, but you know, you come and go, and there’s a lot of airmen that stay right where they are. So you have to make sure you don’t impose an unreasonable standard of commitment on them and you try to help them out – (inaudible).

And then the other – probably the other place that I talked about trust – you know, I think it’s probably been cases where I didn’t exercise it as well as I should have or I may have, you know, micromanaged an organization because I felt like I was smarter, but I was more experienced. You tend to be more experienced when you’re in command. But you know, I can’t put my finger on it, but I can tell you that, you know, I come home at night, my wife, Deanie, would say, you know, how was your day? Some days I’d say, great. Another day I’d say, ah, not so good. But I couldn’t really figure out why. But on reflection, it was that on those two issues, balance and trust, I just hadn’t done as much as I thought I should on that day.

But – and one other thing I’ll tell you – the other – are you – (inaudible)? (Inaudible) –oh, if you could see what – (inaudible) – today, (I think I should learn from you ?). (Laughter.)

So – I don’t – I’ve lost my thought. I – (inaudible). (Laughter.)

That’s how I would answer your question. But – (inaudible). (Laughter.)

OK. I’ll take one more.

Q: (Inaudible) – Seabrook (sp) – (inaudible) – CS-30. I was wondering what is the national security threat that personally keeps you up at night, either currently, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the road.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, it sets the challenge. I mean, if you’re asking 30 years down the road, I’ll give you a much different answer.

As we stand here today, believe it or not, the inability of the – of the – (inaudible) – we can actually figure this out. You know, whether we get a cut of another 500 billion (dollars) or 250 (billion dollars), we can figure it out. We’ve got some really bright people, really dedicated committed people, people who care about America, and we’ll do what we can to provide the capabilities we think they need.

But you know, I haven’t had a budget since I’ve been the chairman. So that’s the – I mean, that’s not a very popular answer to your question, but the reality is, it’s the uncertainty that’s actually having the worst effect on the force internally.

Now externally, cyber, and it’s for a couple of reasons, one of which is we haven’t been able to get ourselves organized as a nation with the proper authorities in the right place in order to deal with it.

But look, at the end of the day, when people – you know, we get in a room and talk about threats, if I leave the chairmanship and we have made ourselves a little better prepared for cyber, and we – I think NATO and – and we’ve helped improve the NATO-Russia relationship, so we don’t have another round of the Cold War, and we manage an emerging China so that we’re contenders but not in conflict, I think probably that’s about where I’d like to be when I leave and then hopefully, you know, help set my successor up for what they will face.

Let me end with this. I said character and confidence. I said trust. One other thing I want to leave you with is you need to care. And you care, and you care – but you really – you’ll know whether you want to stay on active duty beyond your obligations when you begin to meet the young airmen who will work for you and if you find yourself – that you really care what happens to them – on duty and off duty, their education, their further development, their promotion. If you find that you really care what happens to them, you’re in the right post.

Conversely, if you find that frankly you don’t care and that really – this is – (inaudible) – everybody’s different, but to the extent you find that you really care about the young men and women entrusted to your care, that should help you understand.

So here’s a little something I do that I’d pass on to you. The – this is the most powerful weapon you have as a leader right here, the fact that you – (inaudible). It’s a powerful weapon because if you take five minutes a day out of a 24-hour day and write a note to a spouse of one of your airmen or their parents or anybody that matters to them – their grandparents – and just say, hey, you know what; I’m privileged to lead your son, your daughter, your grandson, your granddaughter, and they’re doing a terrific job, and I’m proud to serve with them, you have earned their respect for the remaining time that – and that’s not – (inaudible). It’s not a gimmick; you don’t do it to suck them into your sphere. You do it because you care. But this is the most valuable weapon you’ll have in your arsenal when you’re a leader.

I’m proud of you, and I’m proud to be your chairman. God bless you. (Applause.)