Gen. Dempsey's interview with Dan Rather
As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey , Washington, D.C. Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Part I of interview:
DAN RATHER: Good evening. It is fitting that Veterans Day and Election Day fall at the same time of year. A president has many responsibilities, but the most important is that of Commander in Chief, and that comes with the solemn duty to take care of the men and women in uniform.
Tonight marks the sixth anniversary of “Dan Rather Reports”. Beginning with our first program, we have devoted a lot of coverage over the years to the wars we’re fighting, the young Americans serving in harm’s way, and what life is like for them when they come home. And there are few of any people more concerned with the plight of our service men and women than America’s top military commander, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.
GEN DEMPSEY: Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this show, to raise the awareness of this issue on this Veterans Day. My commitment is that as we begin to reshape our presence around the world, reshape the size of the military, as the conflicts of the Mid-East diminish and hopefully stay diminished, we need to collectively have this very conversation.
DAN RATHER: We met with General Dempsey at the Pentagon recently. He doesn’t sit down for interviews very often, but he agreed to talk to us because the issue of veterans is one that is close to his heart. Well General, first of all, on Veterans Day, what would you want regular, ordinary, rank-and-file Americans to be thinking on Veterans Day?
GEN DEMPSEY: Well typically, we think of thanking service men and women for their service and that should always be among the foremost thoughts on America’s mind on Veterans Day. But this year, perhaps, and subsequent years, I’d ask us to raise the intellectual framework a little bit, and to think about who are veterans and what are they for our nation?
My view is that they’re a great source of strength. These conflicts in which we’ve asked them to serve have certainly weakened some and made some—and wounded some, and there’re some who desperately need our help. But for the vast majority of veterans, it has empowered them, it’s made them stronger, it’s made them have an appreciation for what it means to be an American.
DAN RATHER: What is a veteran? Who is a veteran?
GEN DEMPSEY: You know, we’ve learned a lot over the last ten years about ourselves, we’ve—I think we’ve made the nation proud. And as we see the two conflicts in which we’re been engaged diminish a bit, and we pass young men and women back into society, I think it’s time to have that conversation so that we can understand importantly that these young men and women who have served aren’t victims, they are veterans. And although the two words begin with a ‘v’, they’re very different.
DAN RATHER: What is the biggest challenge that you have concerning veterans?
GEN DEMPSEY: We want to make sure that these young men and women who have served so honorably and so well that they have the skills, the attributes, that they can translate their service in the military into employment in the civilian sector. That we begin actually preparing them for transition at the beginning of their careers and not wait to try to cram it in the last six weeks before they separate from service. So I think I would say to you the biggest challenge is making sure we prepare them properly for transition.
DAN RATHER: You prepare them for transition. What about preparing the country as a whole, the society for transition?
GEN DEMPSEY: That’s a fair point and we’ve got dozens, maybe hundreds, of outreach programs, many which are reaping great benefit, you know, hiring veterans. Corporate America, actually, is very eager in my view, in my judgment to help us with this issue. I think the trick is knitting it all together so that it’s apparent both to the veterans and to the American people, who are those who are helping us make this transition. You know, in the 21st Century, we ought to be able to figure this out.
DAN RATHER: The Afghanistan conflict is now—it’s now the longest in our history. How has that fact and the way we fight our battles now—the kind of warfare we’ve waged—how has that changed the makeup of our veteran population?
GEN DEMPSEY: First of all, the nature of warfare never changes, Dan. Warfare is a contest of human will and will always be. The character of warfare changes. And what we’ve seen over the past ten years is what I would describe as the decentralization of conflict, in particular the kind of conflicts in which we’ve been engaged. We push authority, responsibility to the edge. So you’ve got young men and women at a much younger age than I who have a lot more responsibility—I say to these kids you know, as a captain, you have more responsibility than I had as a colonel.
DAN RATHER: And in this case, a captain would be in his twenties.
GEN DEMPSEY: In his mid-twenties. Yeah, mid-twenties to early forties, so maybe we’ve accelerated the expectations by about ten years. In that environment, these young men and women have become—not only accepted, but embraced that degree of responsibility and then we pass them into private sector which may not be—we’ve done it of necessity and we’ve learned how to do it. I’m not sure that industry has decentralized to the level that we have. So there’s a bit of difference in expectation that we have to learn how to knit together.
DAN RATHER: We have a lot of veterans now because we’ve been at war for quite some time, for well over a decade, and the necessity of war we’ve fought means calling up Reservists, National Guardspeople. Has the complicated the veterans’ problems?
GEN DEMPSEY: It’s complicated all of our challenges. It’s complicated the commitment that employers make to hold jobs for veterans as we’ve used them on a more frequent basis than I think anyone ever expected. Secondly, healthcare. Our Guard and Reserve population are distributed across America. Now that’s a great strength, by the way, the liability comes in trying to provide the same level of services across the entire force when it’s so distributed.
DAN RATHER: Let’s talk about the Veterans Administration. What kind of shape is it in, in your judgment?
GEN DEMPSEY: I can tell you that they’ve got—as by the way, the Department of Defense has—some longstanding bureaucracy that is difficult to overcome. I mean, these are organizations that were designed in the 1950s and like many old organizations, they tend to—they’re less adaptable than I think certainly any of us would like to see them be. But we’re working on it.
Secretary Panetta and Secretary Shinseki meet quarterly. There’re some big ideas, really good, powerful ideas, potentially game-changing ideas in terms of, you know, electronic records and common pharmaceuticals, I mean things that make so much sense but are a lot harder to accomplish than they need to be. Neither of these big, giant organizations can succeed in doing what’s right for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, veterans unless they work a heck of a lot more closely together and both of our secretaries understand that and are chipping away at it.
DAN RATHER: Does it have the money it needs now and looking forward, if they’re going to provide for veterans who earned it—everything from medical care to retirement benefits—can we afford it?
GEN DEMPSEY: The question you’re asking me, really is the one you should probably turn to the camera and ask the American people because you know—you realize that Frank Buckles, the name may be familiar to you, the last World War I veteran, just passed away in February, I think, at 110. So what I tell people as I travel around is this group of veterans that we are producing will need our help for the next, let’s say that they parted company with us at 30, for another 80 years we’re going to need to be alert to and commit resources to the care of veterans.
And so another reason that we are trying to partner more closely with the Veterans Administration is so that we can speak with one voice. So that it’s not us arguing for the care of service men and women while they’re active and then we toss them over the transom to the care of the Veterans Administration. There’s no speaking about this issue in isolation. It’s got to be both of us.
DAN RATHER: Fairly recently, I went to Pearl Harbor, spent some time out there and everywhere there are reminders of how revered those Americans who served in World War II generally, and particularly those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, how revered they are. Are we still giving that same kind of respect or is this something that is dying away as World War II veterans pass?
GEN DEMPSEY: I don’t get the sense that we’re—that the esteem and reverence on part of the American people is diminishing any way for those who are suffering the consequences of war. In my travels around America, I find an enormous amount of respect, not as much understanding as I’d like, but enormous amount of respect and I think this is another one of those great generations who will contribute if we give them the chance to do so. And that’s all they ask. All they want is a chance. They don’t want any special treatment, they just want a chance. And on that basis, I think we should raise our sights a bit on what it means to be a veteran.
DAN RATHER: The Chairman, of course, is an accomplished military strategist but his education and interests outside the Army might surprise you. And we’ll talk to him about how he sees the world later in the broadcast. But first, we hear the personal stories of those who have worn the uniform. That’s coming up next.
Part II of interview:
DAN RATHER: General Martin Dempsey has been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for just a little over a year now. A 36-year career veteran, he is less conventional than some of those who preceded him. General Dempsey is seen as an innovator who talks openly of bringing cultural changes to a military mired in the status quo. And when it comes to discussing world issues, this former English major scholar who likes to quote Yeats on his Facebook page, infuses ancient Greek history to frame his opinions on modern world issues.
If there is to be, God forbid, another large-scale war, a world war kind of combat, where is it most likely going to happen?
GEN DEMPSEY: Generally speaking, this great literature that informs us of—that goes back to Thucydides—that nations fight for fear, honor, or interests. So if you look around the globe and you see where could fear, honor, and interest combine and create what might begin as a local and spread to a regional conflict and ultimately result in a global conflict, I think it’s still the Middle East where that greatest risk today resides.
DAN RATHER: Wouldn’t you say the South China Sea or the Straits of Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula?
GEN DEMPSEY: I’m not saying we couldn’t have a miscalculation and a conflict, but I think the impulses in that part of the world today, again if we have this conversation again in ten years, I might have a completely different view—but I think the impulses in that region today would be generally de-escalatory and I’m afraid that the impulses in the Mid-East right now remain more escalatory. I don’t mean our impulses, but I mean, you know, the hatred. You know, power in the Middle East, this thing we call the Arab Spring, which has been called other things, which might be more accurately described as a wave. But what it’s done, actually, is the people have pulled power to the street in ways that I’m not sure we fully understand. And in so doing, it has diminished the authority and the ability of the governing bodies to control. And it’s that—it’s that dynamic of changing issues of control that I think make the Mid-East really unstable right now.
DAN RATHER: Do you consider the Middle East more dangerous today than it was before the Arab Spring?
GEN DEMPSEY: I think in the interim, it is certainly less stable and therefore more dangerous, I think those words go hand-in-glove. But I think over time, I think it has the potential to be—to become a stabilizing influence. I do believe that democracy over time has the potential to be a stabilizing influence, but we’ve got some distance to travel to get from here to there.
DAN RATHER: And General, you’re perhaps one of the two or three best places to know. When we think about Iran, Israel, are we or are we not on the precipice of a war?
GEN DEMPSEY: You know, back to my calculus stolen from Thucydides—fear, honor, and interest—I think we have to recognize two things, notably, that the countries you mention, Israel and Iran, are sovereign nations, they will act in their own sovereign wellbeing. And secondly, that as we go forward, the military instrument of power is the most unpredictable. It always produces outcomes that are unexpected. And so until we reach the point, and we’re not there yet in our view, that the diplomatic and economic instruments have failed to deliver the outcomes we believe are necessary, I think we should stay on track.
DAN RATHER: Let’s talk about money. The word ‘sequestration’ is seeped into our vocabulary in a rather strong way in recent events. A brief definition of sequestration in terms of the average person’s understanding means what?
GEN DEMPSEY: Sequestration is a—was a tool put in place by the Congress of the United States to ensure that if they fail to achieve agreement on how to balance the budget and reduce the deficit, that certain financial penalties would be imposed, notably in the discretionary budget. So it’s not just affecting the United States military, it’s all of the agencies of government. And it’s a percentage. It would be just simply saying to a corporation in America you need to cut ten per cent across the board and you don’t have any authority to decide where—you can’t close a store, you can’t close a branch, you just got to take ten per cent out of everything.
DAN RATHER: That would be mandated.
GEN DEMPSEY: Mandated.
DAN RATHER: We’re really close to time, how worried are you about this?
GEN DEMPSEY: I’m very worried about it. Fundamentally, it imposes the cost or the reduction without giving us any ability to manage it. And the magnitude of it, 500 billion dollars is a significant budget reduction, I would say.
DAN RATHER: How concerned are you that our defense of our beloved United States of America will be underfinanced going forward?
GEN DEMPSEY: We understand the economic condition of the country. We’re not oblivious to it, we’re not avoiding it, and we recognize that as the nation’s—as goes the nation’s economic might, so goes its military might. I mean, national power is the aggregate of economic, military, and diplomatic power. If any one of those legs is weakened, we’re all weakened. So if the resources reach a point where we can’t achieve a particular objective, we need to be prepared to say that. We’re not there yet. With the budget that we’ve been given in fiscal year ’13, we’ve been able to adapt our strategy, change the way we do things, find efficiencies such that we can deliver the strategy that we laid out.
The sequestration question continues to hang, and the magnitude of it and the mechanism will put the strategy at risk. But to your point about resources—as long as we’re given time to assess the impact on the strategy, and as long as we can keep the force in balance so that manpower, infrastructure, training, modernization, and operations can be resourced in balance—in other words, as long as none of those are denied to me and my ability to balance the budget—we’ll be fine.
DAN RATHER: General, thank you.
GEN DEMPSEY: Thank you.
DAN RATHER: Thank you for taking the time.
GEN DEMPSEY: Great to see you.