Home : Media : Speeches

Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the National Defense University

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey
Washington —

Thanks Phil, actually we’ve got 8 grandchildren now, we’re continuing to work on that. Have a seat please. Actually I’m not doing any of the work. [Laughter] Don’t take that the wrong way. [Laughter] I’m delighted to be back, this is an event I look forward to each year, and sometimes more than once a year. It’s part of, part of my responsibility clearly to go to the war colleges, go to the military academies and exchange views but I do mean exchange views because I consider it part of my personal campaign of learning. So I need to do a little learning from you today. I can only do that if I stop talking at some point.

So I will go through my remarks but I hope your, as you hear them, you either react to something I’ve said or you have something else in mind and you’re waiting in ambush. But however it works out I look forward to having a conversation with you.

So thanks Phil for the introduction. So it’s good to see General Greg Martin, who I actually personally like to think of as Dean Martin even though he’s the president of the university. [Laughter] And I know you’ve, I actually am he glad he didn’t introduce me today ‘cause it gets me all fired up and I always lose track of what I’m about to say. [Laughter] I’m actually going to try and solicit him to be my speaker at my retirement ceremony, which could come at any moment. [Laughter]

Let me recognize the staff and faculty of this wonderful institution of higher learning, so if you’re a member of the staff or faculty, would you do me a favor and stand up. There are none, oh ok. Let’s give them a round of applause.

I really appreciate what you do to give these men and women the opportunity to think. And not only the men and women of our own country, but of course the 66 partner nations that are represented here today. Thank you all by the way for your service and for continuing to lead an uncommon life. That’s, I hope that’s the way you think of your service in the military profession. It’s, I know it’s not a journey you take alone by choosing this uncommon life you also ask your families to share some of the sacrifice, so if you wouldn’t mind, I would ask you to thank them for me, the next time you have the opportunity to do so.

I’m keenly aware that this year for you here at National Defense University, National War College, the Eisenhower School is more about sacrifice flies than it is about family separation on the softball field. But it’s also a year where we give you time to think deeply and broadly, and I hope that you’re taking advantage of that time. Some of you, I know, got here through the keen competition of the Air Force assignment system, others through the ... others through the blind luck of the Navy’s assignment system and if you’re here from the State Department, I have no idea how you got here. [Laughter] But I am glad you’re all here.

Each of you have been identified as an important member of our nation’s future strategic leadership, and that’s the truth by the way. And that’s whether part of our nation’s future strategic leadership or your own countries. I can’t tell you how many of my fellow chiefs of defense are National War College, National Defense University or one of the other schools in the system, are, are graduates. And so, recognition, your presence here is recognition of contributions already made and also a bit of adding to the responsibility that you’re now going to have to take on behalf of your nation and that’s worthy of your reflection.

You all, you clearly need to reflect on how the attributes that got you here will translate into what the nation needs of you as you migrate out of here, and, and we do really expect you to reflect on that. As I did when I was a student here. And you should also reflect on the degree to which the relationships you formed this year, however you formed them, will also be an important part of your future. And when you have done some of that introspection, you’ll have a glimpse into my life. Because you see being the chairman, actually requires me to be more reflective and much less reflexive. If you don’t understand the difference in those two words, you’re in the wrong place.

So reflective is good, reflexive is not so good in terms of strategy. And that includes, by the way, and understanding of, and an appreciation for history, it means cultivating and sustaining relationships within and across governments and institutions and it means having a vision and understanding how you can manage that vision and help it fit into the vision of our elected leaders, and that gets to the issue of civil-military relations which you may be interested in speaking about.

So I have done some time reflecting lately, it’s a good time for me to do it actually. I’m just really into my second term as the chairman. We have a budget for the first time since I’ve been chairman and more importantly I’m just back from a visit overseas and to the CENTCOM and EUCOM areas of responsibility and so I have a renewed bit of energy on what we’re trying to do and a renewed optimism on how it’s going because of contact with the men and women who are out there on point for the nation. My big takeaway from the visit overseas by the way is that I would rather be where they are or where you are or I would rather be a shepherd for that matter than to be the chairman, actually I’m kidding about that. [Laughter]

You know a lot of people do say to me ‘boy, why would you ever want to be chairman at this particular moment in our history?’ And the answer to that is somewhat self-evident I think. We come into service, military or governmental service, because you want to make a difference. That may not be exactly why you start off a career but ultimately it’s why you finish a career and if you ever did want to make a difference in your lives, in military or in governmental service, I think now is about as most important a time in my forty years of service so I’m actually quite privileged to wear, to continue to wear the uniform and be your chairman. And look, our nation, and really our world needs our leadership, our collective leadership and needs every good idea you have and a thousand more, because the challenges we face are really legion.

Now we could debate, we probably will actually, debate about whether the challenges today are more difficult or more dangerous than they were when I was a student here in 1996, but how that debate evolves really doesn’t matter in the sense that there are challenges. You will be the men and women who have to deal with them. And so it is a time for our collective leadership.

Truthfully, the big takeaway from my recent reflections is that we face a deficit that’s larger than our budget, and that is a deficit of understanding between those of us who serve in uniform and our fellow citizens. Now this isn’t the typical concern about losing contact with America. Because I don’t think we’ve lost contact with America at all. Don’t get me wrong, the American people not only appreciate but manifest their appreciation for us in very powerful ways. And they trust us as an institution more than any other institution in America. But it’s really a lack of understanding about our role not just during times of war, but in everyday life and the everyday business of protecting our national interests and promoting our values. That is, that’s the part I think that we potentially have to renew our interests and renew our energy in articulating.

There is less understanding I think and I worry the American public as a result doesn’t really understand what they’re buying with all of the significant budget authority that they do grant us. Even though it’s slightly smaller than in recent times, the support that we have earned and have been given by the Congress of the United States and the elected leaders of our fellow citizens is still significant, very significant. They mostly do it on faith that we’re making the right decisions. Now I am confident that we are making the right decisions, but I think that increasingly as you migrate into the ranks of senior leadership, you’ll be challenged to articulate and to be persuasive about that. And that’s why in the time remaining to me, I’m going to increase my commitment to have a conversation with our national leaders and the American people about the purpose of their military, not only in times of war, but in peacetime as well. That conversation, by the way, should also occur internal, because I’m sure you’re well aware there are young captains and ensigns and petty officers and staff sergeants out there who are also wondering, because all they’ve known for the past 12 years is conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan wondering what’s next. And we owe them an answer to that.

I’ll need the remainder of my time as chairman to actually fully unpack the definition of military strength and how it interrelates, and must interrelate with other instruments of national power. And look, that interrelationship between the military instrument and other instruments of power is going to be different for each of the countries with whom we partner. Many of whom are represented here today. And I also think it’s probably self-evident that the military instrument is going to need to be more dynamic and more versatile than at any time since I began serving in 1974.

So importantly, I believe that this discussion is actually part of a discussion, a bigger discussion, a discussion about the role of government in the United States. You can see it playing out in our political environment here in D.C., notably, but across the country. Now we’re on pretty solid ground in that regard by virtue of our constitution which makes it clear that the need to provide for the common defense is the first responsibility of the government, but the debate can and should continue and it’s also a discussion about the role the military instrument, the discussion about the role the military instrument is part and parcel of a discussion of the role of the United States in the world. A discussion I hope you’re having inside of National Defense University. What role should the military instrument of power play in our foreign policy, and we can have a conversation about that in the Q and A.

And so as I fulfill my responsibilities I share my views on the trends and on what history tells us and I constantly remember the old adage that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. And I’ve expressed views that are built on my relationships I’ve built over the years and that I’ve cultivated both at home and abroad. So I would like to share just a few observations with you and then ask you to think about what it might portend. I’ve described just now the unique, a bit about the unique properties of the chairmanship, but the other side of being the chairman in the reality that I actually don’t have any money or authority. Despite what you might read on Facebook. [Laughter]

In fact, I feel a little bit like I did when I started out as a second lieutenant, when I was commissioned back in 1974. I felt like I had enormous responsibility, but I didn’t have very much authority, that’s kind of what it’s like being chairman, and so you, you have influence based on the relationships that you forge and to the degree to which you can be persuasive.

By the way, back in 1974, we were, in those days, you may recall, fighting communism. Now in our world view of the time, communism was a lifestyle that was forced upon innocents across the world, it was, we were an ideological fight between good and evil, and between freedom and oppression, and between choice and mandate. My first posting was to Germany, where Europe had become the bulwark against this negative influence, and not surprisingly then, as it’s not a surprise to you now, the military instrument was under budget pressure at home. But I was fortunate because units in Germany, some of you may remember, were actually well provided for and in fact fully prepared for a wide ranging conflict that we expected could occur.

On the other hand, Europe at that time, only 30 years after World War II, and that’s not a long time. It seemed like it at the time, but it’s not a long time in history. We’re still sorting itself out and Europe was eager for stability and, importantly, for prosperity. Now most European nations, you recall, had gravitated toward the democratic ideas, in no small measure due to the amount of aid that the United States had provided to them. But, it was something then, although you can’t feel it today, that we couldn’t take for granted, even then, we had to work very hard, especially hard in those days, on our European alliances. And even then, this ideological fight that I had mentioned, the fight between communism and democratic principles, required all the instruments of power to work together. We had to fight to sustain our relationships, we had to fight to train, we had to fight to prepare, all of which though took an entire, whole government approach.

Once the alliance, the NATO alliance, moved forward with one voice, we were able to harden our edge against that common threat and on the basis of common interest. And we brought the potential of the military instrument to prominence as we upgraded it frequently through the 70s and into the 80s. We incorporated the very best technologies from research and development. The Soviet Union tried to keep up, you recall, but a massive influx of new defense technology and spending caused them to eventually buckle under their own weight.

That was an important lesson for those of us of that generation. And that lesson was, we could out resource a potential adversary and in so doing, fundamentally buy down risk to our nation. When the cold war ended, you recall, in the early ‘90s, it became even easier to buy down risk. Because our threats were, had become disparate and really non-existential, so we could really do more with less. And so we scaled back in the ‘90s on our military and still no country could threaten our vital national interests.

And then of course Sept. 11 happened and we found out that the homeland was no longer a sanctuary, and that the threats were far more disparate, diverse than we had potentially realized, and when we stared into the face of that global terrorist threat, it was, became, clear pretty quickly we had a different kind of problem. Angry, radical individuals, syndicates and affiliates don’t have embassies, they don’t have formal economies, they don’t present accessible military targets, but my cohort of cold war generation leaders were migrating at that point, myself included into positions of influence and not surprisingly initially we kind of reached for the same tool we had been accustomed to wielding and we attempted to buy down risk.

Maintaining the idea, of course, through all this that we would certainly rather take the fight to a foreign shore, an away game if you will, then to try and have to defend the homeland within the confines of the homeland. Now looking back at the last 10 or 12 years, we have been militarily successful and our intelligence apparatus has been absolutely incredible. But, aggrieved individuals remain and continue to propagate and new and even more complex threats are immerging.

Many of you, from our partner nations around the globe, understand that fully, and have experienced it even inside of your own countries. By reflecting on it, this fight is less, is actually less about ideology if, if the communism, democracy, if the “ism”-conflict of the, my early career was one kind of fight, this is, feels a little bit more, less about ideology although there is the radical, religious aspect of terrorism. But it feels a little bit less about ideology than it is simply about changing the status quo. As a result we see some pretty surprising bedfellows collaborating on this change. Rising powers, non-state actors, criminal organizations, religious groups and a handful of ideological agitators, all with accumulative strategy to simply change the way the world does business. They don’t collectively agree on what they want, only on what they don’t want.

As the architect of the status quo, the United States, therefor responds when North Korea enters one of its provocation cycles. We surge when Iran makes threatening gestures. We anguish over conflicts in Syria and South Sudan. Threats have changed, not revolutionary maybe, but more evolutionary and have become somewhat of a devolution of high technology. So you’ve got this really interesting nexus of high-tech and low-tech and this disparate threat that makes it very hard to pin down exactly the approach. We on the other hand have gone from being a very, a force oriented early in my career on high-end, high-intensity deterrence, to a far more flexible and expeditionary force and we better be thinking now about the “what comes next” because there is always something that has to come next.

Interestingly the military instrument, while it has always been an instrument to achieve a political end, but now in some ways it’s more often used to prod, to test the waters, to see what shakes out, to change the dynamic. Our weapons, and our forces have become more precise, indeed we often describe them as surgical and as military leaders we’ve allowed some to begin to believe that precision is the same as control. It’s not. This is of course a fallacy. We don’t deal in Newtonian terms of equal and opposite reactions we work in a quantum world where a tactical judgment can have a butterfly effect on a strategic relationship.

This isn’t the first time in our history, by the way, that we thought we could exert exquisite control over warfare. In fact, on this day in 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill began the Casablanca Conference, whose noteworthy outcome was the demand of the unconditional surrender of the axis powers. The thought was by punishing the instigators of the war so severely, it would allow, and this is a quote from that conference, “conquered populations … to be again the masters of their destiny” and that the “people” would assert control. But I saw some of the result of that approach in my early career. There was significant angst in Europe in those days.

Then as now, transition to democracy was kind of messy and it required a certain amount of patience. It was achieved in Europe clearly, but only eventually. Although now it seems like it happened immediately. During my career another thought for you, I’ve seen patience waning, in some cases disappearing entirely. What I’ve come to understand over 40 years, it’s not just about the people gaining control, it’s about wrestling control away from centralized power and redistributing it, often to those unprepared to manage it.

The challenge for our nation and for our military is how to navigate through this very uncertain and unstable world and I tell you all of this because it is you who will have to ultimately figure it out. I’ve seen incredible changes in our armed forces over the course of my career. I came into an all conscript force and it took us years for the force to become fully volunteer with all of the meaning of that word and with that change came a rise in professionalism, and in my view, in discipline.

We are today, a thinking, adaptive institution, deeply invested in leader development of the young men and women who will eventually lead it. That’s why you’re here. And that’s the edge we have to protect, especially in the face of declining budgets and increasing dynamism in the international security environment. That means we’ll have to accept some risks, we can’t buy them all down. So that we can cease initiatives and make sure that windows of opportunity remain open and windows of vulnerability are closed.

In fact, going forward the force that you lead will have to be more agile than the one I currently lead. We’ll have to be able to throttle up force and just as quickly throttle it back. We’ll have to embrace change, not just accept it or riskier elements. And while we have achieved a degree of certainty in our budget for the next two years, we still don’t yet have the full flexibility we need to rebalance the force for the challenges that we see ahead. We’ll buy back some readiness in the near term and we’ll overt a short-term crisis, but we still need to address the long term pressures.

Our service members, you, your families and our veterans need to understand what we’re doing and why and as I mentioned earlier, America needs to understand why. And lastly, even America, not just thought who serve, but America also wants to know where our profession is headed. And I imagine that a few of you would like to know the answer to that as well.

As a start, the country must know that the men and women who serve have the soul of the servant that the only entitlement we feel is that we are entitled to serve the nation. Fortunately, very fortunately, most of you, most of your peers and most of those out there every day serving, signed up and understand just that.

So I end where I began, all of us must reinforce the reasons that our nations put their trust in us and we must demonstrate the same tenacity, resilience and creativity that our people bring to the fight, those on the forward edge and then come back to lead at home. That’s why, that’s what I’ve signed up to do in my last two years. I hope it’s what you will sign up to do as you leave this great university, and I will continue to have that conversation with those, with whom I interact as I hope you will with those who you interact. So that collectively we can understand and make sure the nation understands what military strength is, but also importantly what it is not.

I’m proud to serve with you. Thanks very much. [Applause]