Dempsey, In Tandem with Gates, Continues His War-Avoidance Drive
January 18, 2014 • 10:31AM

In a Jan. 14 speech at the National Defense University, and a follow-on interview broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) this morning, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has continued to stress how most Americans, and civilian politicians, don't understand the "military instrument" and its limitations.

Dempsey said there is a "deficit of understanding," particularly when it comes down to this: What can the U.S. military achieve in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria? Dempsey knows what the military can and cannot do, the NPR interviewer said, citing Iraq, where Dempsey had warned early on, in 2003, that it would not be the quick war that many were expecting.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey.

The NPR segment featured his clash with John McCain at a Senate hearing last summer, when McCain lashed out at Demspey for not using force in Syria, and disparaged his leadership as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Dempsey said that he still is skeptical of using the U.S. military in Syria, and that he thinks the most effective option would be empowering the moderates among the rebels — "assuming we can still find them."

In Dempsey's NDU speech, he said that "being the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs], actually requires me to be more reflective and much less reflexive," warning his listeners: "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." He said 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." He noted that the problem is not that the military has lost contact with the American people, 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 ... 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."

Because of this, he said, "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."

He discussed the changes in the world since 1974, when he was commissioned, and that leadership today requires thinking, adaptation, resilience and creativity, and also continuing this conversation, "So that collectively, we can understand and make sure the nation understands, what military strength is, but also importantly what it is not."

Like Robert Gates, and Rep. Walter Jones, Dempsey has been strongly affected by the deaths of the soldiers who served under him during his four years in Iraq. At any given time, Dempsey is carrying photos of three of those lost soldiers, and he has 130 more photos on his desk in a box on which is carved: "Make it matter."