U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (Ret.) is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as such he was the nation’s highest ranking military officer. He retired in 2015, and is a 2016 Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University.
In this episode of Policy 360, Dempsey joins host Kelly Brownell to talk about his unlikely rise in the military, changes in the military since 9-11, and the one thing he wishes he could have accomplished during his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also shares the words he found to comfort those left behind when a fellow serviceman or woman has been killed.
Kelly Brownell: You were raised in Goshen, N.Y., and went to Catholic schools there. Where did the idea come from to go to West Point?
Martin Dempsey: It came from my mother. I had applied to the Naval Academy and was not accepted because of my vision. It wasn’t all that hard to get into the military academies at the end of Vietnam, and so they were sharing files and I ended up on a wait list for West Point.
At the very last minute (26th or 27th of June for a July 1 report date) I received a telegram … and that telegram said, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to West Point.”
I had made other plans by that time, and I went home and my mother asked me to go, and I said, “I just really don’t want to do this.” And she cried, and when she cried, I caved in.
And I went to West Point, and the first day I arrived there, several of the upperclassmen told me in no uncertain terms that there was no way I was going to make it through West Point.
And I found myself saying to myself, “I’m going to prove them wrong,” even though I didn’t want to be there, and 45 years later, I ended my military career.
Brownell: What an unbelievable story. That it was so close to you even being at West Point, and then having people thinking you may not make it. It’s remarkable, absolutely remarkable, what you’ve accomplished.
So during your time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I can imagine you went through periods where there were calls to reduce military spending at the time when we may have needed more. How did you navigate that territory?
Dempsey: Not as well as I would have liked to be honest, Dean. When people ask me if I have any regrets during my four years as chairman, I always tell them that I have several.
One of them in particular is, I really never managed to convince the Congress of the United States that what they were doing with the military budget would have a detrimental effect over time. …
You know, the entire force in the aggregate, of course we are ready, but there are pieces of the force where this budget pressure has caused us to be much less than ready. …
The budget process is extraordinarily frustrating. We don’t have nearly enough flexibility. We may want to retire a weapons system and save money and invest it elsewhere, we’re told we can’t do it. We might want to close a base, we’re told we can’t do it.
Enough of the money is being expended on things we really don’t need, and not enough of it on things we do need.
Brownell: We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of 9-11. What do you think is the biggest change that’s occurred, militarily, during this time?
Dempsey: Well, Desert Storm was the quintessential, heavy force maneuvering over vast distances, with a very hierarchical command structure.
The kind of conflict we’ve been in since 2001, is mostly characterized by small unit actions, executed by junior leaders [working] within a higher commander’s intent, but executed locally.
So we’ve had to adapt our systems to push capability, responsibility, and authority to the edge, as they say, to give the young men and women, who are much more junior than heretofore, the kind of capabilities that I had as a two-star general.
Brownell: Before you became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of your most important jobs was head of the training effort that created the new Iraqi Security Forces. But then you became chairman and those forces largely collapsed in the face of the ISIL threat. What are the lessons that have been learned about foreign military assistance in light of the Iraqi and Afghan experiences?
Dempsey: Yeah, here’s the lesson, and it’s not a lesson we learned late, [it’s one] we learned early on - that you can train a military, you can equip a military, but only [a military’s] own leaders can develop the kind of trust and confidence and loyalty that’s necessary to hold the unit together.
We always knew that these forces that we were building were fragile.
We could report on their military capability, we could report on how many weapons we’d issued them…. But when you put them into combat, they will either succeed or fail based on leaders and the degree to which the leaders feel connected to the central government.
And the real failing in Iraq was that the central government failed repeatedly to demonstrate the kind of inclusion of all groups (Kurds, Sunni, Shia) that was necessary to have a national military actually believe it was a national military.
And so ISIS didn’t militarily defeat the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Army collapsed because they didn’t believe the central government was really interested in them or a particular part of the Iraqi society.
Brownell: And what’s your assessment of where things stand are now?
Dempsey: Well, they’re better, but not nearly good enough.
Brownell: When President Obama spoke at your retirement, he talked about a cigar box you have with 132 cards inside. Can you describe that for us?
Dempsey: When I got to Iraq in 2003 to command the First Armored Division, we actually weren’t taking many casualties early on because the situation was chaotic, but not dangerous.
But then as the insurgency began…we started taking casualties.
And we would go to memorial services and the chaplain would say a few words, a couple of the teammates of the fallen soldier would say some words, and then at the end, the teammates (normally 10 or 12 of them) would line up (these are the young men and women who lost their teammate.) And senior leaders would walk down the line and shake their hands.
And I found myself at a complete loss early on for what to say to these young men and women. And I always felt badly about it.
What do you say to somebody who’s just lost their teammate? And they’re scared because they’ve got to go back out. And they’re guilt-ridden because they feel like they should have prevented the loss.
So one morning I woke up with a phrase resonating in my head: Make it Matter.
And from that point forward, we’d walk down the line to talk to these young men and women and we’d say, “Make it Matter.”
And that phrase became… it became powerful, actually; it had so much more inside of those three words than you would expect. And we all understood that.
It was our job to make the sacrifice matter, to make the mission matter, to make every day matter, both to the Iraqi people and ourselves.
I used to have cards made for every loss [of life].
In fact you said 132 [cards] in the box, there’s actually 130 there because I always carry two or three with me and I have two in my pocket right now.
And [each card has] an image of the soldier that we lost, and something about his family and something about the circumstances of his death.
And I used to carry them in my pocket, all of them, but once you reach 50 or 60, you can’t do that any longer, so we found a mahogany cigar box (you can find almost anything in Iraq) and we had engraved on the box, “Make it Matter,” and that became the resting place for these cards.
And I’ve had that with me ever since.
Brownell: Remarkable story. President Obama said you had those cards with you when you met some 600 children, can you tell us about that?
Dempsey: There’s this organization called TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It’s a great organization.
The military does a great job, of taking care of families through their career, and then if a soldier is killed, the military does a great job with casualty assistance…but then families tend to go someplace else and they’re probably nowhere near a military installation.
We try to stay in touch, but it’s hard. What this organization has done is stepped up to try to fill that void…it’s survivors taking care of survivors.
Every year, they have an event on Memorial Day, it’s called the “Good Grief Camp.” You bring these children together who’ve had this common experience of losing a loved one, you let them grieve together, but also they become friends, and they look forward to coming every year.
The first year I was [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], they asked me to come and speak to them. I had literally no idea what I was getting into.
It was a ballroom filled with 600 of these youngsters, probably 3 years old to 15 years old, all were wearing a button with an image of their loved one on their shirt.
And I was doing OK until this one little girl … (a 4-year-old) said “Is my daddy an angel?” And I thought, “I’m done…”
And because I couldn’t control my emotions, I broke into a little children’s Irish song.
And I’ve been back every year since then. And that little girl, Lizzie Yaggy, is the one I asked to introduce me at my retirement.
Brownell: Oh my gosh, what a story. You know, you’re painting this amazing picture of an incredible military leader, but somebody who’s also very much a human being, and has emotions, and is touched by the people who are under your command. And I can imagine the people who served with you very much appreciated that.
Dempsey: I hope so, I certainly appreciated them.
Gen. Martin Dempsey has been in residence at the Sanford School of Public Policy since the spring of 2016 as a Rubenstein Fellow. The Rubenstein Fellows Academy brings thought leaders to Duke University to spark discussion on current and future global challenges. In the spring, Dempsey co-taught a course at the Sanford School of Public Policy on American civil-military relations with political scientist Peter Feaver. This fall, Dempsey is teaching a course on management and leadership at the Fuqua School of Business.