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Magazine / Q&A

Army Times

The Army’s new chief of staff talks about his priorities and worries.

Looking ahead: Gen. Martin Dempsey(Chet Susslin)

photo of Megan Scully
May 5, 2011

With reports that Gen. Martin Dempsey will be named to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, here's a National Journal Q&A with the general from earlier this month.

Gen. Martin Dempsey became the Army’s 37th chief of staff on April 11, after leading the service’s Training and Doctrine Command. He is no stranger to the battlefield, having served as deputy and acting commander of U.S. Central Command in 2007 and ’08.

As chief, Dempsey wasted no time getting back to the combat theater, making a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan one of his first orders of business. But while he is leading an Army that has been at war for nearly a decade, he also must prepare his force for the future. It’s a big job, but Dempsey says he is comforted each morning when he walks past the portraits of his predecessors. “I want to keep reminding myself I’m not in this by myself,” he says. Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.

 

NJ As you think about your priorities, what areas are you focusing on?

DEMPSEY Job 1 is to continue to support an Army at war. The second thing is, we’ve got to be ready for whatever comes next, and that means building an Army that has the ability to provide options.

NJ How do you ensure that you’re preparing the force for the future?

DEMPSEY Trust, discipline, and fitness. The other aspect of it is leaders. We really do have to learn faster than our adversaries. That takes a commitment to developing leaders who are, at the lowest tactical level, inquisitive, and, at the highest tactical level and all the way through, adaptive.

NJ Do you see those kinds of leaders being developed in today’s Army?

DEMPSEY Absolutely. The kinds of responsibilities and authorities we’ve given young men and women in Afghanistan are just remarkable—far more responsibility than I was ever given at that point in my career. Now the challenge for us is to take those young men and women who have had this experience and eventually bring them back into an environment where we probably are deploying less. The question for me as chief is, how do you keep them engaged, how do you keep them developing, how do you keep them inspired?

NJ After your trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, what is your assessment of the operations there?

DEMPSEY I came back with a genuine sense of progress that has been made in both places. I spent a lot of time in Iraq and a fair amount of time in Afghanistan when I was commanding CENTCOM. The two places are just different places to me. They’re better places.

NJ Are you optimistic about Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s ability to begin reducing its presence there by July?

DEMPSEY You asked me if I’m optimistic. That’s a term with some hair on it. I would actually describe optimism as an emotion. I would say I came back with renewed confidence that we are achieving the mission we’ve been given. If the mission changes somehow, we’ll adapt to that. I don’t know what General [David] Petraeus has in mind [for troop reductions]. At some point, as a member of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff], that will be exposed to me, and then I will make my own personal determination on our ability to meet those needs. But the Army’s always met the needs, and we’ll continue to do so.

NJ What surprised you the most on your trip?

DEMPSEY In Iraq, I was very pleasantly surprised by the progress the Iraqi security forces had made. Afghanistan is a few years behind Iraq in what we expect of their security forces. In Iraq, I think we’re close. I just feel a sense of ownership on their part. In Afghanistan—much better [but] not yet to where I think [the Iraqis] are in the ownership mentality. And so we’re still carrying the lion’s share of the load, but [I saw] progress nonetheless.

NJ The White House has proposed $400 billion in cuts to security spending. Could that be detrimental to the Army, or do you see it as an opportunity?

DEMPSEY Yes, it could be, and I do. We’re not an Army that exists for ourselves. We’re not a self-licking ice-cream cone. I like to think we’re an Army that exists for the nation. So, if the nation has a problem, whether it’s a security problem or a fiscal problem, I don’t figure it’s my position to fight it off. I believe it’s my obligation to help figure it out. I believe [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and President Obama have given us the opportunity to let strategy get out in front of budgeting. We will have the opportunity to articulate what we must be for the nation.

NJ What keeps you up at night?

DEMPSEY There’s 1.1 million of them, and they all have families. You do feel this sense of responsibility to them—and them is 3.5 to 4 million. Honestly, that is a lot of tossing and turning. I drive to work past Arlington National Cemetery. I get to Section 60, in particular, once a week because that’s where the kids in this conflict are being buried—hundreds of them who have been under my command. What keeps me up at night is that. Is there something I haven’t thought of? Is there something we haven’t done?

__________

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