You and Whose Army?

Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey ’08GSAS takes on conventional wisdom about politics in the military.

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2010
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Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey ’08GSAS / Photo: Katherine LambertIt’s 100 degrees in Pentagon City, a boxy development of midrise residential and commercial buildings half a mile south of its polygonal namesake. The salient condition here is that of sterile, blazing concrete, a white-desert hue a few shades rougher than the polished sandstone and marble across the Potomac. From this terrain of baked cement a man materializes. He wears cream chinos, a yellow-checkered shirt, and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey ’08GSAS, who is in Washington apartment hunting, advances through the heat toward the shelter of the Ritz-Carlton.

He enters the air-conditioning of the hotel lounge, removes his Oakleys, settles into a chair, and orders a double espresso. Dempsey is a prolific talker, genial, straight-shooting, two-fisted, equal parts West Point and West 116: an academic ingrained in civil-military theory, a soldier-scholar who directed operations for an infantry battalion in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a current White House Fellow posted in the Office of the First Lady, and a meticulous political scientist whose recent book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, includes the first-ever random-sample survey of the political attitudes of enlisted soldiers.

And now, in this interview-friendly lounge, where Tripp had tea with Lewinsky while wearing a body microphone — good acoustics here — Dempsey will talk about the Army, Our Army, politics, Columbia, and his year on the Afghan-Pakistani border. He’ll talk about anything except for his former boss, the retired general Stanley McChrystal, who talked too much to Rolling Stone. There is still such a thing as protocol.

The Paradox of Prestige

“He explicitly traded upon his identity as a soldier to say, ‘I endorse this guy for president.’ That’s horrible, that’s well beyond the pale.” Jason Dempsey, knees apart, neck muscles working, sets his espresso cup down on its white saucer. “That’s a retired officer selling the reputation of the entire force for political purposes.”

Dempsey is talking about Tommy Franks, the retired four-star general and vanquisher of Saddam Hussein who stood before the 2004 Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden in a dark suit and red tie, and against a backdrop of billowing images hinting of helmets, flags, and heavenly rays, endorsed George W. Bush for president. If there had been a notion out there that the military and the Republican Party were sharing a tent, Franks’s emotional speech in New York might have seemed like fulfillment.

“If you retire as a general, I’d like to see you keep your mouth shut for four years,” says Dempsey, who is 38. “You have to be cognizant and mature enough to understand that candidates aren’t asking for your endorsement because you’ve articulated grand ideological positions. They’re coming to you solely because they know the military is respected, and they want some of that respect. So when you agree to give that endorsement, you are explicitly trading on a commodity that isn’t yours to sell.”
It’s what Dempsey calls the “paradox of prestige”: Since the military remains the most trusted and esteemed of public institutions — in part, Dempsey argues, because of its traditional code of nonpartisanship — “political actors will consistently try to get a piece of that prestige. What the Army needs to remember is that once you sell it, it’s gone.”

It was in those high-pitched days in the spring and summer of 2004, when “swiftboat” became a verb and veterans were in the thick of the election battle, that Dempsey mailed an 81-point multiple-choice questionnaire to randomly chosen soldiers, resulting in a sample size of 1188. “There had been some decent academic studies, but they were focused on the senior officers,” says Dempsey. “And that’s where people got their opinions about the military. Senior officers make up just 6 percent of the Army, but the public ascribes their views to the entire force.”

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