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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Although in 2004 the majority of senior officers identified as Republicans (61 percent, according to a Military Times poll, with 20 percent Independents and 13 percent Democrats), it remained to be seen if their political opinions had in fact trickled down to the rank and file. Dempsey wanted to know: How did soldiers feel about the political and social issues of the day? Without referring to the topics by their hot-button names, he inquired into soldiers’ thoughts on affirmative action, health care, capital punishment, the environment, religion, race relations. He asked them about their ethnicity, income, education level, why they joined up, and what they believed should be the proper purpose of the military. Was it to fight and win wars? To assist in disasters? To build institutions in war-torn places?

Dempsey wasn’t permitted to ask directly about party affiliation, but the answers to his questions would tell him what he wanted to know, with a great degree of certainty.

Narrowing the Field?

Recently retired general Tommy Franks salutes the 2004 Republican  National Convention in New York. / Photo: Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times / ReduxDempsey first thought of doing a survey in early 2002, as a Columbia PhD candidate in search of a dissertation topic. With the nation engulfed in 9/11 patriotism, fear, and paranoia, and soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, the military was at the center of the national debate. “I started thinking that a study of social attitudes in the Army was needed, because there was a perception that the Army was overwhelmingly Republican, that we were hyperpolitical and voting at astronomical rates. So I said, ‘Well, here’s an opportunity,’ and really what I mean is an obligation. I was in a special position. I was given the tools by Columbia and by the Army to look at something that was central to the military’s relationship with society.”

Working under professor Robert Shapiro of the political science department, Dempsey navigated the Army bureaucracy to gain access to the airtight Army database, from which he drew his pool of respondents. His own experience on military bases told him that politics didn’t come up much in day-to-day Army business, and that election days weren’t the Super Bowl. “Come an election, you might be out training, or in the field, nowhere near a polling place, and nobody would blink an eye,” he says. “The idea that the Army was voting at high rates simply wasn’t accurate.”

Still, overt party identification among the top brass might have its own unintended effects. “Say you’re considering becoming an Army officer,” Dempsey says. “That’s four years at West Point, five years of active-duty time, and three years as a reservist. So you think, ‘I’m going to spend 12 years at this institution, and everyone here seems to be Republican. Hmmm.’ If you’re indifferent, you’ll just think, ‘I guess I should be a Republican.’ A lot of cadets come in and haven’t decided yet, but they assume they’re going to become Republicans by virtue of being at West Point.

“Then other people might ask, ‘Well, if I join the Army, would I be endorsing a specific foreign-policy agenda?’ If that becomes the perception, then we’re narrowing the field of possible applicants. That would not be in the Army’s interest — or the nation’s.”

An Element of Danger

The first time Jason Dempsey got punched in the face was in the gym at West Point. Actually, the first time was in second grade, after which he avoided physical conflict save for wrestling in high school. He was small as a kid and didn’t break 100 pounds until 11th grade. But at West Point, everyone is required to take a quarter semester of boxing, and Dempsey, who has a sharp, slender nose and a chin like the butt of a rifle, threw himself into it. “One of the biggest lessons for a young officer is to go in the boxing ring and get punched in the face,” he says. “People don’t have a lot of experience of personal violence. I boxed to scare the hell out of myself. I did not like getting hit in the head.”

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