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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Dempsey now had to choose a graduate school. One of his political science instructors at West Point was Col. Jay Parker ’91GSAS, and one of his West Point classmates, Craig Cummings ’05GSAS, was already at Columbia getting his doctorate. Cummings praised the program to Dempsey and encouraged him to apply.

Columbia just after 9/11: “People were quiet, no matter their politics.” / Photo: Eileen BarrosoFighting Words

Columbia, contrary to its post-1968 antimilitary reputation, enjoyed real distinction in the field of civil-military relations. No less a figure than Samuel Huntington had taught there in the early 1960s. It was Huntington who, in 1957, at the age of 29, published The Soldier and the State, a foundational text of civil-military theory. Huntington also served as associate director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia, created in 1951 under University president Dwight D. Eisenhower, to promote an understanding, in the retired five-star general’s words, of the “disastrous consequences of war upon man’s spiritual, intellectual, and material progress.” The institute, which has since become one of the elite research centers in the country for the study of international relations, was renamed the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute
of War and Peace Studies in 2003, and is currently directed by Richard K. Betts, who studied with Huntington at Harvard.

In August 2001, Dempsey arrived at Columbia, bought a Colnago racing bike, and began his studies in the political science department. On the morning of September 11, when he heard what was happening, he hopped on his bike and raced down the West Side Highway to see if there was anything he could do to help. What he saw was a mile of ambulances parked along the highway, and emergency workers standing around with nothing to do. That image would stay with him. Being the kind of person who, if he can’t be of any use has no need to stick around, Dempsey pedaled back to campus. The world had changed, and the future was anyone’s guess. Still, if you had told him then that eight years hence he’d be in the mountains of Afghanistan trying to interdict the Taliban along the Pakistani border while investigating the smuggling operations of the local timber mafia, he might have looked at you funny. But Dempsey heard plenty of other strange things after September 11. Morningside Heights provided good grist for an Army guy interested in political behavior.

“The post-9/11 environment at Columbia was — well, surreal is an overused word. Certainly it was very sober. People were quiet, no matter their politics. Everybody was in shock. But then people were digging up posters from the Vietnam era, and that was what was going up on the walls of Columbia. Pictures of Vietnamese children and quotes from Martin Luther King. That was the frame of reference, which apparently was 1972. So whether people were anti- or pro-war, it was hard to take them seriously. It was as if they said, ‘Here’s the position I’ve heard I should be taking given my current politics.’ And I thought, ‘Really? That’s as far as we’ve come?’”
It was in this ambience that Dempsey set to work on what would become the 2004 Citizenship and Service Survey. Along the way, he had some face-to-face encounters that told him additional things about military viewpoints. Once, at a seminar at Syracuse University, he spoke to a group of senior officers who were about to be promoted. The topic was Latino integration in the military.

“I came in and talked to them about the challenges inherent in a system where all of our senior officers are white, and how this affects our relationship with society. And this Navy captain, soon to be an admiral, got up and said, ‘I don’t understand why I need to care about this stuff, I just drive the ship.’ I just drive the ship. I thought, ‘Here’s a guy about to become a senior leader in the Navy, and he’s convinced that he doesn’t have to think about how we relate to the American public. In fact, he’s offended somebody would be wasting his time talking about it.”

For remedy, Dempsey calls for more emphasis on civil-military relations in the military education system. “There’s never any substantive debate about our interaction with politics,” he says. “What happened, particularly in the ’90s, was that in trying to commit people to the cause of service, we pumped them up and said, ‘You’re special, you’re doing great things, your country loves you, everybody loves you.’ But we never said, ‘We love you because you’re a servant.’ We never asked what being a servant means. So young officers thought, ‘I’m in the military, the military is respected, therefore I have a privileged place in society. I should be able to expound my views, lecture the American people on what to do, and tell the media when they’re wrong.’

“We’ve patted ourselves on the back so much that we destroyed the very idea of service. In our effort to rehabilitate the image of the military from the Vietnam era, we put our military on a pedestal, when really, it’s the military that should be at the feet of the public.”

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