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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Issues with Uncle Sam

Samuel Huntington, best known for his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, drew a line in the sand in 1957 between the military and the public. The Soldier and the State is full of powerful articulations of what Huntington saw as the inherent conflict between the traditional American ideology of liberalism and the military ethic. Liberalism, with its general pacifism and emphasis on the primacy of the individual, “does not understand and is hostile to military institutions and the military function,” while the military, with its “recognition of the role of power in human relations, its acceptance of existing institutions, its limited goals, and its distrust of grand designs,” is at one with Burkean conservatism.

Soldiers of Task Force Chosin of the 10th Mountain Division intercept an illegal shipment of wood bound for a border pass between  Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, May 2009. / Photo: Jason DempseyDempsey, ever suspicious of generalities and assumptions, takes time in Our Army to punch holes in Huntington’s theory of a rigid ideological divide. “The military comes from civil society, and ultimately returns to civil society,” he says. “We’re one and the same.” And he worries that Huntington’s paean to the military academy, when read out of context by cadets, could perpetuate a false impression.

“At the end of The Soldier and the State, Huntington romanticizes and idealizes West Point to an almost irresponsible degree,” Dempsey says. “Clearly, here’s a young guy in the early years of the Cold War, and he’s desperately fearful of the chances for liberal democracy to survive the communist juggernaut. He goes up to West Point, and says, ‘Aha! This is what’ll save us. This ordered serenity, this nice hierarchy, the church on the hill. This is what America should emulate.’ He presents a ridiculous portrait that isn’t grounded in reality.”

Dempsey is proud of his service, and appreciates the respect and the gratitude that the military often receives. It just makes him nervous when folks get carried away.

Plz Adjust Your Fire. Thanx.

“Our base camp was about six or seven kilometers from the Pakistani border, which is conveniently in range of a 107mm Chinese rocket. The rockets are ubiquitous, insanely cheap, and you don’t need a tube to launch them. You can take one, eyeball it, set it on a rock, light a fuse, and launch it toward our camp. So we kept getting these rockets. You know it when you’re hit by a rocket, but it’s not always easy to determine the launch site. Oftentimes, you have to run out and look at the hole in the ground, and at how the dirt sprays, and then you can figure out on the map where they’re coming from. So after getting a couple dozen rocket attacks, we had a pretty good idea.”

Dempsey spent 2009 in eastern Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, serving as operations officer of a battalion, and then a brigade. The first half of his tour was spent at a remote base in Kunar Province. That area includes the Korengal Valley, a sparsely populated gorge near the Pakistani border, walled by steep, wooded, almost impassable mountains, and known by American soldiers as the “Valley of Death.” Dempsey’s battalion, the first significantly sized force placed directly on the border with Pakistan, sought to stem the flow of hostiles into the Korengal and relieve the pressure on the troops there. Part of this was to be done through counterinsurgency, which Dempsey described in an article this summer in Foreign Policy as a “mundane and exceptionally time-consuming” business: “The life of a company commander in Afghanistan quickly takes on a routine of daily meetings with powerbrokers and tours through villages to assess development projects, visit schools, and connect with local people,” he wrote. “Incoming soldiers are told what to expect, but the true complexity of the task often doesn’t sink in until they arrive.” He argues that U.S. strategy must acknowledge the limitations of what the military can accomplish on its own in such a multilayered and unfamiliar culture.

In addition to trying to extend the reach of the Afghan government (“I won’t comment on Karzai,” Dempsey says through his jaw. “That’s above my pay grade”), the mission of Dempsey’s battalion was to interdict insurgent movement across the border.

“We really didn’t know what that looked like. Are they coming over in caravans? Are there big shipments? What does it mean to interdict? One thing we did know is that there’s a lot of wood smuggling going on, and that there are rumors that everybody’s involved with it.” Dempsey tends to move to the present tense when discussing such things. “We haven’t figured out how the insurgents are coming back and forth, we don’t know much about the local economy, we aren’t sure who in the government is corrupt or not corrupt. But we do know about the wood.”

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