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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You and Whose Army?

Dempsey was in Afghanistan while he revised Our Army, communicating by e-mail with Robert Shapiro back at Columbia. Contrary to those anxious early-2000s visions, the results of the Citizenship and Service Survey of 2004 revealed an army that was hardly in political lockstep. Dempsey’s research confirmed the conventional wisdom about officer attitudes, but found that overall the Army looked a lot like the American public: 32 percent of enlisted soldiers identified as conservative, compared to 37 percent in the public, and 23 percent identified as liberal, nearly identical to the 24 percent among civilians. If anything, soldiers voted at lower rates, and were, on the whole, less politically engaged than their civilian peers. The real change, it turned out, was occurring in the upper echelons: When Dempsey presented his data to senior officers in 2006, he was told that the mind-set of the senior ranks was shifting significantly. With things gone south in Iraq, officers were reporting a growing disillusionment with the leadership in Washington.

Dempsey measured this new skepticism. He got hold of the past few surveys that the Military Times distributes yearly to its subscribers, separated out the senior officers from retirees and junior officers, and weighted them so that they were reflective of the entire senior officer population. Using this technique, he found that between 2004 and 2008, there was a 13 percent decrease in the number of self-identified Republicans among senior officers.

“That’s the inverse of what we saw during the Carter administration,” Dempsey says. “Bush had the same effect as Carter, but in the opposite direction. Then the question becomes, ‘Where’s the military going?’ Because that 13 percent who no longer identified as Republicans didn’t necessarily become Democrats.

“The best-case scenario is that we’re becoming nonpartisan — that we understand it’s in everyone’s long-term interest that we’re not affiliated with either party.” And the worst-case scenario? “That those people went into an antipolitical stance, one that says, ‘Screw ’em all.’ It means that we disdain politics as being beneath the military. This, too, subverts the idea of service — the notion that we know what’s best for our country. Well, no, we don’t, and it’s not our job to know what’s best for the country.”

Dempsey has arrived at the dregs of his espresso. He knocks back what’s left and wipes his mouth with his cloth napkin.

“The Army’s really in flux right now,” he says. “Our approach to war is changing, our approach to politics is changing. It’s a much more reflective moment.”

Winging It

In June, Dempsey was named a White House Fellow, one of 13 people chosen out of more than 700 applicants to take part in the program, which was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to provide young leaders with hands-on experience at the top levels of government. Dempsey, who is married with two young children, will spend the next year working in the East Wing of the White House, where he hopes to contribute to Michelle Obama’s outreach initiative to military families.

Having approached policy from its opposite ends — the theoretical side at West Point and Columbia, and the implementation side in Afghanistan and Iraq (in 2005, he was deployed to Iraq to help coordinate strategy in the restive Kurdish north), Dempsey will now use the fellowship’s educational program to explore what he calls “the messy middle,” that sector inside the Beltway where theory is translated into process, and where the Army’s future will be largely determined.

“The policy challenges are going to be unbelievable,” Dempsey says. “Just taking care of the veterans from these two conflicts is going to place tremendous strains on our national budget. Then there’s refitting all the Army’s worn and broken equipment and deciding what we’ll need once this war’s over, and having no idea what new enemies will pop up, or where we’ll go. The White House Fellowship is a unique opportunity to acquire a new skill set to help the Army prepare for an uncertain future.”

But Dempsey won’t be sticking around Washington for long — at least not this time. When the fellowship ends next September, he’ll pack off for another tour to Afghanistan, where he’ll command an embedded training team for the Afghan army. The team will advise and instruct the Afghans, and even accompany them on missions.

“We don’t have much of a playbook for that,” Dempsey says of the assignment. With his mix of can-do enthusiasm and hard-nosed pragmatism he might be talking about a tricky new research project (the 2004 Citizenship and Service Survey had no real playbook, either), or budget issues facing the military, rather than another year in a war zone. “It should,” he says steadily, “be a fun challenge.”

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