When General Martin E. Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received the telegram announcing his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he was far from certain about accepting. But his resolve fermented quickly, he says, by what he ultimately determined was the “most important” factor: his first-generation Irish American mother.
“My mother cried when I told her I really didn’t want to go to West Point,” he told Irish America in an email. “So I went.” This is typical of Dempsey, who frequently defers self-aggrandizement, learned the importance of honoring his Irish elders early, and has never in his career been shy about the pride he takes in his heritage.
Born in 1952 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Dempsey grew up in nearby Bayonne the eldest of five siblings and the eldest grandson of four Irish immigrants, including his widowed grandmother, who lived upstairs in their small house, which he says “was simply a blessing.”
“All of our Irish relatives gathered every holiday and on many Sundays. There was great joy in the house even in the face of financial challenges,” he says. The values they taught him have carried through all aspects of his life, and he freely credits them with his successes, including his proclivity for turning to Irish songs at public events. (Among the numerous videos available, the most memorable may be his retirement ceremony, where he parted with a rendition of, naturally, “The Parting Glass.”)
His parents and grandparents taught him to bloom where he was planted, he says. “I worked hard at whatever task I was a given, and embraced leadership opportunities whether as a crossing guard, an altar boy, or a General.” Naturally, this Irish ethic would influence his decision to heed the clear desire of his mother and accept at West Point.
It has served him well, not least because Dempsey’s 41-year career with the military, and especially the time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been defined by both unexpected and, by military standards, unconventional promotions since his first post in a small German village at the front lines of the Cold War in West Germany in 1974.
In 1991, Dempsey was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm and served with the 3rd Armored Division as its executive officer, and spearheaded the “left hook” maneuver that cut off a retreat path for the Iraqi Republican Guards and led to the swift completion of the war in a matter of weeks. From 2001 to 2003, he served in Saudi Arabia, training and advising the Saudi National Guard, experience he would later build upon while training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad from 2005 to 2007.
In 2003, as a brigadier general, he was sent to Baghdad in command of the 1st Army Division, usually an assignment given to two-star major generals. Dempsey excelled in the face of the 2004 Shiite rebellion, organizing a strategy that combined agile attacks, political negotiations, and swift infusions of reconstruction funds to Shiite neighborhoods to counter the influence of the rebels. He was subsequently promoted to major general.
In 2007, he was named second in command at U.S. Central Command (covering the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia) in Florida, being promoted to a three-star lieutenant general. Less than a year later, he was promoted to acting commander when the four-star commander Admiral William Fallon was forced to retire in 2008 after criticizing the Bush administration in Esquire magazine. That same year he was nominated and approved for a fourth star. In February 2011, then-defense secretary Robert M. Gates tapped him out of Central Command to become chief of staff for the U.S. Army.
His career is also one that has seen drastic changes to military strategy and technology such that he and members of his military generation have had to recalibrate their understandings of success and victory. In this endeavor, too, he has been uniquely skilled. In a 2015 interview with Politico, he singled out April 2004 as a turning point.
“Here we were, an Army that prided itself on being on the absolute leading edge of technology, of being able to see first, understand first, and if necessary shoot first; and suddenly we were facing these simultaneous uprisings,” he said. “We all had this moment like, ‘Wow, I just didn’t see that coming!’ That suggested that relying too heavily on technology in this era was dangerous.”
This forced him to realize that military might “was less important than understanding anthropology and sociology and what was on the minds of Iraqis on the street,” he said.
And indeed, it is one reason that led to his final promotion to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011, the highest ranking military officer in the U.S. The appointment was unexpected in part because he was nominated in favor of then vice-chairman General James E. Cartwright, whom Obama had initially courted for the position, but also because the announcement came just four months after he had been named Army chief of staff.
And yet, the appointment should not have been a surprise. Dempsey was universally respected by senior commanders like Gates, General David Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for his pragmatism, restraint, and combination of combat and diplomatic experience. In fact, he was so highly regarded that at the time Thom Shanker observed for the New York Times that, “General Dempsey carries no visible political baggage and has no vocal critics across the armed forces. The only sour notes sounded at word of his nomination came from those who regret his departure from the post of Army chief.”
Once in command, Dempsey became known both for his candor, his caution, and his penchant for informality and discernable lack of ego. Throughout his career, he preferred “Marty” to Martin, including with President Obama.
In a speech at Dempsey’s retirement ceremony, Obama remarked on the reasons Dempsey was initially selected as chairman.
“I chose Marty for these leadership roles because of his moral fiber and his deep commitment to American strength and values. I chose him because of his vision for our military as a more versatile and responsive force. I chose him because he had the steady hand we needed in this moment of transition — as we tackle emerging threats and support so many of our troops as they transition to civilian life,” he said.
“And I’ve seen Marty manage each of these challenges with integrity and foresight and care. But perhaps most of all, I chose Marty because he’s a leader you can trust.”
During his unusual, though not unprecedented, two-term tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his accomplishments were significant, Obama continued, praising Dempsey’s leadership.
“Over these last four years, Marty’s wisdom, his vision, and his character have helped lead the greatest fighting force the world has ever known,” he said.
“We ended our combat mission in Afghanistan and brought America’s longest war to a responsible end. We’ve forged new partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel to meet terrorist threats. We’ve built a coalition that is combatting ISIL in Iraq and Syria. We have bolstered our cyber defenses. We helped halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa.”
Dempsey also used his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs to advocate for a number of issues relating to civilian-military relations (both domestic and foreign) and internal military practices.
His first year on the job, in 2012, he ordered all military schools to conduct internal reviews to ensure they were not teaching anti-Islamic themes in response to reports that some instructors at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia had claimed that Islam is at war with the U.S. In the order, he wrote that the instructors were “advocating ideas, beliefs and actions that are contrary to our national policy, inconsistent with the values of our profession and disrespectful of the Islamic religion.” The order earned him sharp criticism from some, but the call for tolerance and understanding would remain a strong theme throughout his service.
That same year, he was instrumental in unveiling the Transition Assistance Program Goals, Planning, and Success program to aid in the transition from military to civilian life.
In 2013, he spearheaded the military’s lifting of the ban on women from artillery, infantry, and other combat roles.
In 2014, he became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs to visit Vietnam since 1971. “It was an opportunity to establish a relationship with a nation strategically located and fearful of Chinese assertiveness. I felt then as I do now that Vietnam can be a stabilizing influence in Southeast Asia,” he told Irish America. “It was a remarkable experience given the fact that we were still at war when I entered West Point.”
He has also been cautious about advocating military force in the war against ISIS and in American involvement in the Syrian civil war without a long-term strategy in place for what would follow.
In his last NATO conference as chairman last September, Dempsey was frank about what he believes it will take to defeat ISIS, as well as his ideas of the use of force alone.
“A strategic success will require that [Sunnis in the region] ultimately reject ISIS’ ideology and feel inclusive governance. Otherwise two years from now we’ll be talking about another group with a similarly extremist ideology,” he said.
“My belief is that when the military is used as the sole instrument of power, that never has a good outcome. If there’s no one to take ownership and develop that failed state, human suffering can be even worse than that created by the conflict itself.”
His caution is in part borne out physically by a wooden box he keeps on his desk that reads “Make it Matter.” In that box, “are 132 laminated cards, each bearing the image of a soldier lost under my command in 2003-2004 in Iraq,” he told Irish America. Every day during his command, he says, he would take a number of those cards and carry them in his pocket as a constant reminder of what is at stake “as we consider the use of force across the globe.” Everything Dempsey does is considered, and personal experience factors strongly.
But if his advocacy for tolerance paired with his restraint and caution in using military force has been criticized, it may be because his detractors didn’t come of age as a commander in America’s wars in the Middle East and the subsequent breakdown of presumed knowledge about what victory looks like following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It may also be because they haven’t studied the Irish literary tradition, particularly the work of W.B. Yeats, like he has.
Dempsey, whose grandparents emigrated from Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon, and Mayo, spent his childhood summers in the latter beginning at age nine when he first met his Mayo great-grandfather, an experience he calls “magical.” There, he went to school with his cousins and learned a little Irish, though he doesn’t admit to recalling any of it. Importantly, the experience imbued him with a sense of his roots, and spurred him to get a master’s in English literature at Duke University after his first command duty was complete in the 1980s. There, he wrote his master’s thesis on the Irish literary revival.
“I studied all of the Irish literary giants of the period between 1890 and 1922. I also studied the influence of Irish writing in America during the same period. I was and am most intrigued by William Butler Yeats who said, ‘talent perceives differences, genius unity.’ Words that clearly resonate today,” he told Irish America.
In a 2012 lecture at Duke, he highlighted the explicit link between this study and his Army command.
“What I learned about Yeats that I didn’t know going in, is he was probably one of those poets unique in that he changed; he allowed himself to change and to reflect about that change as he moved through his life… he was always a man who could understand his time and himself, and he understood in that regard the context in which he was living,” Dempsey said.
“Strategy is, at some level, the ability to predict what’s going to happen, but it’s also about understanding the context in which it is being formulated. And then you have to be open-minded to the fact that you’re not going to get it right at the very beginning. You have a certain set of contexts in which you operate. You then apply yourself against that context, which changes the environment and introduces another set of complex challenges.”
Now that Dempsey is retired from military service, he will no doubt take this same philosophy with him into civilian life, where he currently serves as chairman of the newly formed Junior NBA Leadership Council and as a special advisor to NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
He and his wife Deanie, his high school sweetheart to whom he has been married since 1977, have three children, Chris, Megan, and Caitlin, and nine grandchildren. When Irish America asked him what he loved most about military life, he said it was “the fact that my wife of 39 years shared my passion for it, and we were blessed by so many friendships.” Their children have all served in the U.S. Army, continuing Dempsey’s legacy there, and Chris remains on active duty.
“They each made their own decision,” Dempsey insists.
What values did your parents and grandparents pass on to you?
Faith, humility, respect, and the value of hard work.
Was St. Patrick’s Day celebrated in your house?
Frequently. We were Irish. We celebrated life, our roots, and our faith.
Did it make you feel special that your birthday was right around that time?
My parents and grandparents always made me feel special.
What is your favorite Irish song?
It’s hard to select one from the litany of possibilities. My favorite group is “The High Kings.” I enjoy their versions of the traditional ballads.
What is the hardest part about being a military leader in time of war?
The casualties. We must always work to make their sacrifices matter.
What can we do to better serve our veterans?
Give them a handshake, not a handout. They just need a chance and will make any organization they join better for their presence.
Any comments on the ceasefire in Syria or the refugee crisis in Europe?
The issues that have torn the Middle East apart will take decades to resolve. We need to work with allies in Europe and partners in the Middle East using all of the tools (economic, diplomatic, military) in our arsenal and recognize that it will be a twenty-year endeavor. ♦