Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey says the U.S. public, and even its leaders, know little about how military power can be used. He says the disconnect is most glaring when comes to this: What can the U.S. military achieve in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria?
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Let's listen to some of a discussion of a question the United States will face for as long as it's a leading nation. It's the question of when to use American military force. The man who advises the president on that question is General Martin Dempsey. He's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And this week, he spoke with officers and civilians studying at the National Defense University in Washington.
General Dempsey told the students he worries that Americans, including often national leaders, do not fully comprehend what he calls the military instrument and its limitations.
NPR's Tom Bowman was in the audience.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The general strolled onstage in the cavernous, modern hall. The crowd: a select group, mostly military officers, a sea of uniforms in blue, gray and green.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Some of you I know got here through the keen competition of the Air Force assignment system, others through the blind luck of the Navy's assignment system.
BOWMAN: Dempsey worked the crowd. He's a West Point graduate who went on to study Irish poetry. He's known for his quick wit. But he also had a serious message: Americans don't know what you do.
DEMPSEY: We face a deficit larger than our budget. And that is a deficit of understanding between those of us who serve in uniform and our fellow citizens.
BOWMAN: That disconnect is most glaring when comes to this: What can the U.S. military achieve in places like or Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria.
DEMPSEY: And that's why, in the time remaining to me, I'm going to increase my commitment to have a conversation with our national leaders and the American people, about the purpose of the military not only in times of war, but in peacetime as well.
BOWMAN: After the speech, we met with General Dempsey. He swapped his formal uniform jacket for a plain black one. No ribbons or braids, just four stars on each shoulder. A cup of coffee was placed next to him and picked up on his theme.
DEMPSEY: One of the things that makes our profession valuable to the nation is that we do have these conversations about what is the proper role of a military leader, what's the proper role of the military instrument of power - in and among all the other instruments of national power. I think we have to have that conversation.
BOWMAN: But right now, when there's trouble in Syria or Iraq, the conversation turns quickly to that military instrument. Dempsey knows what the military can and cannot do. He was a division commander in Baghdad back in 2003. U.S. leaders expected a quick war. That year, Dempsey spoke about a growing insurgency.
DEMPSEY: You know, this is not the kind of conflict where we're going to know it's over because somebody walks out of a building with a white flag.
BOWMAN: The country descended into hellish sectarian fighting. Dempsey spent four years in Iraq, the last two training Iraqi forces. Dempsey lost many soldiers in the fight. And to this day, as a reminder, he carries photos of them.
DEMPSEY: At any given time, I'll have three and I have another 130 or so on my desk.
BOWMAN: Now as the top officer in American military, Dempsey faces pressure over and over to use military force again in places like Syria. More than 130,000 people have died there in the fighting between government forces and rebel groups. Dempsey, along with all the president's top national security advisors, pushed for arming the rebels back in 2012. The White House rejected the idea. Still, Dempsey was skeptical about using the American military. He outlined several options from air strikes to no-fly zones and explained their shortcomings.
Last summer, Senator John McCain lashed out at General Dempsey for not supporting a tougher approach in Syria.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Which do you think is a greater cost? The action we're taking now, which is - has had no effect on the battlefield equation or doing nothing?
DEMPSEY: Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it. The question of whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.
MCCAIN: This goes back to my concern about your role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
DEMPSEY: I understand.
BOWMAN: McCain's argument, if the U.S. had acted more forcefully two years ago, the Assad government would be weaker now. Moderate rebels would be gaining ground. Instead, Syria's regime is stronger and al-Qaida is pushing out the moderate rebels. Next week, diplomats meet to try to negotiate a political settlement. If those talks fail, General Dempsey says he'll once again face questions about what the American military can do to help the rebels.
DEMPSEY: Well, at some point, I would then be asked for a menu of possibilities. And that menu will be broad and include both direct action but most importantly, in my view, things we could do to empower them.
BOWMAN: But your favorite option out of that would be to maybe train, arm the rebels and let them do the job?
DEMPSEY: Yeah, I don't know if I'd call it favorite, actually. What I would say is I think that the most effective - the one that would produce an outcome that would be sustainable over time - would be one that we empower that moderate group, assuming we can still find them, in that mixture.
BOWMAN: Training and arming the rebels - the same idea Dempsey backed two years ago: keep the U.S. military role limited, and help the Syrian people resolve the crisis. That could be where the Syria fight is headed.
Right now, though, the fight is headed across borders.
DEMPSEY: I've talked for some time about the fact that the conflict in the region stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad. And...
BOWMAN: So this is clearly a regional conflict right now, isn't it?
DEMPSEY: It is a regional conflict.
BOWMAN: And it's spilling back over to Iraq.
This month, al-Qaida fighters and their tribal supporters took control of Fallujah, a place where so many Americans died a decade ago.
Now veterans are on TV, NPR talking about Fallujah. Why did we lose friends? Why did we sacrifice? You were there when Fallujah fell. What runs through your mind when you see the black flag of al-Qaida in Fallujah?
DEMPSEY: Well, you know, the same thing that runs through any veteran's mind that has served there, which, you know, which is disappointment. But by the way, not disappointment in what we've done, disappointment in what Iraq has done to - failed to take advantage of the opportunity that we gave them. Look, the young men and women who went to Iraq won their fight. They did exactly what we asked them to do.
BOWMAN: And some of them didn't come home. Later, back at the Pentagon, General Dempsey will reach into the box on his desk with the words Make It Matter carved on its lid. He'll place in his pocket photos of the soldiers he lost in Iraq.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.