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American Forces Press Service

Dempsey Speaks on Experiences in Civil-Military Relations

By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2014 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the president of the United States and the other members of the National Security Council – America's civilian leaders.

It is no surprise then that the Center for a New American Security here asked Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey to be the keynote speaker at a conference on "the civil-military divide and the future of the all-volunteer force."

The debate on the civil-military divide is timeless, the chairman said.

"The rocky road of civil-military relations is somewhat intentional," he said. "There is going to be some friction, the question is how much and how is it managed."

Bridging Two Cultures

To an extent the issue is about bridging the gulf between two cultures, he noted. In the military, Dempsey said, when confronted by a problem, military men and women tend to ask, "What's the objective?"

"Once you know what you are trying to achieve, we go through this rather exquisite process of building a campaign plan to achieve it with intermediate objectives and milestones and so on and so forth," he said.

Civilian leaders are generally more interested in what options they have when confronted by a problem, he said.

These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching a problem and the difference can cause both sides to talk past each other. "We literally come at this from two different cultures," he said. "People ask me if I am the same chairman I was three years ago, and the answer is no. One of the things I have learned … is to find ways to bridge that gap between these two different cultures."

It is also important to educate younger officers, "because it can be a source of enormous frustration when we speak past each other about whether we start with options or start with objectives," the chairman said.

Candid Relationships Matter

Civil-military relations are built on the foundation of candor, Dempsey said. "All of my predecessors … when they came to educate me about my job, the single consistent, persistent theme was candor," he said. "Relationships are based on candor."

Dempsey believes building civil-military relationships is the responsibility of those in the military more than that of elected officials. "We don't own 90 percent of the responsibility, but we certainly own more than half of the responsibility," he said. "That's appropriate and I think there are times when we have done that well and there are times we haven't done it well enough."

Dempsey weighed in on the discussion about the all-volunteer force. "It's the right force for this nation, and we can't take it for granted," he said.

Service is not just about being in a combat zone, he said.

"If you want to stay connected to the American people, you can't do it episodically," the chairman said, noting the all-volunteer force needs to find ways to connect with people in communities around the nation.

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