Dempsey wings it for Landon Lecture (updated)

In the E-Ring, ask about “the Landon Lecture” and most anyone who has worked here in recent years will tell you about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ blistering 2007 speech in which he called for the Pentagon and the whole of government to get a better focus on the conflicts the U. S. was in the ...

DOD photo by D. Myles Culle
DOD photo by D. Myles Culle
DOD photo by D. Myles Culle

In the E-Ring, ask about “the Landon Lecture” and most anyone who has worked here in recent years will tell you about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ blistering 2007 speech in which he called for the Pentagon and the whole of government to get a better focus on the conflicts the U. S. was in the middle of fighting. That speech helped set the stage for Gates to get the Pentagon to institutionalize asymmetric warfare and non-traditional roles the military by then had adopted, in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism warfare.

In 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen left his mark on the lecture with a deep take on the changing and proper use of the military as a tool of the state.

Both events are remembered as important speeches that made news.

In the E-Ring, ask about “the Landon Lecture” and most anyone who has worked here in recent years will tell you about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ blistering 2007 speech in which he called for the Pentagon and the whole of government to get a better focus on the conflicts the U. S. was in the middle of fighting. That speech helped set the stage for Gates to get the Pentagon to institutionalize asymmetric warfare and non-traditional roles the military by then had adopted, in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism warfare.

In 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen left his mark on the lecture with a deep take on the changing and proper use of the military as a tool of the state.

Both events are remembered as important speeches that made news.

What will people say about Gen. Martin Dempsey’s Landon Lecture, given at the same Kansas State University forum, on Monday?

Dempsey’s talk was billed as putting forth a question to the American public. “What image is in your mind of the veteran? And is there something you should be doing to help shape it?” he asked.

The chairman did not arrive in Kansas with any prepared remarks, his aide said. That’s not unusual. Instead, as the chairman almost always does in public speeches, he winged it. That’s his style, thought it usually results in a broad if fairly shallow talk about many security subjects all at once.  

True to form, some but not much of Dempsey’s Kansas speech on Monday had little to do with military-civilian relationships, home front challenges, or any U.S. policies that are needed to address them. Most of his speech ticked off one-by-one a list of buzzwords by now long familiar to the force. Today’s threats are asymmetric, persistent, nonlinear. Today’s troops must have resilience, resolve, and be adaptable.

Dempsey gave a curt take on the Arab awakening: It caused instability but could produce more stability in the region. “Getting from here to there will be a challenge.”

On cybersecurity, he quickly said, “We have both incredible opportunities in cyber and we also have some significant vulnerabilities in cyber.”

Dempsey often likes to tell audiences he studies obscure intellectuals and shares obscure gems. This time cited a Danish physicist Per Bak, who built sand piles one grain at a time to conclude he could not predict when they would collapse. It is a metaphor for predicting today’s security environment, Dempsey explained.

He mentioned how during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand curious people were killed when they went to see why the water receded, while the more-appropriately instinctive animals fled to higher ground and survived. Why bring up that image? “We’ve got to have new instincts for the world in which we find ourselves.”
He even managed to sneak in that his favorite rock band is The Who, because their song “Who Are You?” is about feeling lost.

Dempsey’s original theme appeared to have been lost on the crowd, when they began a short question-and-answer period. At first, they peppered the president’s senior military advisor with pointed questions about the military’s response to recent protests in the Middle East, the effect of insider attacks in Afghanistan, defense spending cuts, and more details on the U.S. pivot to Asia.

Here is Dempsey’s answer about the pivot:

“Well, I – you know, as you know, the new defense strategy talked about rebalancing to the Pacific. We’ve been very careful not to describe that as a light switch – you know, one day you’re there, the next day you’re not. We never left, really. We just shifted our balance to the Mideast because that’s where the greatest security issues of the last 10 years have happened to reside. I think it’s a fair – as – again, as you watch demographic trends, economic trends and military trends, you will see them trending toward the Pacific. And we want to be – you know, let me give you a Wayne Gretzky. I’m all over the map today with eclectic quotations here, from St. Augustine to Wayne Gretzky. I don’t know what’s going on. Wayne Gretzky, about your size, probably the best hockey player in history. We could debate that, I suppose. But somebody said to him once, you know, you’re not really a physically imposing guy. How do you – how come you were such a great hockey player? And he said, I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Finally, near the end of the session, Dempsey was asked a few questions about how the university could better help veterans, what he’s doing to combat PTSD, and how communities can help returning veterans cope.

Dempsey praised the increasing partnerships between the military and schools. He said the military is “seized” with figuring out PTSD, TBI, and suicides.  And, he said didn’t know the answer yet on how the country needs to help returning veterans re-enter civilian life, but “I think we have to have a conversation.”

As moderator April Mason concluded, “When was it that you went to a talk and the theme was from The Who and you had quotes from St. Augustine and Wayne Gretzky?”

Update: Col. David Lapan, a spokesman Dempsey, disagreed with my characterization of Dempsey "winging" his remarks at Kansas State. Here’s Lapan’s statement:

"Gen Dempsey did prepare quite a bit for the speech, using a prepared text and then adding his own notes, then reading portions and speaking extemporaneously at other points. He had those written materials in front of him on the lectern. If you only read the transcript and didn’t watch the broadcast, that might not have been apparent. So while he didn’t read a prepared text, neither did he wing it."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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