STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Retired General Martin Dempsey is speaking out. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is criticizing the Trump administration's talk this week of using the military to put down protesters. It is rare for General Dempsey to address a politically charged issue. He says it's wrong for military leaders, serving or retired, to criticize elected officials. In that way, he was like James Mattis, the former defense secretary who also kept his silence until this week. But Dempsey says it is legitimate for him to speak when an issue affects the integrity of the institution that he once led. In an interview with NPR, Dempsey says that is the case with the president's threat on Monday to send regular Army troops into the States.
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MARTIN DEMPSEY: There's a couple of things that came on rather quickly. One of them was the description of the challenge, let's say, with these protests dominating the battlespace. And that's a characteristic that we use for conflict in external wars. And I thought, you know, that's not something the American people should think about in terms of when they see members of the military on their streets.
And secondly, you know, the idea that the military would be called in to dominate and to suppress what, for the most part, were peaceful protests - admittedly, where some had opportunistically turned them violent. And that the military would somehow come in and calm that situation was very dangerous to me.
By the way, I should mention there's no question that the law would allow the use of the military in extremis, in an extreme situation when state governments were either unable to even convene or that when state and local law enforcement were overwhelmed. But none of that seemed to be the case. And so the idea that the president would overwhelm the - would take charge of the situation using the military was troubling to me.
I should mention at this point that this idea that we have to maintain a relationship of trust between the American people and its military is important because that's who we are. But also, pragmatically, we have an all-volunteer force. And we ask parents across the country to share their sons and daughters with us for a period of military service. And were we to lose the trust and confidence in the American people, it would make sustaining that all-volunteer force more than difficult.
INSKEEP: So I'm hearing you say there are dangers to democracy here but also just dangers on a practical level to the military itself corroding that relationship with civilians.
DEMPSEY: Yes. And it's the latter that I - that caused me to believe that I needed to make a comment about it - that the relationship between the American people and the military, who they represent and serve, would be adversely affected if this wasn't handled very carefully.
INSKEEP: When U.S. troops are sent among American civilians - and in a way, that's happening now. National Guard troops have been deployed by governors in a good number of states - what's the proper attitude for them to take?
DEMPSEY: Here's the way I think about it. You know, local law enforcement, police forces, notably, are mostly members of the same community in which they try to protect and serve. You know, and some do it better than others, obviously. If you take it to the next level and introduce the National Guard, the National Guard are also men and women from that state. And so the people of the state know their National Guard. And that has a calming influence. The active military, the federal military is not from among the people of a particular city generally. And, I mean, there may be a handful of them. But as a group, they're not.
DEMPSEY: And so, you know, I don't think they have a calming influence, which is to say it's not their fault. I mean, it's just the introduction of a force purpose built and designed for service overseas against our enemies.
INSKEEP: Retired General Martin Dempsey was speaking with us after the publication of a new book. It's called "No Time For Spectators." Dempsey describes attending meetings led by President Obama and realizing the president could expect his input on any issue, not just the military ones. He could not just be a spectator. Dempsey writes of lessons he learned at West Point and through a long military career. He says a good leader must first learn to follow and that character matters. With all his experience, Dempsey has been following news of multiple crises - the pandemic, the economy, the protests over police killings. And he says in these crises, we may find opportunities.
What's the opportunity?
DEMPSEY: Well, every crisis has certain characteristics. And they move in cycles. And the first step is always, you know, what I guess we could describe as triage, where we just try to stop the pain and the suffering and the - if it's a military crisis, stop the bleeding. But then that's actually the easy part. The harder part comes when the crisis enters a cycle of complexity - that is to say, when second- and third-order effects begin to show themselves. And so either the leader or someone they designate really has to be looking for the complexities that will accrue in a crisis and try to stay ahead of them or at least abreast of them rather than to be surprised by them.
What we generally become guilty of in a crisis is a failure of imagination. And so you ask me, where in this could there possibly be an opportunity? Well, the first thing I'll tell you is there will not be an opportunity unless people imagine the way this thing could evolve and then work hard to get ahead of it. And the second thing is it is an opportunity. But it's more than that. It's really an obligation.
INSKEEP: What are the implications of that for this moment, where people might say, looking at the news, well, I'm not a person of color. I'm not directly involved with the police. Or I don't have coronavirus right now. Or I haven't lost my job. What are the implications for people who could say things like that?
DEMPSEY: Well, the implications are that we pick and choose our crises - plural. You know, I'm going to worry about the pandemic. But frankly, I'm not going to worry much about the economy or about racism in this country. Or you say to yourself, you know, I think maybe racism is the most important issue of the day. And clearly, for some people, it is. But what I would suggest is that these things are all related in one important sense. And that is that they all generate fear.
If it's the pandemic, you're fearful of catching it. You're fearful of your family catching it. If it's the economy, you're fearful that your way of life is about to change dramatically economically. And if it's racism, especially if you're a person of color, you know, you feel as though this is this is just yet another example of a country that only really cares about portions of its population. So they're all related. And they're all - it's all about fear. And the antidote is the same. We've got to continue to work to develop a sense of belonging among leaders and those who follow them.
INSKEEP: General Martin Dempsey is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And his latest book is called "No Time For Spectators." General, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks.
DEMPSEY: Same here, Steve. Good talking to you.
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