Adm. Mike Mullen and the man who replaces him Friday as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are just five years apart in age but their experiences are different in ways that represent a dramatic shift at the top of the nation’s armed forces.
Mullen, 64, the last of six chairmen whose careers were first defined in combat in southeast Asia, spent time as a young ensign off the coast of Vietnam on the destroyer USS Collett in 1968, firing 5-inch guns with such intensity that the barrels melted from the heat.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, 59, his successor, graduated from West Point in 1974, joining a force that was deeply scarred from having just lost the Vietnam war. He didn’t see his first combat until becoming a division commander in Iraq in 2003.
The accession of Dempsey caps both the takeover and the transformation of America’s military by veterans of post-Sept. 11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. This change is most pronounced in the Army, where a fellow former division commander, Gen. Raymond Odierno, has replaced Dempsey as chief of staff, and many up-and-coming leaders are protégés of a third Iraq war leader, retired Gen. David Petraeus, a West Point classmate of Dempsey’s who now leads the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dempsey also is the first Army officer to take over as chairman since Gen. Hugh Shelton retired just three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks launched the country into a decade of war.
The U.S. now has military leaders who have dealt firsthand with “the messy problems of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security.
Mullen, who took office in October 2007, is credited with having given these new leaders the space to transform the military from one defined by the doctrine of using massive force against conventional enemies to one capable of “winning the peace” in conflicts where terrorists operate in the shadows of failed states.
“If we’ve learned nothing else from these two wars of ours, it is that a flexible, balanced approach to using military force is best,” he said in an often-cited March 2010 speech at Kansas State University. “We must not try to use force only in an overwhelming capacity, but in the proper capacity, and in a precise and principled manner.”
Mullen told POLITICO that he’s also pleased to see that there’s been a transformation in how the military is viewed by the public since Vietnam. “The country is just so much more behind us now than they were then, and it shows in the sort of support they offer our troops and families. I don’t ever want to see us go back as a country to those more difficult days,” he said.
The son of a Hollywood publicist, Mullen, “sort of breaks the mold” of post-Vietnam War leadership exemplified by Gen. Colin Powell, the first Joint Chiefs chairman from among those who served as young officers in Vietnam, Nagl said. Powell, the nation’s top military officer during the 1990-91 Gulf War, was known for the doctrine bearing his name that suggests the U.S. should only commit military force in situations where the objectives are clearly defined and supported by political leaders.
The Powell Doctrine came out of the painful experience of seeing the armed forces – particularly the Army – shattered by eight years of futile combat in southeast Asia and the loss of public support at home. Vietnam was a counterinsurgency that went bad, and leaders who survived the conflict wanted to avoid similar ones in the future, said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and author of “The Army and Vietnam.”
“There was I would say an effort at collective amnesia,” he said.
The Gulf War, officially known as Operation Desert Storm, reinforced the lesson for Powell and the generation of leaders who came after him, Nagl said.
“Desert Storm was the kind of war that Powell envisioned – a decisive war against another state actor with a defined resolution,” he said. “The military they built was designed for just that kind of war,” but “it wasn’t the kind of military we needed after Sept. 11.”
When U.S. forces were faced with new insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly after the initial success in driving Saddam Hussein from power, “we had to relearn what we had forgotten at the end of the Vietnam conflict,” Krepinevich said.
Nagl, one of many young Army officers mentored by Petraeus, who co-wrote the Army’s current counterinsurgency manual with him, said the generation of leaders forged in Vietnam “failed to take into account that the world changed” and that non-state actors such as Al Qaeda could pose a serious threat to U.S. security.
But, drawing from his own combat experience, he noted that they were not completely wrong. “I’d rather fight three Desert Storms than do another year of Al Anbar in 2004,” he said.
With China rising as a world power and other possible threats on the horizon, Dempsey and his generation will have to ensure that the military doesn’t lose sight of conventional conflicts even as insurgencies remain a feature of the world scene in the foreseeable future, Nagl said.
“We’ve really got our work cut out for us and the Dempsey generation is going to have to find a balance between preserving our counterinsurgency capabilities and increasing our operations on the air and sea,” he said. If those efforts fail, “our enemies will seek out our weaknesses.”
Dempsey and his cohorts will also have to ensure that the all-volunteer force which replaced Vietnam-era draftees is taken care of, Mullen said.
“We have the most combat-hardened force since then, and these last 10 years have been extraordinarily tough on them,” he said. “It’s absolutely vital for the future that we find a way to retain that talent and that expertise. Their combat experience is different from earlier generations, but it is no less instructive or meaningful both in their lives and in the type of leadership they exude.”