Dempsey's Duke

General returns to campus to discuss the future of the military--and a little William Blake.
April 1, 2012

On his first day at Duke, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey A.M. ’84 was mistaken for a priest. Given that he was recently named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and wears a chest full of medals for his military service—it’s a mistake not likely to happen again.

But as the highestranking military commander in the nation, Dempsey is cut from a different cloth. At Duke, he studied English, and he counts poets William Blake and W.B. Yeats as important influences in his preparation for military leadership. He also possesses a wry sense of humor, which he wielded during a return in January to his alma mater.

High standards: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey tells students to seek meaning in their lives. [Credit: Les Todd]

“People say, ‘How do you like [being the new chair]?’ ” he told an audience in Page Auditorium, “and I say, ‘It’s good. I have my own jet.’ ”


Dempsey, formerly chief of staff and commanding general of the U.S. Army, was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October, and he now serves as the principal military adviser to the president and the Homeland Security Council. He leads the military during a significant time of transition, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and regime change in the Middle East and North Korea. One week before he spoke at Duke, President Obama announced a proposed $450 billion cut to military funding and called for a shift in military strategy.

Dempsey spent some time discussing the new direction for a leaner military. But he also reached out to the students in the audience, confessing to his own less-thanstellar essays and reminiscing about attending basketball games and celebrating victories at campus hangouts like Shooters. He then recalled an essay on Blake, which prompted him to reflect on both the effort and outcome of his work.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to deliver,” he said. “You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to achieve the outcome that is necessary, or you don’t succeed.”

Dempsey finished his speech by imploring students to pursue lasting meaning and value in their lives. “The greatest value in your life is to spend it through something that lives after it,” he said, quoting the late U.S. Army four-star Gen. Donn Starry. “Remember this: In many ways it’s a far higher ideal to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”