The Army Is Running The Show

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Marty Dempsey as a division commander in Iraq, 2003 / DoD photo

President Obama doubled down on the Army Monday, picking an Army general as chairman of the Joint Chiefs — after picking another one to run the CIA, and a third — a one-time low-level Army lawyer — to run the Pentagon. There may be  lots of red, white and blue around the capital today, but it felt more like red, white and Army green. This Army surplus bodes for more of a low-tech military future, leavened with its traditional lack of hubris, at least compared to the other services.

Less than two months after becoming the top officer in the U.S. Army, Obama tapped General Martin Dempsey again to serve as the top officer in the U.S. military as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This tells us, first of all, that Dempsey wasn’t Obama’s first choice: it’s disruptive to the nation’s biggest military service to gear up for a new boss, only to have him promoted outside the service several weeks later. But it’s also reassuring.

By all accounts, Dempsey is a low-key, people person, more inclined to embrace people-centric solutions to military challenges than technology-centric. That, of course, is true of Army and Marine officers in general: while their Air Force and Navy brethren worship at the altar of high-technology — $2 billion bombers and $3 billion submarines are their bread and butter – the ground-pounders believe that the only way to prevail in war is with boots on the ground. Their biggest investment in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, a relative bargain at less than $1 million each. All three of Dempsey’s children have served in the Army.

Marine General James “Hoss” Cartwright, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had been widely viewed as the odds-on favorite to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen, the current chairman, who retires Sept. 30. But in the past two weeks, Cartwright’s personality – and lack of combat experience – made Obama turn elsewhere. (Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post has the details.) In comparison, Dempsey pulled two tours in Iraq and served as acting head of U.S. Central Command.

Obama nominated Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr., currently commander of U.S. Northern Command, as the new vice chairman. He also tapped Army General Ray Odierno, currently service as head of the Joint Forces Command, to replace Dempsey as the Army chief of staff. The Senate has to confirm all three candidates.

Dempsey’s promotion, along with the elevation of Army General Dave Petraeus to run the CIA beginning in the fall, means Army combat veterans will be leading the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Leon Panetta, the current head of the CIA and one-time Army lawyer, will take over as defense secretary from Robert Gates in July.