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“Leading a Felt Life”

General Martin Dempsey ’74 Delivers 2019 Zengerle Lecture

On September 20, 2019, West Point welcomed General Martin Dempsey ’74 (Retired) for the fourth annual Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. More than 1,200 cadets, faculty, staff, and guests gathered in Robinson Auditorium to hear the former Department of English Instructor and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deliver his lecture titled “Leading a Felt Life.” Dempsey joined a distinguished line of Zengerle lecturers that includes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and former President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust, Ph.D. Hosted by the West Point Humanities Center, the Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities is graciously supported by Joseph Zengerle ’64 and his wife Lynda. The lecture aims to enhance cadet development by bringing a leading figure in the humanities to West Point each year. This year General Dempsey brought a distinctly military perspective on the value of the humanities to leadership, character development, and life.

Introduced by Colonel David Harper, Head of the Department of English and Philosophy, Dempsey called on his experience as a West Point English instructor and began with a grammar lesson. He paired the Samuel Becket quotation “I can’t go on; I’ll go on” with a photo of Marine private racing across “The Valley of Death” on Okinawa during World War II. For Dempsey, the photo exemplified “the unimaginable combination of courage and fear which is service in combat.” The grammar lesson came when he turned to the Beckett quote and explained how “a complete sentence or a complete thought has to follow a semi-colon, but it is very much related to the first [thought].” He went on to discuss the two thoughts in the Becket quote and explain how Private Eisen’s combination of “courage and fear” in the photo showed how closely the two thoughts are related. He then connected this to the cadets in the audience by saying that the soldiers they will lead will face situations in life, training, or combat that will make them think ,“I can’t go on.” In these moments, cadets “have to be the leader who helps get them to the other side of that semi-colon. And there are going to be times when [soldiers] don’t want to do it, when they don’t think they can do it, and only good leadership gets [them] there. Only good leadership gets them to say to themselves ‘I’ll go on.’”

Dempsey finished his discussion of the Becket quotation by saying, “If there were a subtitle for this…it would be trust.” He exhorted cadets to earn the trust of their subordinates every day through their actions, and to “demand trust of those who follow you. But you have to go first.” Trust as a foundational element of leadership became a focal point for his lecture. Through anecdotes about his work with the USA Women’s Basketball Team and his time as a division commander in Iraq, Dempsey connected the concept of trust to being fully present in the moment. According to him: “If you’re not here, not only are you doing yourself a disservice, you’re doing the men and women to your right or left a disservice…you’ve got to be [here] in a way that’s focused.”

He further illuminated trust’s significance by emphasizing military leaders’ ability to impact their subordinates positively and negatively. To do this, he quoted W.B. Yeats, who said to the woman he loved: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Using this quotation, he explained to cadets how they will have a unique responsibility for, and influence over, their subordinates’ dreams. Their future soldiers—and those soldiers’ parents, spouses, and children—will entrust the cadets with those dreams, and they will have a responsibility not to “tread” on them unnecessarily.

Dempsey’s advice to cadets was not, however, exclusively military, but trust remained a key element. Here General Dempsey quoted Anton Myrer’s character Sam Damon in Once an Eagle who said: “If it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being—try to be a good human being.” He encouraged cadets to trust themselves and to construct their own moral compass composed of those values most important to them. Sam Damon’s lines expand the scope of this compass well beyond their military experience and illustrate the importance of trust to both the profession of arms and to living an honorable life beyond it.

Photo Left: GEN(R) Martin Dempsey ’74 with Joe Zengerle ’64 and his wife, Lynda. Photo Right: CDT Antonella Blanco ’21 and CDT Taylor Stringer ’21 present Dempsey with a copy of Ulysses S. Grant’s (1843) letter to the widow of his fellow Union General Charles Ferguson Smith informing her of her husband’s death. The letter’s compassionate frankness embodies the principles with which Dempsey himself led.

To conclude his lecture, Dempsey turned to a phrase of his own. He described to cadets how difficult he had found it to face the squad and platoon mates of soldiers who died under his command. Dempsey said at the beginning he struggled to find meaningful words to say to them, but that the morning before a memorial service the words came to him. He then recalled the specifics of that memorial service: “When it was my time to look these young men and women in the eye and see that combination of fear and guilt and courage, when it was my time to talk to them I said ‘Make It Matter.’” Here General Dempsey became noticeably emotional, paused to take a sip of water, and regained his composure: “Because you can’t bring them back. I’m going to send you back out, but you can ‘Make it matter.’” Shifting from recalling the memorial to directly addressing the cadets, General Dempsey continued, “And I didn’t just mean making it matter in combat…be there for someone, help someone. That’s making it matter too—if you can go through life and make something matter for someone other than yourself every day. Then in the aggregate of your life, you’re going to make a big difference. And if you can do that, you’ll be the leader we need you to be.”

Following this powerful end to his lecture, Dempsey opened the floor to questions from the cadets, and one of his answers revealed a significant alignment between Dempsey’s values and the work being done at West Point. He was asked, “What is the most important thing you ever did?” Dempsey’s first answer was simple: “Marrying my wife.” But he then turned to what he thought the cadet really wanted to know: What was his greatest professional accomplishment? Here Dempsey turned to his time as the TRADOC commander beginning in 2008. He described a trend from 2003 to 2007 where the Army did not emphasize continuing education for its officers or NCOs and even “devalued education.” This, he said, was a “mistake.” “A profession has to continually educate itself,” and he took the most professional pride in his efforts to ensure that the education that begins at West Point continues throughout an officer’s career.

Printed in West Point Magazine, Winter 2020, all rights reserved. 
Author MAJ Nathan Pfaff Guest Writer

At the writing of this article Major Nathan Pfaff is an instructor in the West Point Department of English and Philosophy, where he teaches core courses in composition and literature. He is an Armor officer from San Antonio, Texas and holds a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin.