A Conversation with General Dunford
To reach the office of General Joseph Dunford ’77 at the Pentagon requires extensive security screening, an official escort, a trip down long hallways filled with museum-quality installations detailing the history and leadership of the military, and finally an entrance through glass doors etched with the flag of the Marines.
But, to reach the general in conversation is as simple as sitting down at the table. He might lead one of the nation’s most storied branches of service and have earned the nickname “Fighting Joe,” but he’s also affable, gracious and maintains a proud and fond identification with Saint Michael’s.
The rise of this Boston native and Saint Michael’s College political science graduate as a Marine leader in the decades since college included service as Assistant Marine Commandant from 2010 until his 2012 promotion to commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Before that, he built a solid reputation and broad popularity in key leadership, planning and battlefield postings both domestically and abroad. Dunford earned the Nickname “Fighting Joe” for leading the 5th Marine Regiment into Iraq in the 2003 invasion.
In the months since his elevation to Commandant, Dunford has welcomed several delegations of Saint Michael’s visitors warmly in his office at the Pentagon, sharing his thoughts on everything from the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the influence that his college experiences have had on his career.
Here are some excerpts from those conversations:
On the war in Afghanistan
The word I would use when we talk about Afghanistan is “transitioning,” not withdrawing, which is what some people have talked about. Even though the war, as the President has said, ended on the 31st of December, we’re still doing two very important things: We’re providing advice and assistance so the Afghan forces can provide security in Afghanistan. And we’re still conducting counter-terrorism operations. Right now we’re enabling the Afghans to do what we have done over the past 10 years. We have sufficient capability to allow them to do that. It’s probably important to go back and say, why did we go there in the first place? We went there after 9/11 because we were attacked from Afghanistan. And we haven’t been attacked from Afghanistan since then. A critical reason for that is our presence there for the last decade, plus it has prevented terrorists from using that as ungoverned space, from which they planned and conducted an attack on the United States.
….We’re transitioning now at a responsible pace. We weren’t going to be there forever. What we’re trying to do is grow Afghan capacity. At the tactical level, we’ve grown that. Now, we’re trying to help them at the ministerial level and the broader government level to be able to do the kinds of things that we’ve been able to do over the past decade. We’re still going to be present in Afghanistan for many, many years to come. We’re still going to maintain influence in that part of the world . . . but the nature of our influence is changing from an almost primarily military presence in Afghanistan. We’re now emphasizing the greater political and economic tools that we’re providing to Afghanistan so they can stand up and have stability and security on their own.
The number one thing I want [Americans in general and Saint Michael’s alumni in particular] to know is that the result of the sacrifice of the young men and women in uniform, and frankly the civilians in the State Department and other parts of our government, [is that] our nation has not been attacked from that part of the world again. We’ve put the pressure on that part of the world to prevent that attack. And then at the same time, what we’ve tried to do is to grow Afghanistan to be an effective counter-terrorism partner and be able to continue to operate as we have to for our own interests from that part of the world and Afghanistan. Are we trying to prevent another attack against the United States? We did that. Transition to legitimate Afghan governance? We’ve done that. Develop capable Afghan security forces? We’re continuing to do that, and also providing a stabling influence in the region. We’ve done that.
On cybersecurity and cyber warfare
That’s an important part of our security now. Are we prepared? I would say we are preparing. We have a cyber-capability. It begins with protecting the network, and within the Department of Defense, we’ve come a long way over the past decade to protect the network. In terms of our relationship with corporate partners, and the government as a whole, I think we have some work to do, and that’s what [the presumed North Korean cyberattacks on Sony] highlights. . . the need for a collaborative relationship between industry and the government to protect the network, because it’s clear that there are threats out there.
On the importance of spiritual strength in a military mission
I think your spiritual wellness and well-being is actually a critical enabler to do what you have to do on the battlefield. When you go to someplace like Afghanistan or Iraq, you go with your core values, you go with your sense of commitment, you go with your sense of right and wrong. And I think we always talk about resilience, and one of the critical things that a Marine has to have is resilience. We talk about mind, body and spirit, so your spiritual well-being is an important component of your resilience to deal with the challenges that the Marine Corps presents you with.
On the importance of family for him and other Marines
In the Marine Corps, we have an expression, ‘You enlist a Marine and you enlist the family.’ And that expression is kind of a recognition of the important role that families play in the Marine Corps. And, when you think about the sacrifice and so forth that we ask of our families, we couldn’t do it if the families weren’t willing to endure a sacrifice.
On most formative personalities and experiences at Saint Michael’s
One staff member who stood out was Maureen McNamara. She was both the registrar and responsible for financial aid. I remember her pretty well because I ran out of money after my first semester of senior year. I was working while going through school, and she, on the spot, gave me an additional loan to get me through the year. I had Dr. Bryan freshman year for political science, for methods and methodology. One of our tasks was to go out and cover town halls in Vermont and then report back on what went on. So, in terms of understanding democracy beyond conceptually, that was a huge experience.
Dr. Bill Wilson was one of my professors and another really standout individual just in terms of teaching how to think, which was something I remember about him. He was always prepared and very personal.
I worked at a First National store down towards UVM. I did that for four years, and probably worked between 30 and 40 hours a week, so I had a lot of exposure to some of the local Vermonters. It was where I really got to know Vermont.
I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that these people and experiences helped shape the person I am now. The adjectives that I associate with those people: commitment … compassion … selfless service … intellectual rigor … values… all those things, I think those individuals all made a contribution in that regard.
Advice to present-day Saint Michael’s students
If I was talking to the seniors today, I’d say, ‘Up to this point in your life, it’s mostly been about you. It’s been about your grades, it’s been about studying, it’s been about improving yourself. But as you go out into the world, you’re not going to be successful based on you in most endeavors. In most endeavors, it’s not about how smart you are, how competent you are, how well-read you are. It’s about what you do to inspire other people and to enable other people to achieve success.’ What I would tell [the first-year class] is that the most important thing that they’ll get out of their education is how to think. It’s how to frame problems, it’s how to identify the key elements of complex challenges … so it’s about more than the sum total of knowledge.
On strengths of a Catholic education
I think some people would find military service incompatible with Catholic education. And certainly, when I came into the Marine Corps (I graduated in 1977) it wasn’t really a popular thing to do, to join the military. Especially at Saint Michael’s, what you do is you bring your education, your values, your sense of commitment and all those things into your profession, and that foundation actually is about as consistent with military service as [it] could be. If a Catholic education is about being a person for others, then that’s exactly what I’d attribute my success to being, serving others. That’s what you do as a leader.
Advice to veterans attending or considering Saint Michael’s
I know a couple of veterans that have gone that way, [enrolling at Saint Michael’s], and I’ve talked to a number of them. I would encourage them to do that, because, number one, I think that the school will do something for them. And I’ve talked about education, talked about how to think, how to prepare them for whatever challenges they decide to take on. But I also talked to them about what they can do for the school. I think a classroom with a young 22- or 23-year-old man or woman who’s had the experience our Marines have had is going to bring a completely different dimension into the student population. They have been places, they have seen things and they have done things that put into perspective some of the things you talk about in the classroom. And I think those young men and women [today] — the majority of whom have served in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, have a much better appreciation of what the world is all about . . . [and] the role the United States of America plays in that world. And we’re not perfect, but they also, I think, have a commitment… They want to go to school and prepare for increased challenges and responsibilities so they can make a contribution at another level.”