10 Things You Need to Know about America’s Top General
Policy + Politics

10 Things You Need to Know about America’s Top General

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and President Obama almost never agree on anything related to the military or U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. So it was something of a surprise on Tuesday when the Armed Services Committee chair lavished praise on the president’s choice of Marine Corps commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. to become the next chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I’m a strong supporter of Gen. Dunford,” McCain told Defense One. “I think he’ll speak truth to power. That’s a habit the Marines have, and I think that he will also bring the benefit of his experience and leadership roles in combat. He’s a true combat veteran.”

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Obama said something similar in announcing his nomination during a White House Rose Garden ceremony, describing Dunford as an indefatigable leader and strategist who has “already proven his ability to give me his unvarnished military advice based on his experience on the ground.”

McCain’s enthusiasm for Dunford, the one-time commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, stems in part from his undisguised disdain for Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs, who McCain complained was far too cautious and ought to resign.  McCain, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, was infuriated by Dempsey’s opposition to the 2007 surge in U.S. troops in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush and his opposition to the U.S. getting more deeply involved in Syria.

Ironically, as The Wall Street Journal noted today, Dunford and Dempsey share many common goals including Dempsey’s cautious vision about U.S. military engagement in waging war against terrorists. Like Dempsey, Dunford harbors serious doubts about the efficacy putting troops on the ground to support counterinsurgency missions.

So who is Dunford and what experience will he bring to one of the most important jobs in Washington?  Here are ten things you should know about him:

  • Dunford, 59, a Boston native, is the son of a retired Boston police officer who fought in the Korean War. A devout Catholic, Dunford graduated from Saint Michael’s College in June 1977 and earned his Marine Corp commission that month. He went through the United States Army War College, Ranger School and Amphibious Warfare School. But he also went outside the military educational system to obtain a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University and a second Master of Arts degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
  • Although Dunford didn’t go to a military academy, he racked up his share of academic degrees. A devout Catholic, he graduated from St. Michael’s College in Toronto in 1977 and earned his Marine Corp commission that month. He earned a master’s degree in government from Georgetown, and a second MA in international relations from Tufts.

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  • As you’d expect, Dunford has commanded all levels of the Marines. He served in Iraq for two years, leading the 5th Regimental Combat Team during the 2003 invasion and earned the nickname “Fighting Joe.”
  • Dunford is a strict disciplinarian and once chewed out a Marine who had fallen asleep on security watch in Iraq for putting himself and fellow Marines at risk.
  • In 2013 he was picked to become the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan – clearly his most challenging and high-profile assignment. During his year and a half there, Dunford presided over the reduction in U.S. troops, and the gradual shift of combat responsibility to the Afghan military.
  • He has fiery temper, but he also plays well with politicians. He had a good relationship with then President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at a time when Karzai was increasingly turning against the U.S.

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  • Dunford earned his second star in 2007 along with the rank of major general. Three months later, he received a third star along with a top appointment—deputy Marine Corp commandant.  
  • For most, offensive language is one of a few choice a four-letter words. For Dunford, it was the traditional “Ooh-rah” from the Marine lexicon. He banned that word and a few others, which he must have thought demeaned Marines instead of giving them a lofty status. If a Marine used the term, he was punished.
  • The 59-year old would not let his age undermine his performance. In a well-publicized physical demonstration last December, Dunford lifted 30-pound ammunition cans and proved he could still carry a soldier on his shoulder.

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  • Despite his stellar career as a combat soldier and military leader, Dunford may have his toughest assignment ahead of him—cutting military pay and benefits. President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter have outlined plans for scaling back subsidies for housing and groceries, too.
  • Dunford has expressed some concern in the past over Obama’s decision to announce a date for ending the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, according to The Washington Post, but the president’s closest advisers have shown no indication that Obama is willing to reconsider ending the mission by 2017 and leaving a small contingent of 1,000 troops attached to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. However, Dunford is expected to be a loyal advocate of the president’s ultimate decision on that timetable.
  • Dunford has one major conflict with President Obama—he doesn’t want to end the military mission in Afghanistan in 2017 and leave a mere 1,000 troops to protect the embassy in Kabul. But that’s why generals—even the head of the Joint Chiefs—have a Commander in Chief.

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