Growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., F92, knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Marines. He didn’t plan on making it a career.
Now, 38 years after he was commissioned fresh out of college, Dunford is the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the United States. During his two-year term, he will advise President Barack Obama and the person who succeeds him in the Oval Office on all aspects of military affairs in a world that has become increasingly perilous.
“My role will be to assist the secretary of defense, the president and the Congress in making decisions that will result in a Joint Force [all the branches of the military] that is properly prepared to secure our interests today—and tomorrow,” says Dunford. That will include “tough choices” about limited dollars for defense spending.
In his new job, Dunford faces a formidable agenda, including Russia’s territorial ambitions, strife in the Middle East and cybersecurity. During his Senate confirmation hearings, he called Russia the greatest threat to American security. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.” Yet he remains undaunted: “I believe the biggest challenge facing the military in the next few years will be to address existent challenges while simultaneously building the force our nation will need in the future.”
Dunford, only the second Marine to chair the Joint Chiefs, rose swiftly through the ranks, serving most recently as commandant of the Marine Corps. He has commanded the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines; worked as vice director for operations on the Joint Staff, reporting to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and led the 5th Marine Regiment during the Iraq war in 2003. In February 2013, he assumed command of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, a position he held until August 2014.
Trained to Lead
Mid-career, Dunford earned a master’s degree from the Fletcher School, studying in the international security studies program and writing his thesis on humanitarian intervention. “The entire faculty and staff at Fletcher were truly world class,” he says. “Professor Dick Shultz and Professor Andy Hess were particularly helpful as mentors. I left Fletcher with a better understanding of the intersection of policy and strategy. That understanding has been invaluable in my recent assignments in Afghanistan and Washington.”
Shultz, who was Dunford’s advisor at Fletcher and kept in touch with him over the years, says he was “really smart, an excellent student who received the Stewart Prize for an outstanding first-year student—not an easy thing to do here.” He adds that Dunford “is a team builder—he will be very good at working with all the other chiefs. He will know all the issues quite well—he does his homework and has a lot of experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I’ve worked with a lot of four-stars, and he’s really exceptional.”
Dunford, 59, is also a graduate of the U.S. Army War College, the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School and the U.S. Army Ranger School. He earned a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University.
The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs grew up in South Boston as well as Quincy, the son of a Boston police officer who was a Marine veteran of Korea. He worked his way through St. Michael’s College in Vermont, often putting in 30- to 40-hour weeks at the First National store in Burlington. “I learned many lessons from my dad, including the importance of integrity, treating people with dignity and respect, humility and selfless service,” he says. “As a leader, I have tried to live up to his example.”
When he was appointed commandant of the Marine Corps in 2014, he said, “I’m a Marine because of my dad. And I attribute any discipline I might have to the drill instructor in our family, my mother.”
That homegrown leadership style has been recognized outside of the military. Dunford ranked number seven on Fortune magazine’s 2014 “50 Greatest Leaders” list; the magazine quoted a former Marine commandant as saying that Dunford “is probably the most complete warrior-statesman wearing a uniform today.”
He stays as fit as any young Marine. He’s been known to go on seven-mile runs in the heat of the day and finished the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington with two of his three children at his side. He’s also a loyal Boston sports fan. “If you took a pin and pricked his hand, he’d bleed Red Sox red,” says Shultz. “He is a Red Sox guy, a real Boston guy.”
Described as unflappable and a straight-talker, Dunford views both traits as “critical to success as a military leader.” In Iraq in 2003, Gen. James N. Mattis, a retired commander of American forces in the Middle East, reported watching a rocket-propelled grenade strike 100 yards from Dunford’s Humvee, according to the New York Times. Dunford “barely glanced up and then went right back to writing his orders,” Mattis said.
A Tireless Strategist
In nominating Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Obama called him “one of the most admired officers in our military.” At a ceremony in the Rose Garden in May, the president said, “I know Joe. I trust him. He’s already proven his ability to give me his unvarnished military advice based on his experience on the ground.”
Obama went on to say that Dunford is “one of our military’s most highly regarded strategic thinkers. . . . He’s also tireless. His staff has been known to carry around a voice recorder to keep up with his commands and new ideas.”
At the Senate hearing on the nomination in early July, John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, noted that “the next chairman will have to prepare our military to confront the most diverse and complex array of global crises since the end of World War II.” He called Dunford “a warrior and a leader of the highest quality.”
At the hearing, Dunford asserted that the armed forces need to focus on those who serve as well as technological advances. “Experience tells us that we need a balanced inventory of capabilities and capacities . . . to be successful,” he said. Dunford also noted that it is best to plan for multiple contingencies. “What concerns me are people who think they know what the future is going to look like. Our experience tells us we don’t.”
The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Dunford as the Pentagon’s top general on July 29. He succeeds Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who retired. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of the chairman, the vice chairman and the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and National Guard.
Giving military advice to a president is never an easy proposition, especially in election years. “One of my most important responsibilities as the chairman will be to provide apolitical, best-military advice,” Dunford says. “While I recognize that a presidential election year presents unique challenges, it won’t change the requirement for me to clearly articulate the military requirements associated with protecting our national interests.”
Taylor McNeil can be reached at email@example.com.