“Leading a Felt Life” GEN Dempsey ’74

Mar 20, 2020

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.’” Read more.


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