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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert Gates

March 4, 2014

Duty

While I had a fair amount of respect for Robert Gates after reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, I have the utmost of respect for him now. Gates is the only Secretary of Defense in history to serve both a Republican and a Democrat in the White House. With America in two wars, Obama asked Gates to stay on after the election of 2008. It was a testament to the respect Gates had earned under Bush that, even as the wars had become a fulcrum for the widening political divide, the decision was met with near-unanimous approval from both sides. This book is a memoir of Gates’ time under both presidents.

Although the big question on the political news networks when this book came out was what kind of dirt was Gates going to reveal, the reality is that Gates remains, for the most part, above the fray. That said, it was a busy five years; there are few dull moments in the book.

Gates even-handedly describes the members of both cabinets, the military generals, and world leaders. He talks about how he never found the popular perception of George W. Bush as intellectually incurious to be true. He also discounts Cheney’s Darth Vader image, though he disagreed with Cheney on several big positions (though not as much as he disagreed with Biden—he jokes that he disagreed with Biden on pretty much every single major decision).

Gates has an open disdain for Congress. With no attempt to hide his bitterness, he recounts how members of Congress took to grandstanding about the failure to immediately install a working democracy in Iraq. These are the same people who, in a well-established government, couldn’t get their act together enough to pass a simple budget (something which repeatedly hampered the military’s ability to function). In the epilogue, Gates lays out several major issues he sees in our future. One is the divided Congress, caused in large part by the gerrymandering of the House districts, which gives ideological, obstructionist zealots a seat at the table with little electoral consequences for their idiocy.

Gates thinks the invasion of Iraq was an enormous, costly mistake. He supported both the surges and the troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but resented how much politics played into the specific numbers. He also resented how much the Obama White House micromanaged the wars.

He describes the icy relationship between Obama’s White House and the generals. Obama felt the generals were constantly trying to box him in, and the generals (and admirals in some cases) seemed to confirm this suspicion by mouthing off to the press on several occasions, a headache for both the POTUS and Gates.

Most notable in the book is Gates’ admirable dedication to the troops and their safety. He felt personal responsibility for putting them in harm’s way and made every reasonable effort to make their lives easier. From escalating the production of IED-resistant vehicles to improving their living quarters overseas, from visiting wounded vets to cutting down on the amount of red tape troops and their spouses had to deal with to receive their benefits at home, Gates was always on the side of the soldiers.

Although pundits, politicians and the public like to think of government officials in the simplest terms—heroes or idiots, depending on political winds—Gates’ account suggests that those in the top ranks tend to be thoughtful men and women dealing with very difficult, complicated problems. They rarely all agree, but they work through problems as best they can, with good intentions. Gates’ unique position afforded him a view that would have allowed him to make a case for one administration being better than the other, but he comes with no agenda. He calls it as he saw it, pointing out costly mistakes and moments of brilliance in both administrations. He embodies the notion of leadership as service, and there is much to learn from his humility and professionalism. Gates is not a flashy man, but his pragmatic personality seems perfectly suited to the challenges of navigating the conflicting opinions and personalities of The White House, Congress and the military through two wars in two administrations. Mad props.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2014 1:55 pm

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