Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Duty by Robert M. Gates

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War “War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”

This memoir is subtitled Memoirs of a Secretary at War and Gates brings home the fact that it was not only the American public who did not seem to think or act as though we were engaged in war (two wars!) in the years since 2003, but it was also the Pentagon, which went about its "business as usual." This should not be as shocking to me as it is, since I lived also during this time and knew well that we felt no impact unless we had someone in the fight. Gates reminds us to think about our hand-jerk reaction to use military force in place of other, more measured responses and reminds us that there "the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms" because the military leaders have seen the cost of war.

Gates organizes this memoir of his life in the G.W. Bush and Obama White Houses by big sections: by country (e.g. Russia, Iraq, Iran) and by his tasks (e.g., War with the Pentagon, War with Congress). He is frank about what he thought at the time he was asked to work on budgets and troop allocations in the two lengthy wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, but despite his personal dislike for the opinions of several of the folks he had to work with often, he did not often let his feelings get in the way of the business of the American people. He worked closely with Tom Donilon after Donilon became National Security Advisor to President Obama in 2010, but Donilon and Gates often disagreed on issues when Donilon was Deputy National Security Advisor to NSA chief Jim Jones early in the Obama Administration.

“That’s an order.”
“Obama’s order [about the troop levels in Afghanistan] at Biden’s urging demonstrated in my view the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture. That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership…The President announced the troop surge at West Point on December first [2009]… In the end I felt this national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience…I thought Obama did the right things on national security, but everything came across as politically calculated...I was frustrated with a valuable process that had gone on way too long. To be fair, though, national interest had trumped politics as the President made a tough decision that was contrary to the advice of all his political advisors and almost certainly the least popular of the options before him in terms of his political constituents. On reflection, I believe that all of us at the senior-most level did not serve the President well in this process. Our team of rivals let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations. Contending teams presented alternatives to the President that were considerably more black and white than warranted. A more collegial process one that tried to identify points of agreement rather than sharpen differences would have had a more harmonious conclusion and done less damage to the relationship between the military and the Commander in Chief…”

Gates is straightforward in what he supported throughout his time as Secretary of Defense for two presidents, and talks candidly about his assessment of people and the things they did that he liked or did not like. Biden, who Gates claimed was on the wrong side of every major policy initiative throughout his time in office, was personally likeable, but Gates felt he was too often focused on political outcomes. One could of course argue that Biden felt this was his “job,” to be the one voice among many that did not focus on the needs of one department, but instead focused on the political ramifications. Gates gives Obama credit for looking at all ramifications and making some difficult calls despite the political fallout.

I had an epiphany halfway through this memoir. The poisonous political climate in Washington defeated Obama in a way that elections did not. He may have been elected as a result of the decline of both political parties, both in terms of their efficacy and in terms of popular perceptions of the parties. Gates talks about the endless leaks from his department and from the White House, and how they poisoned the atmosphere even further, forcing spokespeople to line up politically palatable positions in advance of meetings outlining possible consequences of these positions. Gates states he thought the Obama White House and Obama personally were suspicious of the armed services and the men that lead them. Perhaps Obama grew more and more suspicious as his Administration suffered through leaks and the vitriol spewing from Congress. Obama may simply have felt the sands shifting beneath him. Gates recognizes that Obama faced the most difficult opening years of any President he can remember, being involved in two wars, a financial crisis at home, and constant threats and crises overseas.

Gates survived long in the changing political climate in Washington because he had common sense and political savvy. When it comes right down to it, what is the Secretary of Defense? He is not a general, who commands troop movements. In some cases, the Secretary does not even have military experience, beyond a short stint in one of the services. He is not elected, but appointed. He distills and conveys information from the defense arm to the political, executive arm. He is a conduit.

Perhaps the President should always choose a person for Secretary of Defense who does not want the job, as Gates claimed he did not. Objectively, it is difficult to argue that Gates was not successful in the position. He was first appointed by a Republican and asked to stay by a Democrat. A person who does not want the job may not have a particular axe to grind or a personal agenda. Gates looked at Pentagon and Veteran’s Administration intransigence with the same scalded eye he cast upon the bitter infighting and jockeying for power he saw in the Congress and the “micromanaging” he saw among the National Security Staff (NSS). One has to ask oneself why anyone would want the job if not for personal aggrandizement. Gates says it was his “Duty.”
“Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of…The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said early on in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked…American presidents… are too quick to reach for a gun…Too many American ideologues call for the use of military action as the first option rather than a last resort…Obama’s pivot to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic or political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America above all else as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. I strongly believe American must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities: we are the indispensable nation and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But, we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States…can do in an often cruel and challenging world…not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response. We are enamored of technology…but war has become for too many, among them defense experts, members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the American public as well, a kind of arcade video game: bloodless, painless, and odorless…War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”

If this book interests you but seems like an impossible dream to read because of its size, I urge you to read the last chapter. In this, Gates talks directly to us about his understanding of and experience in office, sharing insights and realities about the use of military force. Additionally, an interview added at the end summarizes several points he makes at greater length in his book. This is a remarkable document that is as open and candid as the man. It is impossible not to like and respect him, and thank him for handling a very difficult job in a very difficult time. We were lucky he was there to save us from ourselves. He reminds us to thank the military men and women who, because of their sacrifice, allow us to live our lives with the abundance that we do. I wish we, as citizens, would strive to remember our own duty when it comes to our country and our community.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. As noble as Gates appears, his example is ultimately depressing in the realization of how rare it is. The accumulated evidence of the last decade (at a minimum) provides objective evidence for this in every branch and level of government.

    1. Exactly. This kind of common sense and leadership is rare. You can imagine how necessary great leadership is in any country & how fighting often kills off the best of leaders...I am thinking now of the Middle East. If they only hadn't killed off their best they might not be in the bloody situation they face today.