Book Review: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is a book I eagerly anticipated reading despite the pre-release reviews in the media. Many of the media reviews made one think that it was going to be a scathing expose of Washington D.C. including the Obama administration and Joe Biden in particular. Many of those reviews seem to either have missed the mark or were making a mountain out of a molehill. As Gates states:

“This is a book about my more than four and a half years at war… But this book is also about my political war with Congress every day I was in office… There were also political wars with the White House… And finally, there was my bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense and military services…”

Duty is much more than a collection of criticisms, it is a book that tells the story of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Secretary of Defense’s perspective; it offers a view into the inner workings of the Department of Defense, it shines a light on how Congressional hearings work and how the relationship between Congress and the Executive Departments works, and it gives us a look into how the National Security Council operates.

There are three central themes throughout Duty. The first is war – the literal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the figurative wars with Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. Although the Obama administration was clearly the most difficult for Gates to deal with on matters of policy, he had difficulties with the Bush administration as well (interestingly enough with both Vice Presidents). The more I read about Gates’ experience during the Obama administration, the more I thought about H.R. McMaster’s book on the Johnson administration Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara,the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. While the Obama and Johnson administrations aren’t parallel, there certainly are some similarities (enough that you might want to read both). Throughout all four and half years, his relationship with Congress was contentious on matters of policy, oversight, and budget.

“I would listen with growing outrage as hypocritical and obtuse American senators made all these demands of Iraqi legislators and yet themselves could not even pass budgets or appropriations bills, not to mention deal with tough challenges like the budget deficit, Social Security, and entitlement reform.”

The second is love – Gate’s love for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines he was responsible for. His love for the service members can especially be seen in three events: the problems with Walter Reed Army Hospital and the relief of senior civilian officials and military officers over it, the way he pushed through deployment of MRAPs, and his push to cut down the amount of time it took a soldier to get from the field to treatment in Afghanistan from 2 hours to 1 hour. His love of the troops is also one of the reasons he left the Department of Defense.

“I realized I was beginning to regard protecting them – avoiding their sacrifice – as my highest priority. And I knew that this loss of objectivity meant it was time to leave.

This and other parts of the book reminded me of a quotation from Michael Shaara’s novel on the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, in which Robert E. Lee states “But to be a good officer, you must be willing to order the death of the very thing you love.” The third theme is frustration – a growing frustration over his four and a half years with Congress, the White House, and the processes of the Department of Defense. That frustration is revealed most clearly in what I think is the prism through which this book is best viewed, the first sentence of Chapter 8: “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense.”

“I did not enjoy being secretary of defense. As soldiers would put it, I had too many rocks in my rucksack: foreign wars, war with Congress, war with my own department, one crisis after another.”

Although Iraq and Afghanistan are center stage, there is more to the book than those two wars. Gates tells about negotiations with Russia over anti ballistic missiles and attempts at establishing good communications between the US military and the Chinese military. How the National Security Staff dealt with North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions is part of the book as well. The “Arab Spring” also comes into play with Gates describing national security deliberations over how to respond to the revolution in Libya and the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. You really get an understanding of just how full Gates’ plate was, of how much he and the national security staff had to deal with at one time.

Duty is a long book but a book worth reading, especially the final chapter “Reflections.” There are parts of the book that Conservatives will love and Liberals will hate and there are parts of the book that Liberals will love and Conservatives will hate, but if you approach this book with an open mind there is plenty to learn about how the Department of Defense operates, how the National Security Apparatus works, the relationships between the Department of Defense and Congress, the relationship between the Department of Defense and the White House, and how defense and military strategy and policy is formed. Yes, there is a lot of criticism from Gates toward Congress, the White House, and the Department of Defense itself, but he also points out where he believes he made mistakes. This is a book that anyone who is interested in the military or foreign policy should read.

Some other quotes from the book worth passing along:

  • “And it is still another reminder that when it comes to government, whether it works or not often depends on personal relationships.”
  • “Our fundamentally flawed and persistent assumption from the outset, that the Iraq War would be a short one, caused many problems on the ground and for the troops.”
  • “Even though the nation was waging two wars, neither of which we were winning, life at the Pentagon was largely business as usual when I arrived. I found little sense of urgency, concern, or passion about a very grim situation.”
  • “The very size and structure of the department assured ponderousness, if not paralysis, because so many different organizations had to be involved even in the smallest decisions.”
  • “The military’s approach seemed to be that if you train and equip to defeat big countries, you can defeat any lesser threat. I thought our lack of success in dealing with the Iraq insurgency after 2003 disproved that notion.”
  • “In short, our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving superpower, caused widespread resentment.”
  • “One thread running through my entire time as secretary was my determination to avoid any new wars while we were still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
  • “While Biden had been in Congress a lot longer than Vice President Cheney, both were very experienced politicians, and I found it odd that they both so often misread what Congress would or would not do.”
  • “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”
  • “Obama was the most deliberative president I worked for.”
  • “I often wished both Bush and Obama would be less partisan, but clearly the political world had changed since I retired the first time in 1993.”
  • “By 2009, I had come to believe that the paradigms of both conventional and unconventional weren’t adequate anymore, as the most likely future conflicts would fall somewhere in between, with a wide range of scale and lethality.”
  • “All too early in the administration, suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials – including the president (Obama) and vice president (Biden) – became a a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.”
  • “This was part of and parcel of an increasingly operational National Security staff in the White House and micromanagement of military matters – a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.”
  • “I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation – from the top down – of the uncertainties and inherent unpredictability of war.”
  • “A wall was going up between the military and the White House. That was bad for the country, even dangerous.”
  • “I thought Obama did the right things on national security, but everything came across as politically calculated.”
  • “I believe Israel’s strategic situation is worsening, its own actions contributing to its isolation.”
  • “We at Defense certainly at times contributed to White House suspicions.”
  • “The National Security Staff had, in effect, become an operational body with its own policy agenda, as opposed to a coordination mechanism. And this, in turn, led to micromanagement far beyond what was appropriate.”
  • “I believe we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a very long period of instability and change in the Arab world. Above all, we must stop pretending to ourselves that we can predict (or shape) the outcome.”
  • “Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before the country – this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress.”
  • “Stylistically, the two presidents had much more in common than I expected. Both were most comfortable around a coterie of close aides and friends (like most presidents) and largely shunned the Washington social scene. Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party. And so, unfortunately, nether devoted much effort to wooing or even reaching out to individual members or trying to establish a network of allies, supporters – or friends.”
  • “I liked and respected both men (in reference to Presidents Bush and Obama).”

View all my reviews

Categories: Books, Foreign Policy, Military

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