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Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace

Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, Leon Panetta. Penguin Press, 2014, 467 pp.

Leon Panetta's autobiography, Worthy Fights, is not a work of strategy or a "tell-all" inside look at the seats of power in the United States. Instead, this is a book about patriotism, idealism, and gratitude—a theme the author returns to throughout. Panetta credits his love of country to his parents, who immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. Like so many other immigrants of their day, they worked hard and took advantage of opportunities offered by their adopted nation to eventually live the American dream. For young Leon, even discrimination and recrimination toward US citizens during World War II could not alter his feelings of gratitude as a first-generation American and his appreciation of the inherited dream. His life story is a mixture of religion, duty, service, colorful language, and, of course, politics. Indeed, one-half of the tome encompassing most of his life is devoted to politics, elections, Congress, and service as a cabinet member and political insider prior to becoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and then Secretary of Defense. Panetta uses this "political" part of the book to highlight lessons learned along the way. For example, early in his career he most admired those politicians who exhibited a sense of obligation to the nation—those who were worthy of admiration and voted on principle regardless of the consequences. He insisted that integrity mattered more than political survival, while cultivating relations with power brokers without sacrificing ethics. Panetta offers several recommendations for leaders, including not vacillating on decisions, building relationships, being philosophically consistent, persevering, not despairing, speaking directly to the people, remembering loyal supporters, resting, and being on time. Toward the US Congress today, he laments the cynicism, partisanship, inaction, and lack of compromise. He states, "Congress does not handle complexity well," and Panetta uses the fight over health care reform as an example. This fight, along with many others, plays to the books title, as Panetta describes many fights along the way, including those with early opponents: Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, and Dennis Blair.

For many readers, the second part of the book will be much more interesting, as it covers the details of Panetta's time as CIA director and Secretary of Defense. It is interesting to note, for both these jobs, Panetta initially questioned whether he was the correct choice to fill the role. In the case of the CIA, he offers advice to those who consider themselves an outsider upon assuming the lead role in such an organization: listen to your predecessor, hold on to some key staff, approve those who will join you, involve key staff in decisions, keep a schedule, fight for your organization, be respectful of power but not subservient to it, and tell it like it is.

The three chapters concerning finding and killing Osama bin Laden show the level of planning and depth of trust developed by his CIA colleagues. Most readers will find this insight very helpful in understanding how Panetta was able to manage such a complex operation without compromising security. His performance in the CIA role was indeed impressive, especially as a non-CIA veteran. As for his role as Secretary of Defense, the book largely devolves into a list of anecdotes, seemingly without any organization. It is as if these were taken from his trip schedule or meeting calendar: Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia; sequestration; Anwar al-Awlaki; drones; and NATO's Libyan campaign. The best part of his defense role is how he agonized over having to make tough decisions sending military forces into harm's way and having to deal with casualties. Just as his predecessor had admitted wanting to leave the defense role because of this strain, one gets the impression Panetta suffered the same feelings.

Worthy Fights is not without shortcomings. In fact some of Panetta's early philosophy on leadership seems contradictory. For instance, he professed a desire to "join a politician who espoused my values" in deciding to work for certain leaders. He also touted how he refused to accept casual misconduct and an unwillingness of politicians to sanction leaders or to hold them accountable. Yet at the same time, he admits being baffled by Pres. Bill Clinton's impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. He failed to reconcile those values with accusations of Clinton's Jennifer Flowers's story, marijuana use, and avoidance of the draft. Instead, in the same paragraph, Panetta stated how he admired Clinton's perseverance. During the Watergate scandal, Panetta railed against those inside the Richard Nixon administration who would not enforce the law, but there is no mention of the lack of enforcement of current US immigration laws. Similarly, he emphatically declares that the military should not risk its capacity to fight just to become an instrument of social progress but at the same took pride in ending the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Telll" policy. Panetta was correct in one regard: the key to US power is our values, but the affect on our values from some of the "social experiments" conducted during his tenure are not yet known. The former Secretary also stated with regard to General David Petraeus that no laws were broken as a result of the general's sexual affair, but we have since learned Petraeus had in fact leaked classified information and pleaded guilty to the offense.

In the end, Panetta returns to the familiar theme of patriotism, and despite the shortcomings mentioned above, it is a welcomed message. He beseeches young people to not give up on government or lose faith in its leaders. For according to Panetta, giving up on government is tantamount to giving up on democracy itself. One would be hard pressed to find an autobiography more humble, more sincere, and more genuine than Worthy Fights. Leon Panetta has lived the American dream and served his country, enduring family strain that was the cost of his success. The challenge of his message becomes a question: how will US democracy survive if we have no first-generation Americans or any others who are instilled with the same sense of gratitude toward country to guide their motives for the benefit of citizens?

Col W. Michael Guillot, USAF, Retired


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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