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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates. Alfred A. Knopf Press, 2014, 618 pp.

Duty is a fascinating record of an important time in recent US history. Few secretaries of defense have led an organization of more than three million personnel fighting two major wars. Some reviewers have noted the sharp tone of the book. Out-of-context passages gave the impression that disagreements between Gates and Presidents Bush, and later Obama, were starker than reality.

Gates is candid about the situation he found after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He writes, “We . . . simply had no idea how broken Iraq was before the war—economically, socially, culturally, politically, in its infrastructure, the education system, you name it. . . . All these meant we had virtually no foundation to build upon in trying to restart the economy, much less create a democratic Iraqi government responsive to the needs of its people” (p. 35) He was concerned that too few in the Pentagon responsible for training, equipping, and deployment decisions looked out for the interest of troops as individuals. He issued orders to deploy troops as a unit to foster trust and ended the practice of involuntary stop-loss.

To Gates’ fury, senior civilian and military leaders, especially in the Air Force, were too focused on future potential wars and did not prioritize the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. He writes, “Secretary Rumsfeld once famously told a soldier that you go to war with the army you have, which is absolutely true. But I would add that you damn well should move as fast as possible to get the army you need. That was the crux of my war with the Pentagon” (p. 148). He writes that the DoD is structured to plan and prepare for war but not to fight one.

Remarkably, Secretary Gates’ highest acquisition priority was discovered not by a briefing, but while reading an entry in the public affairs digest, Early Bird, which cited a USA Today article (p. 119). The piece noted the success of the armored vehicles’ V-shaped hull to deflect blasts from improvised explosive devices (IED) and protect coalition troops inside. Despite the potential to prevent horrific war injuries and deaths, not a single senior civilian or military official supported his proposal for a crash program to acquire thousands of these vehicles. His passion and skill for arranging the quick delivery of 27,000 MRAPSs to the field became one of the major accomplishments of his tenure (p.124).

Gates shares many notable leadership lessons. First, he did not bring a staff with him to the Pentagon to avoid the appearance of a hostile takeover that would create resentment. His attitude was if a general or political appointee performed unsatisfactorily or the chemistry with the team was bad, the personnel change could be made later. Second, while visiting deployed troops, he would always make a point to eat with a dozen young officers or junior enlisted. No commanders were allowed in the room, so he could hear unvarnished feedback. Third, he spent significant time building relationships within the federal government. He admits that “for much of my career, the secretaries of state and defense had barely been on speaking terms. The country had not been well served by that” (p. 91) Gates notes he unsuccessfully advocated for an increase to the State Department budget.

But he saves much of his sharpest criticism for members of Congress and their behavior at hearings, saying that “Many would posture and preach, with long lectures and harshly critical language; some become raving lunatics” (p. 89). He was also clearly disappointed the Afghanistan review and eventual troop surge was treated with suspicion by the national security staff during the Obama presidency. However, Gates reflects how pleased he was with Obama’s final decisions with the war, including ordering the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

This book could use a more robust conclusion that details what each service could do to better protect US national security. This would be especially helpful during the current significant drawdown in the defense budget, cuts Secretary Gates never supported. Since he is the only secretary of defense to serve presidents in both major parties, Gates is in a unique position and remains widely respected. The nation would be well served by hearing his recommendations for the future in the hope of avoiding the wrong cut and achieving a more enlightened public debate.

Merrick Garb

Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force

"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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