A Professional to his Fingertips

US Secretary Gates’ visit to Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar, Afghanistan

Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Previously published reviews of former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s account of his four and a half years in office from December 2006 to June 2011 have focused on supposedly juicy things like Gates’ mixed views on President Obama, his apparently unmixed ones on Vice President Biden, his endless battles with White House staffers who he thought callow and ignorant of the practical aspects of military operations, and, of course, his sulphurous criticisms of Congress. I think this has been overdone. Bob Gates was not a naïf when he became SecDef. He had worked intimately with, and sometimes in, every administration since Nixon’s, with the exception of that of Bill Clinton. He had plenty of contact with Congress. He was scarcely going to be shocked, shocked, at bureaucratic infighting, vehement disagreements between the Department of Defense and the White House, or parochial and politicized members of both Houses of Congress. All this infuriated him, and it’s interesting to read about, but he was far too perceptive and too much the historian not to know it was par for the course—and occasionally he mentions this.  He realized that a secretary of war or a senior Navy official during any conflict in the history of the Republic could have written a memoir with similar complaints. (Although he does buy into the bromide about the decline in “bipartisanship,” when in fact he should have known that lack of bipartisanship has been the norm in almost all past wars, sometimes much more viciously than since 9/11.) He goes out of his way to note that his personal relationships with just about everyone with whom he had disagreements over policy remained very cordial. He also points out that he was much more often in agreement than disagreement with both Administrations about the vast range of items in his portfolio.  More than anything else, Bob Gates was a pro.  He didn’t pick up his marbles and go home when things didn’t go his way.  He didn’t make every disagreement a matter of profound conscience. He was, as the book shows, highly emotional, but he didn’t wear syrupy sentimentality on his sleeve.

I look at Duty in a somewhat different way than have other reviewers. One of the characters in a novel by the late science fiction writer Jack Vance said some things that I have always thought made good sense when reading memoirs, autobiographies, and the like: “A meaning must be uttered idly, without emphasis.  The listener is under no compulsion to react; his customary defenses are not in place, the meaning enters his mind.” So, here are some things Gates said that really struck me, even though they’re not as gossipy as the usual suspects.

He describes how the Bush administration’s (all references will be to the Bush 43 administration in this review) national security team felt that they had “let the country down, of having allowed a devastating attack on America take place on their watch. They also had no idea after 9/11 whether further attacks were imminent, although they expected the worst.” He suggests with restrained but evident contempt that “Those who years later would criticize some of those actions [taken after 9/11], including the detention center at Guantanamo and interrogation techniques, could have benefited from greater perspective on both the fear and the urgency to protect the country…”

Gates writes that he was appalled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) whom he inherited. He felt they cared little for the wars we were fighting and were more concerned on possible future conflicts and “stress on the force.” (One has to question if the JCS and other senior officers so worried about “stressing the force” didn’t by doing so make a prima facie case for not being fit to hold the jobs they had.  There’s nothing that “stresses a force” more than war.) At a meeting in December 2006 with the JCS, “Not one uttered a single sentence on the need for us to win in Iraq.” Throughout the book, in fact, what really angers Gates is the business-as-usual attitude among too many people in “The Building” who didn’t want to let the wars we were in interfere with national defense:  “…all the services regarded the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as unwelcome military aberrations.” Later, he vents against peacetime personnel policies that did not allow senior military leaders in theater to choose their subordinates, because doing so would, well, interfere with peacetime personnel policies. On a related theme, in his discussion of his relief of General David McKiernan as ISAF commander, he hopes that it will once more create a climate in which relief does not have to take place only for personal misconduct or specific egregious errors, but simply for not being up to the job. There is a partial analogy here with Vietnam.  Several historians, including Herbert Schandler (The Unmaking of a President) and H. R. McMaster (Dereliction of Duty) have described what they felt was the pusillanimous nature of the JCS in dealing with crucial issues of war and peace, although Vietnam was a large enough war that some of the business-as-usual impulses were restrained by necessity.  It also reminds me of the comments in the late Joseph Alsop’s autobiography (I’ve Seen the Best of It) about the JCS: “The Joint Chiefs of Staff—a group who, in my opinion, cannot be matched for arrogance when the wind is blowing their way or for a quality of abject ass-kissing when it is not…” It might be posited, though, that the JCS’s problem was excessive humility, not arrogance, and that they behaved more like amiable bureaucrats rather than even bothering to buss anyone’s rear end.

He was enraged that the State Department was so lackadaisical, in his view, in stepping up to the plate to provide more civilians in Iraq to complement the military surge, and that this was a problem in Afghanistan as well. His personal relationships with Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton were good, but one senses here intense disdain for the way State operated. Here again, a comparison with Vietnam is instructive.  State and, especially, AID, deployed thousands of people to Vietnam as advisers down to the provincial level, and sometimes lower, without an apparent demur.  What happened between 1961-1973 and 2003—present I don’t know, but the underlying  causes of the obstructionism which Gates describes deserve investigation.

Gates makes a very acute observation about Dick Cheney’s constant desire to expand and consolidate the power of the executive branch. He thinks it resulted, to a great degree, from Cheney’s experience in the Ford administration, which due to the defeat in Vietnam and Watergate, represented the “nadir of the American presidency.”

The War Powers Act, the denial of promised weapons to South Vietnam, cutting off help to the anti-Soviet, anti-Cuban resistance in Angola—Congress took one action after another to whittle down the power of the presidency.

In Gates’ view, Cheney wanted to make sure this did not happen again and wanted to roll back what had happened almost 30 years before.

He once blew his cool with Saudi King Abdullah, but the really surprising, and disturbing few passages are those in which he questions not just the manner of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (he certainly knew that Israeli bluntness was a treasured national characteristic), but his strategic judgment. Gates felt “Bibi” was grossly overoptimistic in pooh-poohing the broader consequences of an Israeli and/or U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Readers will be shaken somewhat by this account. I know I was.

The only people who I think Bob Gates really ended up despising were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who comes across as a petty, shallow, and defeatist political hack—and Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who he thinks was an insubordinate and incompetent disaster. He repeatedly states that Eikenberry was protected from being sacked by the White House; otherwise, Hillary Clinton would have gotten rid of him. But, he never tells us who he thought was protecting Eikenberry, or why. Too bad.  Interestingly, he has very favorable views on Marine General James “Hoss” Cartwright, the Vice CJCS, when many people did not. Cartwright was seen by many as a White House toady and shameless behind-the-scenes intriguer, and although it was scarcely his fault, when he was being floated as a potential CJCS, it was noted that he had seen no combat service.  Within the Marine Corps some viewed him as manipulative and unwilling to see truth spoken to him.  Ironically, in this time of rising Puritanism and censoriousness, what probably did him in for becoming Chairman was a messy separation and divorce and allegations of and an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate, which, for those who had doubts about him, had nothing to do with his fitness for the job. Gates praises Admiral William “Fox” Fallon for giving up the job of Commander, U.S. Central Command, when some of his press remarks—but Gates notes—none of his actions, had made it too difficult for him to do his job and serve well.  Gates said that “Fallon, with great class, had done the right thing.”

Gates identifies only one office of the Secretary of Defense organization that really infuriated him: the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness). He rasps that every change to established procedures to deal with military health care, wounded warriors, disability evaluations, and other related policies “encountered active opposition, passive resistance, or just plain bureaucratic obduracy from P&R.” He criticizes himself for not fixing this “inert, massive, but vitally important organization…” This begs the question of whether a purge of OUSD(P&R) launched during the Obama administration may have been justified. On another personnel matter, President Obama was never angrier, according to Gates, at obstacles to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law (it was not just a regulation) on gays serving in the military. While Gates doesn’t say this, his account of the episode makes one wonder about Obama’s priorities.

He was skeptical of the Arab Spring from its inception. He is a Ph.D. historian, and he notes that revolutions that kick out dictatorships almost always end up with “better-organized and far more ruthless extremists” in power. There is a similar sense of wisdom when, in the aftermath of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks revelations, he quotes himself saying at the time that foreign governments deal with us because they need to, often need us, and sometimes fear us; not because they like us. He doesn’t believe in the inevitable triumph of decency, humanity, kindness, and the like. He doesn’t believe that relations between nations are the same as relations between individuals.

You’ve got to love a guy who wished he could have had eggs and bacon for breakfast with President Bush (who stuck with dietetic foods), and had to settle for an English muffin instead; who went into a meeting with the Obama transition team and saw that coffee and doughnuts were present, and was overjoyed; who ditched a formal dinner in Europe on bogus grounds of a phone call from the White House and joined Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli in the hotel bar for beer and sausages; and whose favorite foods aren’t cottage cheese, kale, and the like, but bacon cheeseburgers, Reubens, and BBQ foods. Secretary Gates doesn’t look fat in any of the pictures (frequently, with not just informative but funny captions) in the book, but it’s refreshing that he’s not one of the “lean and hungry men” that Cassius fears in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

If Duty is filled with contradictory views about people with whom Gates worked, it is just a reminder that, to quote him, “those at the highest levels of government, tough and experienced people accustomed to the hard knocks of political life at the top in Washington, are still human beings.  All of us, in varying degrees, have vulnerabilities, insecurities, and sensitivities.” As all reviews of the book have shown, Gates cared deeply about the men and women under his command who went into harm’s way (and let us not forget, because he never did, that the secretary of defense is, indeed, in the chain of command).  Sometimes he gets “really pissed off,” as he did about dilly-dallying regarding aeromedical evacuation of wounded. But, he knows that such is life, and that the idea that someone in his position should resign in protest every time he loses a fight on an important issue would mean that nobody could occupy the job for more than a few weeks.

But, most observers have, in my view, missed the underlying reasons for Gates venting his spleen. Gates isn’t a Republican who got mad at Democrats. He’s not a conservative who got mad at liberals. He’s not a civilian who got mad at the military. He’s not a defense type who got mad at the so-called striped-pants attitude in the State Department. He’s a national security professional to his fingertips, who got mad at amateurs in all parts of government who knew nothing of the reality of war or military matters, general and flag officers and defense civilians who had been reared in peacetime routine and couldn’t make the transition to war, and people who didn’t have a will to win. We could use more like him in very high places.


Robert L. Goldich retired from a 33-year career in the Congressional Research Service in 2005. He was the senior CRS military manpower analyst when he left. Bob is currently writing a book on conscription in history, from the first human civilizations to the present.


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