Secretary At War

Duty by Robert Gates. Random House Publishing
Robert Gates” memoir of his time served as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama might be one of the best books of its kind in its candor and its suggestions as to how to proceed in the future. Gates was criticized for being snarky at times and for possibly giving away secrets as to how the department conducts itself, but there doesn’t seem to be a high degree of credibility in either instance. Not many secretaries could serve both parties as honorably as Gates did. He probably was one of the longest-serving secretaries in the history of the country, which is a compliment to his style.
His book reads like an upper-division collegiate course geared toward those who would prefer a life of diplomacy. Gates abhors partisanship, and seems to be one who still conducts himself on the Kennedy notion from over 50 years ago that one should serve one’s country and not worry about serving one’s ambitions. Gates comes across like the smartest man Gatesin the room in most instances. The number of instances he has to consider in making any decision is a testament to an intelligence that few diplomats have. To say that we were lucky to have had such a man replace Donald Rumsfeld in the office is an understatement. If not for Bush’s loyalty and stubbornness, Gates probably would have had even more time
to assert his influence on our foreign policy, and Rumsfeld would have had more time to concentrate on his seflf-serving memoir.
All of the major decisions that Gates was a part of are included here, most interestingly the transition from the Bush team to the Obama team, and the decision to take out Osama Bin-Laden. Just for the record, Gates was in favor of using a drone to explode Bin-Laden’s compound, but too many of his comrades were afraid that the physical evidence would never have been there to prove Bin-Laden’s death, thus giving him mythical status. Gates was no bully, but a team player, giving his arguments in sober, well-thought-out plans. If he was out-voted, he didn’t lose time complaining, but was completely on board fulfilling his duty.
If there was one pre-occupation that Gates thought might eventually play against him, it was his reluctance to put his men in danger that could be avoided. He had served eight presidents, and was a player in several debacles that cost servicemen their lives unecessarily. His final request was to be buried with the dead in Arlington cemetery from the wars he conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure. We were in two wars every day of his service, and the writing of letters to the family of fallen warriors was a daily occurrence for him that became too much to bear.
One of the interesting parts of the memoir concerns Gates’ relationship with his fellow secretaries. It gives much insight into how a government operates. He gives high praise to both Bush and Obama for various reasons, extolling their virtues more than pointing out weaknesses. This is a valuable book that could serve either party well.
Steve Corrigan
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