Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert M Gates

Four stars (of five)

After finishing the Rumsfeld memoirs, I was curious to see how the man who took over the reins at Defence would handle the task. I knew little about Robert Gates going in, but that soon changed as I was pushed into his chaotic life from the opening paragraph. Gates is clear in his analysis and fills the pages with a strong argument for why the US belonged in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also stressing that he is no ‘clean-up man’ for the Bush Administration. Gates inherited a mess in both wars, from command posts to troop morale, through to dealing with an ever-elusive list of enemies and political land-mines. Gates argues thoroughly about all aspects of his job, at times going into their minutiae. His arguments, while quite in line with a pro-war stance, is nowhere near as ‘yes man’ as Rumsfeld and many of the other Bush Administration senior administrators whose memoirs have flooded the publication world over the past number of years. As Gates mentions in his opening, he pulls no punches and will not back down from his comments, no matter who ends up in the crosshairs. This makes this memoir well worth the time of the reader, if for no other reason that a frank assertion of arguments awaits the patient student.
Gates holds the dubious role of being the only Secretary of Defence to ever hold the position throughout the passing of a presidential administration torch, made all the more spectacular that it crossed party lines. This is an added spin to the memoir, in that it gives a dual perspective, while also showing the continuity of leadership from the Pentagon. Gates is an admitted Republican, but does not stand in the way of Obama’s Democratic agenda and makes it clear that he is there to serve his country, not his party. The memoir does reflect (and Gates comes out to say it at times as well) the shift in roles from the Bush to the Obama administrations. In the former, it was a “we got into this, let’s keep it going” mentality, perhaps the main reason Gates was brought in to decipher the Bush-Rumsfeld mess. The latter sought to look at the precarious pull back from both Afghanistan and Iraq, which had its own awkward moments. However, Gates offers that wonderful perspective that rises above the fray and sells the message clearly.
Perhaps one interesting thread that appears throughout the memoir is that Gates did not want the role of SecDef, nor did he want to stay on when Obama took the reins. That said, he agreed (and stuck it out) because of his service to the country. How someone could be so frank and forthright baffles me, in that I am used to reading about honour and praise at being chosen. That being said, Gates breaks all the stereotypes in this memoir. Perhaps Gates could read the writing on the wall and noticed how much of a clusterf*** this whole set of decisions ended up being and wanted no role in it. As an academic, Gates was surely aware of the theoretical positives and their practical negatives and preferred to leave it well alone. However, having held many key posts in six administrations before Bush 43 sought him out, Gates felt the impetus to put America before himself.
One stereotype shattered in the book is the historical arc of the person’s life. A politician is never one to shy away from telling his life story and how he got the spark to run or get involved. Gates chooses to parachute into the SecDef role from page 5 or so of the memoir, giving only a brief intro to his life as a university president. While there are insinuations to his past roles in previous administrations, the arc is lost and this lessens, in my opinion, the strength of the memoir as a political or personal life reflection. Add to that, Gates fills chapters with page upon page of detailed analysis of the war effort, offering much for those whose greatest interest is military manoeuvring but not as much for the person looking for a greater knowledge of the man in general. I critiqued this aspect in Rumsfeld’s work and I will do so again here; it bogs the flow down and forces the reader to focus on the wars rather than the man. I found myself skimming, yes SKIMMING over sections, to get to the point and hoped to pull out an anecdote or two. I won’t slam Gates for this, but it was just not what I expected or hoped for in such a long memoir.

The book is a fresh look at a set of issues the general public surely tires of hearing about, all these years later. To call Iraq and Afghanistan the 21st century Vietnam would likely not be hyperbolic, though the comparison would be a cup of banana pudding to Bananas Foster in this day and age of media coverage and congressional-influence therefrom. Gates opens the floodgates with information and candor, something missing in political memoirs of late.

Kudos, Dr. Gates for such an interesting approach to what has become a horrendously stupid set of wars. While a little dense in spots, I get the gist of the argument, for which applause is well deserved.

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