Serving as secretary of defense during peacetime is no easy task—doing so while overseeing two wars at the same time takes a herculean effort. That is what Robert Gates accomplished during his six years in that role for two different presidents from opposing political parties with widely differing approaches and beliefs about America's role on the world stage.
Gates, 70, published an extraordinary memoir ('Duty, A Memoir of a secretary at war', 2013) and gave an impressive look into the operations of the largest military establishment in the world, as well as the inner workings of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. It revealed much, without being overly critical or attempting to settle some unresolved score.
The is a tell-all book, but it is not vicious. Gates takes a deliberate, comfortable tone in explaining the challenges he faced when it walked into the Pentagon and assumed the role that longtime secretary Donald Rumsfeld had held. He is direct in his criticism of military leaders that failed to take the war seriously resulting in Gates issuing some inflexible new rules.
By his own admission, Gates appears to have enjoyed close and successful working relationships with both presidents that he served, but had considerably less success with the two men who served as vice president during his tenure in office. While he frequently disagreed with both, his relations with Vice President Joe Biden were considerably less cordial and certainly less agreeable.
For those who watch today's politics carefully, Gates offers what many anti-Hillary Clinton folks may consider a shocking revelation: she often agreed with Gates on a variety of national security measures and worked closely to gain support from a West Wing generally opposed to using American power abroad. She often supported Gates in urging Obama and Biden to adopt Pentagon recommendations, although considerably less successful with the later. Together, Gates and Clinton developed a strong relationship between State and Defense—an unusual partnership in most administrations.
Without a doubt, Gates endured many sleepless nights while worried about the young men and women in uniform that were deployed on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan and a host of other hostile regions around the world. He made it a point to review personnel files of every American warrior lost in battle and personally wrote a letter to the families of each—often weeping into the night as he penned personal notes to a young widow or parent of a fallen soldier.
Gates spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the restructuring of the Defense department that he initiated and for good reason. By all accounts, the moment Gates arrived at the Pentagon he discovered a department not fully engaged in a “war mentality” and so absorbed in the process that upgraded vehicles, munitions, and armor for the fighting forces were routinely delayed or overlooked in the bureaucratic jungle between civilian and military components of the department. Gates implemented new procurement rules and, on occasion, simply ordered a special request to be filled despite the entangled paperwork process to speed its delivery to the front lines.
'Duty' is a remarkable look into the war administration of two presidents and an incredible look into how the Pentagon operates, both on the civilian and military staffs. It is required reading in these waning days of American engagement in Afghanistan and prophetic reading about Vladimir Putin and his consuming reach for Ukraine and the old Soviet sphere of influence.
If there are unanswered questions about American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, this memoir will put to rest much debate. It is an enjoyable page turner, absent the blatant politics of the day and as non-partisan as can be expected. It is not a Obama-basher, but Gates held nothing back in his criticism of many Obama decisions.