Book Review – Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War

After about six weeks, I finally finished reading Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, the memoir of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Normally, I would be able to get through a book like this quickly, but the narrative of the story jumped around a bit. Gates decided that the best way to tell the story was around certain themes – the Iraq War, budget fights, jet-setting around the country, etc – instead of simply telling a chronological story. It was a bit hard too follow at times, with situations occurring at multiple times based on the theme of that particular chapter.

For example, he went to many countries multiple times, but things discussed at these meetings could be found at different points in his narrative. “Since this chapter is about butterflies, this was the time I talked to Karzai about butterflies.” – Three chapters later – “Remember that story about Karzai and butterflies? Well, at that same meeting a little later, we talked about unicorns and leprechauns. It probably would have been easy to mention it then because of logical flow, but this chapter is about unicorns so it fits better here.”

Now Gates had a tough act to follow. He took over for Donald Rumsfeld, probably one of the worst SecDefs in recent American history, and he had to work with Dick Cheney and others in the Bush White House that didn’t have the greatest track record with Defense issues after an Iraq invasion that probably should have never happened and a war in Afghanistan that was being ignored. Luckily, Gates was a career bureaucrat for the most part, and he knew how to navigate.

His main goal when he showed up in late 2006 was to figure out an exit strategy, or at least a better strategy, in Iraq. From the beginning, he was only expecting to serve the remainder of Bush’s term, as no previous SecDef had ever served over two presidential administrations. He, along with the senior military leaders, admirably shifted the focus to counterinsurgency in Iraq, stabilizing the country well enough that the major US presence could leave by the end of 2011.

After expecting to leave in January 2009, he was asked to stick around under the Obama administration to shift the focus to Afghanistan and to hopefully create the same kind of magic there that he had helped create in Iraq. He wasn’t expecting to stay long, just 12 months or so, but he ended on staying until July 2011. His main reason for staying an additional year was to continue the budget fight with Congress and the president that he had started earlier in his term, trying to prepare the Department of Defense for a future where they weren’t fighting two wars with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, Defense spending is a hard thing to cut regardless of the political party in charge in Washington, and he met strong resistance, but he ultimately managed to cut some programs that were dramatically over budget and not needed for the future of the military.

One strong complaint about the book, other than its narrative style, is it kind of glossed over one of the most important things in our history, at least since 9/11. On May 2, 2011, Navy SEAL Team 6 assaulted a compound in Pakistan and eliminated the person responsible for that horrific event nearly 10 years earlier. I’m sure many of the details were omitted due to classification issues, but I think there was 4-5 pages, if not slightly less, about this historic event, while there were countless chapters about budget fights and visits with heads of state. While those things are important, and I do realize the killing of Osama bin Laden happened after Gates had already started to leave the Pentagon, but it should have been given a little more coverage in the book.

Other than that, the book is pretty standard fare for someone of Gates’ position. One thing that was clear was that he honestly cared for the troops that he had ordered to war, and he went out of his way to secretly visit military hospitals around the world away from the press. He also seemed very forthright in his dealings with the public, unlike his direct predecessor that liked to mislead and confuse people with weird sentence structures. When history looks back at the service of Robert Gates to America, it will most likely be fairly positive, though the near future of the military and how it adapts to what the future might hold will be part of his legacy as well. A lot of the successes (and failures) of senior military leaders will ultimately be remembered when we look back at the last 12+ years of combat, but I don’t think anyone can say that Robert Gates did a terrible job.

If you like military books or other similar memoirs, I would encourage you to read this book. Despite my partisan leanings, Rumsfeld’s book is up soon in the queue, so hopefully I’ll be able to get the “full” story from that.

Until next time…

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