Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War (2014) — a Book Review

© 2014 Peter Free


26 January 2014



Preliminary comment — avoid the Kindle and Nook versions


The e-book, e-reader versions of Gates’ book are not paginated.  Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War’s 640-page length makes the memoir a pain in the behind to navigate, provided you are the kind who highlights pertinent sections, of which there are many.


I have found that electronic books, generally, are not at all suited to scholarly people.   Meaning those who highlight, peruse footnotes, need to find paragraphs quickly, and wish to reference brief quotes in their own, subsequently generated documents.


Serious books are arguably best served by printed form.  Neither Amazon nor Barnes & Noble put much thought (or effort) into their crappy e-book software.  As a result, they are best suited to light (meaning throw-away) reading.


Even young people seem to agree:



[F]or purposes of [the 4-university] study, at least, e-books were not quite there yet in terms of usability, visual presentation and navigation tools.


The pilot program pointed out some glaring flaws in the e-reader model: Students reported problems with readability, complained of eyestrain, and said the e-books were not fully compatible with all mobile devices.


They also noted that the navigation features meant to enhance learning like zoom, highlighting and annotation don’t function well.


© 2012 Katrina Schwartz, Why College Students Still Prefer Print Over E-Books, Mindshift (14 September 2012) (paragraph split)



Introduction — initial reviews of Bob Gate’s memoir, Duty, attempted to sow interpersonal conflict where there was none


Duty is as even-handed a memoir as I have ever read, even in my former historian capacity.  Consequently, initials reviews’ references to Secretary Gates’ alleged complaints about President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden completely missed the main points of the memoir.



Secretary Gates’ essential points


Virtually of all of former Secretary Gates’ memoir passionately points to major problems with:


(a) business-as-usual bureaucracy,


(b) an irresponsible and incompetent Congress,




(c) civilian-originated American militarism.



There is another, even more important message — although Secretary Gates does not overtly recognize it


Duty can be seen as an example of precisely the inertia that causes the United States to begin wars for poorly thought out reasons and then rationalize these same wars’ too long extension — all due to an unwillingness to admit and ruthlessly correct the errors we made and continue to make.


Bob Gates — despite overtly recognizing that wars are easier to begin than end — may (arguably) be seen an example of a very intelligent, thoughtful, historically aware man allowing himself to get sucked into the idea that we must continue armed conflict, once begun, so as to avert a sense of “all in vain” despair at concluding it, without first having achieved our (probably unreachable) goals.


For example, in the case of Afghanistan, Secretary Gates found himself supporting those who wanted to leave higher numbers of American combat troops in-country, so as to allow more time for the Afghani government to train and motivate itself to provide the kind of security that Americans thought would be necessary to prevent Al Qaeda’s return and the Taliban’s ultimate success.


Evidently lost in Gates’ thinking is a more realistic awareness that the Afghanis and Afghanistan are (almost certainly) incapable of actually doing both, as a matter of history, sectarian conflict, tribalism and outside interferences.


In other words, Afghanistan could not be won, even on the limited (anti-Al Qaeda, anti-Taliban) conditions that Gates had thought necessary.


Therefore, Duty is an interesting psychological study.  At least for those with the insight to recognize how easily our human need to construct meaning and optimism destroys our ability to think and act constructively in Reality’s clutches.


Ironically, given that Vice President Biden was in some respects Secretary Gates’ political nemesis on Afghanistan (according to the memoir), the Vice President was ultimately right more often about the conflict than Secretary Gates is apparently willing to admit.


My ultimate point is that (i) Robert Gates (possibly), (ii) the military (certainly), and (iii) America’s perennial warmongers (like Senator John McCain) are psychologically incapable of recognizing that some situations are hopeless and cannot be fixed — no matter how much effort and blood we pour into attempting to do so.


Gates (admirably and clearly) sees limits to American power in intellectual abstract.  But he appears to have been less capable of seeing them, as they applied in regard to both Afghanistan and Iraq, once those interventions had been undertaken.


Consequently, the former Secretary expresses disappointment with President Obama’s lack of passion in pursuing the war — as if that were a necessarily evident negative in leadership — but without recognizing that the President’s apparently realistic assessment of the situation might have been superior to his own.


In my view, there is no benefit to expressing passion for continuing to lose a bloody endeavor.  Such a passion would feed on itself, creating more hopeless war and killing yet more people.  I cannot (in good conscience) criticize the Commander in Chief for his learned lack of enthusiasm.  His is an immensely difficult position to be in.


Secretary Gates’ (apparent) blindness to this sad fact makes my point about how misconceived wars continue to suck the patriotic and determined in.



My overall take on Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War


Although long, repetitious, poorly organized — and often tedious (for non-historians) — Robert Gates’ memoir is a trustworthy account of what an old-fashioned (1960s-style) moderate Republican thought about both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


The memoir contains no axe-grinding and no obvious behind-covering.


Highly recommended, in spite of its arguable literary flaws.



For a full spectrum of readers’ views regarding Duty — see




Pay attention to the 1, 2, and 3-star reviews.  Most of those are by people legitimately criticizing aspects of the book that I also noticed.


My take-away, in contrast to theirs, is that Gates’ provision of step-by-step detail and arguably too many exact quotations of memos, speeches, and conversations is a historian’s treasure.


That compliment made, Duty is emphatically not the kind of book that most of us would pick up for an informative, yet entertaining and synopsized read.



Extracts from Duty — all taken from the most telling portion of the book, Chapter 15 — Reflections


Gates’ memoir is far too long and too detailed to synopsize with just a quote or two.  But the following give readers the general flavor:



On Congress’ dysfunction and maniacal partisanship:


I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department for being inefficient and wasteful but would fight tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district no matter how inefficient or wasteful.

© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10566-10568)



[R]ude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior as they postured and acted as judge, jury, and executioner.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10577-10578)



On bureaucracy — and its lack of both responsiveness and creativity:


As I had witnessed time and again, the big bureaucracies rarely come up with significant new ideas, and almost any meaningful departures from the status quo must be driven by the president and his national security adviser— whether it was Nixon and Kissinger and the openings to the Soviet Union and China, Carter and the Camp David accords, Reagan and his outreach to Gorbachev, or Bush 41 and the liberation of eastern Europe, reunification of Germany, and collapse of the Soviet Union.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10668-10672)



Secretary Rumsfeld said you go to war with the army you have. But the Defense Department was unconscionably slow in identifying and providing the equipment to make the Army and Marine Corps into the force we needed in Afghanistan and Iraq.


That slowness, that business-as-usual peacetime mentality, cost lives.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10740-10741) (paragraph split)



On Presidents Bush 2 (“43”) and Obama:


I witnessed both of those presidents make decisions they believed to be in the best interest of the country regardless of the domestic political consequences, both thereby earning my highest possible respect and praise.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10719)



On the complete unpredictability of war:


Above all, the unpredictability of war— that once the first shots are fired or first bombs fall, as Churchill said, the political leader loses control. Events are in the saddle.


It seems that every war is begun with the assumption it will be short. In nearly every instance, going back far into history, that assumption has been wrong.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (paragraph split)



On the combination of American arrogance and ignorance:


[W]e begin military engagements— wars—profoundly ignorant about our adversaries and about the situation on the ground.


We had no idea how broken Iraq was when we invaded and took control of the country.


We had no idea of the complexity of Afghanistan— tribes, ethnic groups, power brokers, village and provincial rivalries.


So our prospects in both countries were grimmer than perceived, and our initial objectives were unrealistic. And we didn’t know that either.


We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew.


© 2014 Gates, Robert M, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10732-10739) (extracts)



On the complete lack of accurate foresight:


Usually we don’t get to choose and almost never accurately predict the kind of war we will fight next.


I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer or a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again.


After Vietnam, our defense “experts” avowed we would never again try to fight an insurgency, yet we have done so in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hearing the same claim now.


In the forty years since Vietnam, our record in predicting where we will be militarily engaged next, even six months out, is perfect: we have never once gotten it right, not in Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya (twice), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, the Balkans, or Somalia.


Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of . . . .


Those who ask about exit strategies or what happens if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers argue we must act militarily . . . .


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10739-10751) (paragraph split)



My time as secretary of defense reinforced my belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun— to use military force, despite all the realities I have been describing.


Too many ideologues call for the use of the American military as the first option rather than a last resort to address problems.


On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere.


On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iran is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a “soft” foreign policy.


And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (extracts)



Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Location 10788)



And this — regarding his feelings for the troops:


Even thinking about the troops, I would lose my composure with increasing frequency. I realized I was beginning to regard protecting them— avoiding their sacrifice— as my highest priority. And I knew that this loss of objectivity meant it was time to leave.


The day before I stepped down as secretary, I sent a message to every man and woman wearing the American military uniform . . . .


“Your countrymen owe you their freedom and their security. They sleep safely at night and pursue their dreams during the day because you stand the watch and protect them.…


“You are the best America has to offer. My admiration and affection for you is without limit, and I will think about you and your families and pray for you every day for the rest of my life. God bless you.”


I am eligible to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I have asked to be buried in Section 60, where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest. The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.


© 2014 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, January 2014) (at Kindle Locations 10825-10833) (paragraphs split)



Literary shortcomings


I doubt that Robert Gates would hold himself out as a talented writer.  His prose is clear and succinct, but more suited to government leadership and the boardroom than to the kind of literature that most people would eagerly pick up.


He has a gift for synopsizing main points, but seems lost when it comes to presenting readers with an over-arching narrative — across time and happenings — that glues them together.


The memoir, therefore, suffers from some arguable shortcomings. Duty is:


much too long for the average reader,


repetitious in sometimes annoying extreme,


very poorly organized into chapters that actually do not stand very well on their own —  the only exception being the concluding chapter, Reflections —


and (perhaps most disappointingly)


completely devoid of insights into the personal characters of everyone he interacted with.


My chief frustration with Duty was its inability to stay in consistent or even identified chronological order — whether assessed from one chapter to another or consistently even within the same chapter.


Secretary Gates probably had trouble handling the immense mass of material that he had to write about.  Given that this is a memoir, he had to have been somewhat at the mercy of his memory as the writing of different passages suddenly brought fragments of happenings back into view.  Going back to insert these recalls into already written chapters would probably have been daunting.


Having done similar writing myself, also taken from multiple sources — especially in history, law, and complex litigation — I know how difficult it is to construct a coherent and flowing narrative that incorporates everything necessary in a readable way.  And that is where talent as both thinker and writer is necessary to achieving the literarily best result.


Duty would have benefited from assistance from a historian (especially of popular histories) or a ruthless editor.


In sum, for the average (yet interested reader) this memoir should have been about 250 pages.  Max.


BUT — in Secretary Gates’ literary defense


One of Duty’s strengths, from my perspective as a once-historian, is its tedious completeness.


Thus, for me, Duty’s only noticeable weakness is its poor organization.  And being accustomed to mining for detail in my legal, medical, and historical researches, I can live with the tradeoff.  I imagine future historians will think the same way — grateful to the Secretary for the very on-and-on completeness that is off-putting to most readers.


One thing that surprised me — given the long-standing dislike of many Republicans for Hillary Clinton


Secretary Gates, a life-long Republican, expresses unalloyed respect, appreciation, and fondness for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who comes across in his book as a capable, easy to work with, and forceful leader.


I was impressed.  Both with Secretary Gates’ bipartisanship and with his account of Secretary Clinton’s behind-the-scenes ability to get things done.  Her supporters will be pleased.



The moral? — An outstanding memoir, as to content and objectivity — with just a few non-essential shortcomings


If you are historically inclined, read the book.  If you want succinct summations of American policy disputes, and are prepared to wade through the often tedious passages that connect them, Gates’ memoir is worthwhile.


But — if you do not have the stomach for reading 640 often repetitious pages, make an effort to see some of the television interviews Secretary Gates has done in promoting the memoir. He comes across admirably well.