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Book Review: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates

Published by Knopf (2014)
Reviewed by Charlie Dunlap
Friday, July 18, 2014 at 12:52 PM

With Iraq in a profound downward spiral (and many believing that Afghanistan could be next), the legacy of Robert M. Gates, who served so influentially as Secretary of Defense during the crucial years 2007-2011, deserves critical examination. The place to start is Gate’s recently published book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

Some readers will approach this volume with a great deal of skepticism. What emerges, however, is a much more nuanced and even sympathetic portrait of a very complicated and surprisingly emotional man. Yes, in Duty Gates unapologetically makes himself the hero of his own movie. But why not? After all, he is a patriot of the first order who brought a prodigious work ethic to a job that is among the toughest on the planet in the best of times, let alone during the wartime period he served as defense secretary–in tumultuous political times across two different administrations.

Still, to those who lived through the Gates era in the Pentagon, much is off-putting about Duty. For example, to hear Gates tell it, he was practically the only person in the Pentagon who wanted to win in Iraq. In fact, he claims that early in his tenure the military service chiefs failed to “utter a single sentence about the need to win in Iraq.” Because Gates believed that his “tenure as secretary would be judged almost entirely” by what happened in Iraq, he made it his “highest priority.”

Thus, whether intended or not, Duty establishes Gates’s ‘ownership’ of the Iraq war (and, really, the Afghan war, too). On his watch, troops were ‘surged’ into Iraq, and fought on for nearly five more years while attempting to apply the then-new counter-insurgency doctrine–Field Manual (FM) 3-24–that Steve Coll described as being “warfare for northeastern graduate students: complex, blended with politics, designed to build countries rather than destroy them, and fashioned to minimize violence.” It was, Coll says, “a doctrine with particular appeal to people who would never own a gun.”

Curiously, Gates never seems to question in any depth a doctrine for American troops that, among other things, cites French counterinsurgency theorist David Galula’s call for each soldier to become a “social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, [and] a boy scout.” Exactly why Gates or anyone else thought that mostly high-school educated infantrymen–however earnest and valorous–were supposed to be focused on soldiering and also perform a set of divergent tasks that could stymie an army of PhDs is not explained in Duty. Implementing the counter-insurgency doctrine meant that Gates gave the U.S. military the Sisyphean task of trying to fundamentally reconfigure the hostile, alien cultures in Iraq and, later, in Afghanistan into countries congenial to Western sensibilities and purged of terrorists. (Regrettably, the terrorists rather easily outflanked Gates’ strategy by metastasizing into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere.)

Recent events in Iraqi demonstrate the futility of the incongruous approach Gates oversaw. Gates’ many defenders will no doubt agree with his assessment in Duty that it was the Obama administration’s’ inability to obtain an agreement with the Iraqis for the “substantial U.S. military presence … needed post-2011” that is to blame (with some justification) for the current crisis. Gates, who left office in July 2011, claims in Duty that he “doesn’t know how hard” the Obama administration or the President himself, “pushed for an agreement.” (Interestingly enough, the Administration has apparently come to a satisfactory arrangement with the Iraqis for the deployment of (as of this writing) some 800 military advisors and other troops.)

Nevertheless, assuming Gates had no responsibility for the lack of an agreement with the Iraqis in 2011 (a problematic proposition), questions about Iraq persist. Even with the absence of a continuing American military presence, what does the current situation indicate about all the military training, equipment, and support the U.S. military provided the Iraqis during Gates’ tenure? After all, as the Air Force Times reported recently “a small force of less than 1,000 [ISIS] fighters equipped with little more than small-arms weaponry and soft-shelled pickup trucks…routed an estimated 30,000 Iraqi Army soldiers who were trained by the U.S. military and given billions in sophisticated American military equipment.” Had the surge of 2007 not occurred, it is hard, as one retired general says, to see “outcome much worse than what we’ve had.”

Should we then not ask why the approach that Gates pursued, at enormous cost in blood (Gates says in Duty that during his term, an additional 1,240 troops died in Iraq and another 9,568 were injured) and treasure (estimates of the Iraq war have now reached $4 trillion), had so little lasting effect on Iraqi security forces? Why are enemy fighters who received none of the American largess performing so well?

Most importantly, what does that mean for the future as hundreds more American soldiers head to Iraqi to once again to try to advise and train?

Don’t look for answers in Duty or, for that matter, any apologies from Gates. As Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote in a stinging critique of Duty: “Gates has always wanted to have it both ways, often been wrong on major issues, been prone to exaggerate his own reputation, demean others, and avoid blame for his own mistakes.” Still, one could argue that the intractability of Iraqi politics made the “win” Gates insists in Duty was so essential impossible under any circumstances. But isn’t assessing such political factors and strategizing exactly what civilian politicians and political appointees are supposed to do?

In 2006 this reviewer–who was certainly never the shrewd intelligence analyst that Gates was (and is)–suggested in a newspaper op-ed that the best the U.S. could “win” in Iraq was a “theocratic democracy with a nodding acquaintance with the progressive values of tolerance and individual rights.” In hindsight, even this assessment has proved overly optimistic. And even it would be “in the near term…anti-American as a totem of independence” and, in any event, would “not [be] much of a counterbalance to Syria or Iran.” The real question, the op-ed argued, was not whether America could “win” if enough force was applied for long enough, but “whether the effort required to win is worth America’s precious blood and treasure.” It concluded by observing that “ultimately, that is a political question, not a military one.”

Such political acumen is what militaries need from their civilian leaders–not just their presidents, but their secretaries of defense. And there is more, especially in application: Stopping the flow of arms and fighters from Iran and later, with respect to Afghanistan, Pakistan, are necessarily political tasks that might have made a real difference in Iraq and Afghan battlespaces. To be clear, greater success at the political level–which is presumably where political appointees like Gates can best contribute–can save lives of soldiers in the field and accomplish the mission in more enduring terms.

Instead of solving these essentially political conundrums, Gates took another path. It’s one that he portrays in Duty as one of his greatest successes. Over opposition from military and civilian leaders, Gates implemented what became a $45 billion program to build Mine-Resistant Ambush Protect (MRAP) vehicles designed to protect soldiers against the menace of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).  Understandably upset at deaths and injuries from IEDs, Gates says in Duty that, to his “chagrin, not a single official, military or civilian, supported [his] proposal for a crash program to buy thousands” of MRAPs.” Evidently, Gates could not conceive that perhaps those who differed with him might have been as principled as he perceives himself to have been, and even more knowledgeable.

Yes, there was resistance by many military and civilian leaders–but not because they did not care as much as Gates about losses from IEDs. Their concerns were largely vindicated by a study published in 2012 in Foreign Affairs (“The MRAP Boondoggle”) that showed that “data from the battlefield does not support the claims that MRAPs are highly effective in decreasing the number of U.S. causalities” and that MRAPs “did not save more lives than medium armored vehicles did, despite their cost of $600,000 apiece–roughly three times as much as the medium-protected vehicles.” The sputtering “rebuttal” also published in Foreign Affairs fails to dislodge the central logic of the critique.

Also unexplained in Duty is how troops, lumbering around towns and villages sealed up in these enormous steel monsters, could possibly execute the counterinsurgency task Gates gave them of winning Iraqi and Afghan hearts and minds. In any event, despite the enormous investment, the costly MRAPs are today being cut up for scrap. It is not hard to discern the reasons the military is now distancing themselves from these beasts: the road-bound, gas-guzzling, high-silhouette behemoths are vulnerable to the armor, artillery and aircraft of even third-world militaries, let alone the increasingly high-tech forces of Russia and China. Spending $30 billion more than what was needed to give troops the same measure of protection was a mistake, and one that perhaps need not have been made had Gates not been so dismissive of those with military experience who questioned the program.

Ironically, in Duty Gates repeatedly portrays himself as being an enthusiastic supporter of candor. However, in 2009 the Washington Times reported a senior official who described Gates as someone who “listened to counterarguments but does not encourage dissent.”  With defense budgets being zero-sum exercises, the troop protection and other defense capabilities not purchased because of unnecessary MRAP expenditures is a sobering reality indeed.

Duty indicates that Gates was motivated by a highly laudable (if occasionally misdirected) and deep-seated sense of personal responsibility toward American soldiers serving in combat. Even more than that, he insistently expresses his “love” for soldiers and says being called (by who is not clear) “’the soldiers’ secretary’ because [he] cared so much about them was the highest compliment imaginable.”  Although Gates seems more affected by his feelings than some, such affection for the troops is not especially uncommon for appointees like Gates when they are exposed to the young people serving in uniform. The magnificent altruism, courage, and dedication that the troops typically illustrate starkly contrasts with what appointees so often see elsewhere in American society.

Of course, being empathetic with the troops and sensitive to their sacrifices, not to mention being keenly aware of the human cost of war, is unequivocally an indispensable virtue for any leader, but especially a civilian political appointee. However, when that virtue evolves into a “love” that muddles the dispassionate analysis that a senior leader in wartime must exercise, it becomes a dangerous fault. As Gates himself acknowledges, his “love” caused a “loss of objectivity” and this may explain some of his debatable judgments. Where Gates went wrong was not recognizing this earlier in his term.

Gates also does not resolve in Duty what Larry Korb calls his “often contradictory statements.” For example, Gates argues in Duty that he appreciated the need to prepare for wars beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in a 2008 speech Gates ridiculed those senior officers’ concerned about wars beyond those in Iraq and Afghanistan as suffering from “Next-war-itis” (full disclosure, this writer had just such concerns). Furthermore, though he fails to even mention it in Duty, in that same 2008 speech Gates announced that for “any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that” he said “are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades.”

Was this the right message to send to the thousands of men and women serving in America’s nuclear forces? Telling young people standing watch in remote missile silos or in the depths of distant oceans aboard nuclear-armed submarines that, in essence, their weapons systems were irrelevant is, one might agree, insensitive. Ironically, shortly after this speech Gates fired the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, allegedly for an atmosphere in the service that reflected not inattention to the irregular wars that so gripped Gates, but related to the nuclear deterrent he seemed to suggest was irrelevant. (In a wide-ranging review in Air Force Magazine’s John Tirpak counters many of complaints about the Air Force that Gates expressed in Duty.) More importantly, as America faces a refurbished and modernized Russian military that Vladimir Putin showcased in the Ukraine, as well as a China who, backed by increasingly high-tech forces, is asserting itself in the South China Sea and elsewhere, honest questions should be raised about the wisdom of Gates’s “Next-war-it is” denigration of thinkers about future possible conflicts.

Did the burdens of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cause Gates to suffer from “this-war-itis” (as former Air Force Chief of Staff General Buzz Moseley put it), a malady that could dangerously disadvantage America is the coming years? Gates’ hostility towards the Air Force (in which he, paradoxically, served in the late 1960s courtesy of the CIA) set it on a path where today a pundit questions whether the Air Force is “dying” because it has shrunk to its smallest size since its inception, and is operating aircraft that average more than 27 years old.

To be sure, Duty is filled with remarkable insights that are informed by Gates’ many decades in public life. His assessments of Congress, the interagency process, the media, and other artifacts of the 21st century national security milieu are intriguing. Especially of interest is his commentary on civil-military relations. As Secretary, Gates said he was “impressed” by the military’s professional journals that allowed the “brightest and most innovative officers to critique—sometimes bluntly—the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian.” Furthermore, Gates encouraged “every member of the military to take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it.”

In Duty, however, he has a different take, at least insofar as senior officers are concerned. Gates criticizes the “frequency and number of officers speaking out” saying that doing so has “unnecessarily aggravated the always delicate relationship with the president.” He expressly discounts the idea that “getting the message out” in “television profiles, op-eds, speaking tours, think tanks speeches” is “part of the duties of high command” in the 21st century. Furthermore, he appears perplexed in Duty as to why “top admirals and generals felt compelled to go on Facebook, [and] to tweet and blog,” which he seems to think “diminishes their order of rank and authority.”

While Gates records in Duty the several instances where he fired senior military or civilian leaders in the name of accountability, he never seems to have seriously considered resigning himself à la Shinseki when things went wrong – and they did go wrong – on his watch. When scandalous outpatient conditions for wounded warriors and their families were discovered at Walter Reed Hospital, Gates called it “failure of leadership” and sacked the Army secretary as well as several military officers, but never offered his own resignation even though the facility was just a few miles from Gates’s Pentagon office.

There is certainly much more to Duty: Gates’s discussion of the Bin Laden raid is not just informative but authentically mesmerizing. Interestingly, he relates a number of fears about the mission that quite reasonably explain his initial reluctance to support it. Unfortunately, he does not really detail precisely why he changed his mind after discussions with then-undersecretaries Michelle Flournoy and Mike Vickers (as well as trusted aide Robert Rangel).

Nevertheless, his dissection of Obama’s contentious decisions about Afghan war in the fall of 2009 give the reader a portrait of complex, high-level decision-making that will be studied by generations of national security scholars. Bob Woodward’s headline-grabbing review of Duty casting Gates as “unleash[ing] harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war” is somewhat overstated; Gates’ comments are better appreciated in the fuller context Duty provides.

Should Duty be read? Absolutely. But here’s the caution label: It should not be read in isolation from other interpretations of the incidents Gates describes, and not with the expectation that it is history. Commendably, Gates himself says that he makes “no pretense that the book is a complete, must less definitive history” of the period. It is, however, a very readable window into one of the most influential, fascinating and, increasingly, controversial figures of our era. With Iraq in turmoil and U.S. troops heading back there, Duty is essential reading for those who want to understand how and why that is happening, and what it might signal for Afghanistan’s future.

(Charles Dunlap retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a major general and is currently the Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School.)

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