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Book Review – Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

By Robert M. Gates; Knopf; 640 pages

The release of former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War made waves around Washington, D.C. and in the national security establishment. No doubt, some of the key players during Gates’ tenure as secretary, Dec. 18, 2006-July 1, 2011, rushed to the bookstore or to their iPad to page through the index in search of their names and those of their colleagues. Such is standard operating procedure for a political memoir. Many times this is all you need to do in order to grasp those memoirs that are in the shallower end of the genre. However, to do that with Duty, and not dive further into the book and its recommendations, would be a disservice.

No doubt, some of the key players during Gates’ tenure as secretary, Dec. 18, 2006-July 1, 2011, rushed to the bookstore or to their iPad to page through the index in search of their names and those of their colleagues. Such is standard operating procedure for a political memoir.

Where Duty excels is in taking the reader into the meetings with President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, where strategy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were formulated. Many of the debates Gates outlines are still occurring today. He also provides the reader with a closer look at events that may have been forgotten, depending on your memory and interest in current affairs – events such as China’s unveiling of their J-20 stealth fighter prototype (Gates happened to be visiting Beijing at the time), Operation Odyssey Dawn, missile defense, and North Korea’s sinking of the ROKS Cheonan.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert M. Gates; Knopf; 640 pages

Although Gates is harshly critical of numerous personalities, such as Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. Air Force Secretary Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, then-National Security advisor Ben Rhodes, and Congress (over, and over, and over again), he also praises many of them, sometimes in the same sentence. Gates’ criticism isn’t gossip or mere disagreements about style, but actual substantive differences that are worth reading about. Gates seems devoid of future political ambition, as he disavows any interest in ever serving in public office again, so his chafing at the bloated structure of the National Security Council (NSC) appears as a genuine concern. Having served in a variety of jobs under eight U.S. presidents gives Gates the gravitas to express concern about the 350 staffers that make up the NSC. According to Gates, it was 50 through the early 1990s. It’s not all criticism, however; he does shower praise on then-Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama, especially for his handling of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. His praise for Johnson is especially enlightening when you consider that Johnson’s appointment to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security caught many by surprise.

What comes through loud and clear when reading Duty, is the undying love and respect Gates has for U.S. military service members. “My admiration and affection for you is limitless, and each of you will be in my thoughts and prayers every day for the rest of my life,” is a typical example.

What comes through loud and clear when reading Duty is the undying love and respect Gates has for U.S. military service members. “My admiration and affection for you is limitless, and each of you will be in my thoughts and prayers every day for the rest of my life,” is a typical example. He concludes his memoir by expressing his desire to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to those who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan. He emphasizes throughout Duty that the only reason he became the first Secretary of Defense to serve under both a Republican and Democratic president was because of his commitment to military service members.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates

From left, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, salute as the colors are presented during the change of command ceremony for U.S. Forces-Iraq in Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 1, 2010. In Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates saves some of his harshest criticism for Biden, while mostly praising Mullen. U.S. Department of Defense photo by photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy

Even though Gates is out of government, and judging by his hatred for all things Congress likely to never serve again, Duty will likely remain a handy reference guide for national security issues for years to come. The ongoing situation in the Ukraine had me flipping through Duty for Gates’ judgment of Russian President Vladimir Putin and to look for parallels between the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which occurred during Gates’ tenure. About Putin, Gates writes, “as long as he remains in that office [president of Russia], I believe Russia’s internal problems will not be addressed. Russia’s neighbors will continue to be subject to bullying from Moscow, and while the tensions and threats of the Cold War period will not return, opportunities for Russian cooperation with the United States and Europe will be limited.” That looks prescient now.

About Putin, Gates writes, “as long as he remains in that office [president of Russia], I believe Russia’s internal problems will not be addressed. Russia’s neighbors will continue to be subject to bullying from Moscow, and while the tensions and threats of the Cold War period will not return, opportunities for Russian cooperation with the United States and Europe will be limited.” That looks prescient now.

Even though Duty has received some backlash for the timing of its release, while one of the administrations he served is still in office, the book doesn’t read like score settling or a crude attempt to rack up political points. If anything, at a time of shrinking budgets and rapid change within the U.S. military it is opportune. Also interesting is that despite his disdain for the Sunday talk shows (Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday) while at the U.S. Department Defense, Gates has been making the rounds more lately. Here’s to hoping that Gates continues to put forward his ideas on national security issues that are expressed in his memoir – after all, it’s his duty.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...