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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 14, 2014
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After years working for both the CIA and the National Security Council, Gates was president of Texas A & M when he was asked by President George W. Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in 2006. He accepted, and he served in both the Bush and Obama administrations until 2011. He has written a revealing but sometimes frustrating recounting of his experiences as he attempted to manage the Pentagon and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates offers absorbing and often surprising accounts of the formation of new and sometimes successful policies to alter the course of the wars. He also describes the internal wars within each administration and his struggles to ram change through the Pentagon bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Gates shows little introspection, or questioning regarding the basic geopolitical strategy that got the U.S. into these wars. Furthermore, given his decades in Washington, Gates’ pose as an outsider banging his head against entrenched political and bureaucratic interests isn’t credible, especially since Gates was regarded as a savvy infighter during his earlier experience in Washington. Still, this is a useful and informative, if self-serving, memoir covering critical years in recent history. --Jay Freeman
A 2014 New York Times Notable Book
“Probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever...Historians and policy wonks will bask in the revelations Gates provides on major decisions from late 2006 to 2011, the span of his time at the Pentagon…Gates is doing far more than just scoring points in this revealing volume. The key to reading it is understanding that he was profoundly affected by his role in sending American soldiers overseas to fight and be killed or maimed.”
—Thomas E. Ricks, The New York Times Book Review
“Touching, heartfelt...fascinating...Gates takes the reader inside the war-room deliberations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and delivers unsentimental assessments of each man’s temperament, intellect and management style...No civilian in Washington was closer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than Gates. As Washington and the rest of the country were growing bored with the grinding conflicts, he seemed to feel their burden more acutely.”
—Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post
“Forthright, impassioned…highly revealing about decision making in both the Obama and Bush White Houses…[Gates’] writing is informed not only by a keen sense of historical context, but also by a longtime Washington veteran’s understanding of how the levers of government work or fail to work. Unlike many careful Washington memoirists, Gates speaks his mind on a host of issues…[he] gives us his shrewd take on a range of foreign policy matters, an understanding of his mission to reform the incoherent spending and procurement policies of the Pentagon, and a tactile sense of what it was like to be defense secretary during two wars.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A refreshingly honest memoir and a moving one.”
—Jack Keane, The Wall Street Journal
“A compelling memoir and a serious history…A fascinating, briskly honest account [of a] journey through the cutthroat corridors of Washington and world politics, with shrewd, sometimes eye-popping observations along the way about the nature of war and the limits of power.…Gates was a truly historic secretary of defense…precisely because he did get so much done…His descriptions of how he accomplished these feats—the mix of cooptation and coercion that he employed—should be read by every future defense secretary, and executives of all stripes, as a guide for how to command and overhaul a large institution.”
—Fred Kaplan, Slate
“A breathtakingly comprehensive and ultimately unsparing examination of the modern ways of making politics, policy, and war…Students of the nation’s two early twenty-first century wars will find the comprehensive account of Pentagon and White House deliberations riveting. General readers will be drawn to [Gates’] meditations on power and on life at the center of great political decisions…His vision is clear and his tale is sad. Gates takes ‘Duty’ as his title, but the account of his service also brings to mind the other two thirds of the West Point motto: ‘honor’ and ‘country.’”
—David M. Shribman, The Boston Globe
“Duty…is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of what makes Washington tick.”
—Edward Luce, Financial Times
“Gates has offered…an informed and…earnest perspective, one that Americans ought to hear, reflect on and debate.”
—Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
“Engaging and candid….Young people who want to understand and live up to the highest ideals of American statesmanship would do well to read this book carefully; Gates has much to teach about the practical idealism that represents the best kind of American leadership.”
“This is a serious, thoughtful, illuminating, and valuable insider account of the final years of the George W. Bush administration and early years of the Obama presidency….Gates holds little back in this revealing memoir.”
“If you read only one book by a Washington insider this year, make it this one. It should be savored by anyone who wishes to know more about the realities of decision-making in today’s federal government.”
“The full story that emerges from this detailed and often deeply personal account is of a man fed up with the dysfunction of the nation’s capital.”
—The American Conservative
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Top Customer Reviews
The first two chapters chronicle those events which I feel set the tone for the rest of the memoir, namely, Gates' uncomfortable introduction to Washington politics in the midst of an unpopular conflict, having replaced an unpopular SecDef, as the Democratic Party in both houses flexes its newly gained clout.
A significant portion of the third chapter is devoted to Iraq. It is also where Gates discusses his observations and opinions of prominent members of the Bush cabinet and military services.
Chapter Four - entitled "Waging War on the Pentagon" - focuses on Gates' struggles to overcome the entrenched bureaucracy within the Pentagon.
Gates talks about Syria, Russia, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, China, North Korea, NATO, Eastern Europe, Georgia (Former Soviet Republic), and "of all things, piracy" in Chapter Five. The strongest points of this chapter are Gates' insights into his dealings with the Chinese, Russian and Israel leadership, as well as the somewhat symbiotic relationship between Israel and Iran.
Chapter Six - entitled "Good War, Bad War" - examines the shifting operational/strategic perspective as the war in Iraq seemed to be going much better while the conflict that enjoyed strong bipartisanship support, namely Afghanistan, seemed to be getting much worse. Gates' interaction with Vladimir Putin makes for more interesting reading. You will also find the author's perspective on the relief of the CENTCOM commander, Admiral Fallon, which highlights the fact that while administrations like candor from its military leaders, they don't like to read dissenting viewpoints in the national news.
Chapter 7 is a bit like Chapter 3 (but shorter) in that Gates' once again looks inward when chronicling a series of events that both horrified (flying nuclear weapons around the United States and Dover mortuary issues), annoyed (aerial tanker contract and Congressional reactions to several confirmation hearings) and mildly amused him (Condoleezza Rice's reaction to a briefing on Somali pirates). He also presents his side of events leading to the replacement of the Air Force's senior leadership.
In Chapter 8 ("Transition") Gates discusses how he walked a fine line between the incoming or outgoing administrations. He handles transition well, ably assisted by both the incoming and outgoing team, in a manner I can only describe as masterful.
The title of Chapter 9 (New Team, New Agenda, Old Secretary) hinted at the first signs of stress between Gates and the new team in the White House. He has many words of praise for SecState Hilary Clinton, who instantly gains his respect and trust. This chapter also discusses inadequate aeromedevac in Afghanistan, the need to produce an MRAP variant suitable for that theater, more Wounded Warrior and family initiatives, approving the photographing of the arrival of fallen heroes at Dover, FY 2010 budget pains, Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Iran, problems with USMC parochialism in Afghanistan, and a number of other related topics.
Chapter Ten is where the narrative discloses that relationships are starting to fray. There are also problems between US diplomats and soldiers and the Afghan president. Gates adds considerably to the previous coverage (Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars) through his first-person observations. He also names who he believes to be Woodward's sources within the White House staff in an effort to explain the perspectives found in Woodward's account.
Chapter Eleven (Difficult Friends, Difficult Foes) deals primarily with issues surrounding Iran, Israel, Russia, Vietnam, Bolivia, Pakistan, Korea (North and South), Wikileaks, and China during the 2009 - 2010 timeframe. He also reveals a disquieting session in the White House immediately following the earthquake in Haiti in which mid-level White House staffers question the competence of the SOUTHCOM commanding general because the US military apparently cannot get a tremendous amount of aid to that stricken nation within a reasonable period of time. Ironically, the very scale of US military assistance prompted the French and Brazilians to complain about the United States acting like an occupying power.
Chapter Twelve (Meanwhile, Back in Washington) discusses the disappointments experienced by Gates during this period. He observes that, "After the assurances from the president and Rahm (Emanuel) that they would oppose congressional action before the [Don't Ask, Don't Tell] review was completed, I felt there had been a breach of faith by the White House." Disappointment surfaces again during the FY budget development cycle. The chapter, however, does not concentrate exclusively on these events. Gates also discusses how once again he has to energize the DOD bureaucracy when the services and OSD fail to keep pace with enemy IED developments in Afghanistan.
The first half of Chapter Thirteen (War, War, and Revolution........) seemed, oddly enough, somewhat anti-climactic. It covers the removal of the US Ambassador to Afghanistan - Karl Eikenberry and the relief of General Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commanding general, but in a way that seemed familiar. It was one of the few sections where I did not find myself repeatedly thinking "I didn't know that!" The second half of the chapter, which deals with the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, etc. evoked diametrically opposite reactions as I eagerly absorbed a great deal of detailed information about those landmark events. During the discussion prior to our Libyan intervention, you learn that stereotypes are made to be broken as the military chiefs and Gates initially argue against using airpower to assist the Libyan rebels while staffers and advisors with academic or political backgrounds push for the use of military force. Unlike Afghanistan, it does not take long for President Obama to come to a decision.
Chapter Fourteen is where I am going to wind up my chapter summary. It covers the last months of Gates' tenure, focusing on his final trips to Russia (where he had a much better reception than in 2007, although the Russians were concerned about American involvement in aiding the Libyan revolutionaries - which blew back in our faces in Syria where the Russians counseled against our involvement), to China, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The world tour accounts segues into a discussion of military and defense succession covering the changing of the guard within DoD (Panetta replaces Gates), CIA (Petraeus replaces Panetta), ISAF (Allen replaces Petraeus), Afghan ambassador (Crocker replaces Eikenberry) and CJCS (Marty Dempsey replace Mullen). Gates' account of the Bin Laden Raid follows next. After initially coming out against a direct action strike, Gates was persuaded to support the raid. Within an hour after Gates informed Obama of his change of heart, the President approved the operation. The chapter ends with another discussion of bruising budget battles and his final trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I found the book fascinating, informative, and plausible. That said, I would plead guilty to allowing my having read Donald Rumsfeld's memoir to influence my five star rating for Gates' much more candid account.