Read Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates Online


From the former secretary of defense, a strikingly candid, vividly written account of his experience serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House in 2006, he thought he’d left Washington politics behind: after working for six presidents in both the CIA and the NationaFrom the former secretary of defense, a strikingly candid, vividly written account of his experience serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House in 2006, he thought he’d left Washington politics behind: after working for six presidents in both the CIA and the National Security Council, he was happy in his role as president of Texas A&M University. But when he was asked to help a nation mired in two wars and to aid the troops doing the fighting, he answered what he felt was the call of duty. Now, in this unsparing memoir, meticulously fair in its assessments, he takes us behind the scenes of his nearly five years as a secretary at war: the battles with Congress, the two presidents he served, the military itself, and the vast Pentagon bureaucracy; his efforts to help Bush turn the tide in Iraq; his role as a guiding, and often dissenting, voice for Obama; the ardent devotion to and love for American soldiers—his “heroes”—he developed on the job. In relating his personal journey as secretary, Gates draws us into the innermost sanctums of government and military power during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, illuminating iconic figures, vital negotiations, and critical situations in revealing, intimate detail. Offering unvarnished appraisals of Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Presidents Bush and Obama among other key players, Gates exposes the full spectrum of behind-closed-doors politicking within both the Bush and Obama administrations. He discusses the great controversies of his tenure—surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan,  how to deal with Iran and Syria, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Guantánamo Bay, WikiLeaks—as they played out behind the television cameras. He brings to life the Situation Room during the Bin Laden raid. And, searingly, he shows how congressional debate and action or inaction on everything from equipment budgeting to troop withdrawals was often motivated, to his increasing despair and anger, more by party politics and media impact than by members’ desires to protect our soldiers and ensure their success. However embroiled he became in the trials of Washington, Gates makes clear that his heart was always in the most important theater of his tenure as secretary: the front lines. We journey with him to both war zones as he meets with active-duty troops and their commanders, awed by their courage, and also witness him greet coffin after flag-draped coffin returned to U.S. soil, heartbreakingly aware that he signed every deployment order. In frank and poignant vignettes, Gates conveys the human cost of war, and his admiration for those brave enough to undertake it when necessary. Duty tells a powerful and deeply personal story that allows us an unprecedented look at two administrations and the wars that have defined them....

Title : Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Author :
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ISBN : 9780307959478
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 640 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War Reviews

  • Joseph
    2019-03-16 22:02

    This book started a bit slow for me and, at first, it seemed a bit self-serving and I had a hard time generating much empathy for a guy who paid $40 K for lawyers to do his financial statements after talking about coming from a family of modest means. To top it off, had just read Peter Baker’s great book “Days of Fire” about the Bush-Cheney White House. I did not like Robert Gates in the initial pages. As I continued, I began to realize that it helped to remain aware that this was a memoir and as such that it had to have (try as the author might to avoid it) a certain amount of subjectivity. Accepting this I moved on. The further I read the more I came to a somewhat grudging acceptance of how effective a Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was.The chattering class has cherry picked Gates’ disdain for Congress and his frustration with Joe Biden to try to sensationalize the book and to fill thoughtless sound bites. As I worked through the book it seemed patently clear that most of the chattering class had not actually read the book. It is not an easy read and you almost need a background in DOD and NSC structure to follow the book. Still, this is a book very much worth reading.The strongest part of the book deals with the daily struggles Gates faced to get the Pentagon to do what needed to be done for the troops. I’m not going to recap that but Gates’ efforts to get wounded to medical care in Afghanistan within an hour were amazing. Similarly, he did much to get those who returned with traumatic wounds much better medical care. There is much more he did to help the troops. Another aspect I really liked was Gates’ efforts to visit the troops in remote locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, perhaps most interesting are the insights Gates provides into the generals and admirals he worked with. Clearly, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. Pete Pace and LtGen. John Kelly were among his close friends. Meeting with Marines who were in the same unit as Kelly’s son who was killed in Afghanistan is certainly moving. Although he does not say this explicitly, it is not hard to figure out how disappointed he was in Gen Stan McCrystal. Finally, you do not have to be a rocket scientist to get the notion that Gates probably thought Gen David Petreaus was and is an arrogant self-aggrandizer. Cannot close without noting that I’m a bit ashamed of the Air Force and Gen Buzz Mosely and former Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne. They deserved to be fired and their resignation was overdue.Another recurring theme that I liked was Gates’ recounting of working with Hillary Clinton. He is a flat out Hillary admirer and found himself ‘almost always in agreement’ with her. He cites Hillary’s personal analysis on corruption in Afghanistan as “the best he had ever seen on this topic.” He singles out Karl Eikenberry as effectively poisoning efforts in Afghanistan and being grossly insubordinate to Hillary who was his boss as Secretary of State. He notes that Hillary called Eikenberry “a huge problem.” That recounting had a definite ring of truth and Eikenberry comes across as an arrogant horse’s patootie. I would not be at all surprised to see Gates endorse Hillary, should she decide to run for President.Gates is very critical of Congress and, in my opinion, deservedly so. Part of the problem is what Gates notes as “the shift to a three-day workweek – Tuesday through Thursday. Gone are the days when members shared group houses, played poker or golf together, and often ate dinner together …” I’m not going to rehash what Gates has to say about Joe Biden. Prior to reading this, I had pretty much been a Biden fan. I no longer am.There are some errors and slights in the book. One error is Gates’ blanket statement that no American soldiers were killed in Vietnam while Eisenhower was President. In 1959 Maj. Dale R. Ruis and Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand died there. Another has to do with Poland which at one point he criticizes. The Poles contribution, 3000 soldiers sent to Afghanistan and 37 killed should have been noted if he was going to criticize them. I was with my Polish brother, MGen. Leszek Soczewica, when Leszek got a call about two Polish soldiers who had just been killed in Afghanistan. Since Gates says he likes honesty, if I ever met him in person I would tell him “You were not alone in suffering at soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary. Your book is just a bit too self centered.”

  • Ray
    2019-03-17 21:43

    When I picked up Robert Gates new book "Duty" , I expected a juicy expose` on the inner workings of the Obama White House because of quotes I had heard from TV commentators and from reading the Thomas E. Ricks review of the book in the N.Y. Times ( I can’t say the book let me down in any way, but the tone of the book ended up being different from the tone I expected from the media quotes. I had initially heard about "... Obama being detached and not believing in the Afghan War he was running...", and "... Biden being wrong on every foreign policy decision...", and "... Hillary admitting her opposition to the War was political...", etc. And while those statements can be found in this 600 page book, they were far from the dominant theme of the book. In fact, I think Gates was basically positive and complimentary about Obama, gave Hillary the most praise of all, and certainly seemed to like Biden as a person and pointed out a number of times when he and Biden were on the same page. In subsequent interviews, I noted that Gates admitted that he and Biden basically agreed with most of the Obama foreign policies, except Afghanistan. In fact, I felt that if I had kept track while reading it, I would say that Gates disagreed with then Vice President Cheney far more than he did with Biden. In the book, Gates mentioned that Cheney was in favor of bombing Syria, Iran, enhanced interrogation techniques, keeping Guantanamo open, the necessity of the War in Iraq, the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor by either the U.S. or Israel, etc., positions that Gates was not supportive of. So to me, the hype and TV coverage associated with the release of this book didn't truly reflect Gates' stated opinions in many cases. Two groups receiving frequent if not constant criticism throughout the book were Congress and the White House staff. In this regard, I felt Gates was frequently less specific. He did identify a number of individuals and circumstances for specific criticism, but in other cases he was vague. One general pet pieve he had was just how phony members of Congress can be, giving speeches about the need to cut the Budget, but when the Pentagon or Secretary of Defense wanted to cut unneeded weapons or unwanted programs, the same members of Congress would fight tooth and nail to keep those unwanted projects if it affected their home state. He also disliked the Jekyll and Hyde attitude of Congressmen and Senators who postured and lambasted at congressional hearings once the red light of the television camera was on. But I assume that Gates didn’t have to be too specific in naming names in those cases, since it was a criticism probably applicable to all. Gates also laments the fact that addressing our Country's most intractable and complex problems requires consistent strategies, across multiple presidencies and Congresses, and that requires bipartisanship, something sorely lacking in Congress of late. When Gates made frequent criticisms of “… the White House…”, I often was uncertain who that criticism was directed at. It appeared at times he might have meant Obama, at other times, possibly Biden, and sometimes perhaps the National Security Staff, State Department figures, or other advisors. There were times when I would have liked a little more specificity in that regard. It’s possible that at times, Gates couldn’t be sure who exactly was placing obstructions in his path, and seemed to feel that most of the Obama advisors were parochial, self-centered, and suspicious of outsiders. However, if critical of Congress and the staff in the White House, his support and admiration of the brave men and women in the military fighting the on-going wars was made clear. He dedicated the book to the Military men and women, and wanted them to feel good about the direction of the Country and the leaders who asked them to serve. He held the military leadership in high regard, including both Commander-in-Chiefs he worked for, and noted that they made the tough decisions that the American public would expect. They both faced tough issues, wrestled with these issues, and had passion. The Military carried out the tough tasks given to them, but he also noted, that the biggest doves in Washington tend to be in uniform, and it’s those who never served in the military who tend to be most aggressive in recommending the use of military force. After reading the book, I came away with the feeling that Gates was truly dedicated to the military men he oversaw, and was approachable and open to his top military commanders. Certainly more so than the impression I had after reading Rumsfeld’s book, ”Known and Unknown”.

  • Eric_W
    2019-03-05 20:40

    I used to like Robert Gates. I realize that memoirs, (I have also read Robert McNamara’s mea culpa In Retrospect - which I highly recommend) by their very nature, tend to be self-adulatory, but there are passages that encouraged self-emetic tendencies in me. The idea that he left Texas A&M as president, where he describes himself as being overwhelmingly loved by students and faculty after only four years, to return to government as Secretary of Defense only out of a sense of duty? Really? In 2005 he had turned down a request to become Director of National Intelligence. I suspect his nostalgia for the university had as much to do with his greater control there than he was able to forge in government.He calls names, disrespecting many others in government. While those others may have been bimbos, time will tell if it’s not a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s really easy to become enamored of oneself when most of the time is spent looking in the mirror. He blames Obama for lousy policy with regard Afghanistan but doesn’t dwell on what he did to try to influence that policy in a different direction. Clearly he loathes Congress considering most of them political hacks who aren’t interested in the “facts.” The book is filled with righteous anger, bile, even.One of the most telling comments, I thought, came early in the book. He and several others had gone to Iraq as part of the Iraq Study Group (he considers his membership in that group one of the reasons why Bush 43 wanted him as Defense Secretary) when he asked one of the top-ranking military people how things were going with the CIA as far as cooperation. The reply was telling: “ “Oh, sir, it’s so much better than when you were DCI.” I was not offended because what he said was true and, in fact, a vast understatement. The close and growing collaboration, in fact, was bringing about a revolution in the real-time integration of intelligence and military operations.” Now I would have expected some deeper introspection as to why his successor was succeeding where he had obviously failed. I’m sure he included that little anecdote to show how honest he could be, yet to me it showed a complete failure to recognize his own limitations. Belittling his colleagues struck me as a similar failure. It seems to me that much of his complaints result from a pettiness that not everyone hopped on board with his strategies. He makes much of the “Megan” letter (with “[sics]” inserted lest you think he made the mistakes) yet ignores her advice and goes for the fifteen-month deployment change to support the surge anyway. And I totally disliked his assumptions that one could not be supportive of the troops if one didn’t support the mission. “The frequently used line “We support the troops” coupled with “We totally disagree with their mission” cut no ice with people in uniform. Our kids on the front lines were savvy; they would ask me why the politicians didn’t understand that, in the eyes of the troops, support for them and support for their mission were tied together.” Hogwash. Sometimes the best way to support the troops is precisely by opposing the mission.He makes a big point early on that his parents considered lying a major offense, yet Gates was apparently a very effective SofD by getting along with Congress and Congressional leaders all the while considering them miserable sons of bitches. Perhaps Rumsfeld, who made enemy of Congress and the press was just being more honest. Obama comes off rather well, but largely because he acceded to the positions of Clinton and the Joint Chiefs as well as Gates. According to Gates (and is he credible here?) where they did differ, Gates adopted more dovish positions out of concern for the troops welfare. But many of his anecdotes displaying his concern for the troops came from personal exposure to grieving relatives or combat deaths. Hed portrays himself as the antithesis to Cheney who argued for the military option at every crisis (he wanted to bomb both Syria and Iran before leaving office) while he (Gates) tried to consider that as the last option. I was surprised at the level of discord within the military and the lack of support from Republicans in Congress, having assumed opposition for the surge and slow progress in the drawdown was coming primarily from Democrats in 2007. I was also taken aback by the level of discord within the military itself and disagreement on how things were going. (See the “Fox” Fallon episode on page 68.)Gates is generally kind to Obama considering his decision to go after Bin Laden “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed at the White House.” (And he worked for eight presidents.) He was disturbed by Obama’s mistrust of the generals, believeing they were trying to box him into sending more troops. Yet Gates’ department fueled much of that distrust and he says as much on page 476: “We at Defense certainly at times contributed to White House suspicions.” He accuses Obama of politicizing military decisions, yet in the same breath notes how Obama would over and over go against the political recommendations of his advisors.A problem I saw with Gates’ tenure at Defense was that while he was very good at identifying problems, he personalized the fixes, i.e., took personal responsibility for going around the bureaucracy rather than reforming the bureaucracy to make it more responsive and accountable. That meant that after he left, everything reverted to the status quo.One of the most telling observations about Gates was made by Fred Kaplan of Slate. Given Gates’ rise through the ranks of the CIA and the intelligence community, “He knew how to insinuate his views into a discussion without leaving fingerprints behind, and he could calmly toss obstructionists overboard if necessary.”Gates by all lights, Gates was a very good SofD. He managed to get Congress to go along with cutting many major weapons systems but forced through $16 billion for MRAP troop carrier that was hardened against IEDs and saved many lives. And you have to respect his compassion for the kids he was sending off to war. No doubt he made a difference in many of their lives and he writes with great compassion about the suffering of those left permanently scarred and wounded by the war. The way he handled the Washington Post story about the terrible conditions at Walter Reed was more than commendable.But here we are ten years later facing virtually the same problems. Gates never considers that he might have been wrong about some things, preferring to ridicule his opponents, in particular Joe Biden who argued for a smaller counter insurgency force. More than 3,800 soldiers and Marines died on Gates’s watch in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps Gates owes us an explanation. But he’s burned his bridges.One last irony. Gates writes dismissively (pages 392-3) of Obama’s comments after they had discussed what to do if Israel attacked Iran:I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decision about Israel or Iran. Joe, you be my witness.” I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.Barely a few months later guess who’s writing his memoirs? Nevertheless, an important book. I am not doing it justice.N.B. One astonishing little tidbit. It cost Gates $40,000 for a law firm to complete the financial disclosure and national security documents required of every incoming appointee. That’s crazy.As a companion piece, I highly recommend James Fallows recent piece in the Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military, Jan/Feb, 2015” as well as several of the responses to his article. In particular, Chickenhawk Nation, Response No. 4: 'Actually, Our Military Keeps Winning' Here’s a quote: “ The more the military is isolated from our society and its political limitations, the more it can harbor this view. Likewise, the more the military is placed on a pedestal, the more its confusion of tactical military success with political victory will go unchallenged by our political system, and likely shift to reluctance to criticize the political leadership’s war goals and means.”

  • Washington Post
    2019-03-07 20:46

    In his new book, which has nearly 600 pages of text, 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. This confusing, frustrating and sometimes fascinating book is best summed up by a pair of conflicting statements Gates uttered during his tenure.In a meeting with Obama’s national security team a few days before the president’s inauguration, Gates described being defense secretary as “the most gratifying experience of my life.” Only days earlier, in an e-mail to a friend, he confided: “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”Washington Post military reporter Greg Jaffe reviewed it for us:

  • Rick
    2019-02-26 23:45

    I was fully prepared to dislike “DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. The simple reason is that I wrote a biography of a senior Pentagon official that Gates fired in 2008 (see Circle of Service). My take on how and why the individual was fired contrasted pretty sharply with Gates’ take, but I ended up liking the book anyway. This story is a retelling of Gates’ five years as SECDEF, and is presented in a roughly topical fashion and then linear within each topic.While there remains a bit of the “kiss and tell” approach in his memoir, Gates pulls it off pretty nicely. After all the media hoopla when this book came out – and negative at that – I didn’t expect much; for example, the media framed Gates’ disdain for Biden as a serious schism. On my reading it does seem, as others have noted, that the media was in such a hurry to review the book that they may not have paid attention when reading it. While the Biden comments are in there, they are couched with much more friendliness and compromise. What did I like … Gates’ extensive experience in Washington affairs over the last 40 years and being in on so many major policy decisions during the five years he was SECDEF really breathes life into the narrative. He was there and he was part of it and he had perspective. Great insights into the DoD budget process and politics of same. Enjoyed his descriptions of working (or not working) with Congress and particular individuals in the Senate or House. Appreciated his explanation of the constant struggle among the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon to get anything accomplished collegially; how politics influenced cabinet meetings; and how seemingly everything was politicized or buried by the bureaucracy.What didn’t I like … As with most memoirs, there is some self-aggrandizing and puffery of his accomplishments. He refers to himself as being called “the soldiers’ secretary” – reminiscent of Omar Bradley being “the soldier’s general” in World War II – a number of times … maybe he should let history decide. He also seems to imply that he was the only one with a strong devotion to our soldiers in the field, and that is not really fair to the senior civilian and military leadership we have been blessed with in the United States. If you happen to be a policy wonk and love the give-and-take and intrigue of how Washington works, this will be a treat. It is detailed and thorough. If you happen to be a fan of Netflix’ “House of Cards” and enjoy the dramatization of a fictionalized Congress, this will also be a delight; while much of HofC has to be taken with a grain of salt, it does take strong and ruthless individuals to run a country – much like Robert M. Gates.

  • Hana
    2019-03-10 15:51

    Filled with insights into the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and decision-making surrounding America's seemingly endless wars. It was a particularly interesting read at the moment since Gates worked very closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Those wondering how Clinton would handle U.S. foreign policy should read this book.

  • Trish
    2019-03-20 19:05

    “War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”This memoir is subtitled Memoirs of a Secretary at War and Gates brings home the fact that it was not only the American public who did not seem to think or act as though we were engaged in war (two wars!) in the years since 2003, but it was also the Pentagon, which went about its "business as usual." This should not be as shocking to me as it is, since I lived also during this time and knew well that we felt no impact unless we had someone in the fight. Gates reminds us to think about our hand-jerk reaction to use military force in place of other, more measured responses and reminds us that there "the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms" because the military leaders have seen the cost of war.Gates organizes this memoir of his life in the G.W. Bush and Obama White Houses by big sections: by country (e.g. Russia, Iraq, Iran) and by his tasks (e.g., War with the Pentagon, War with Congress). He is frank about what he thought at the time he was asked to work on budgets and troop allocations in the two lengthy wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, but despite his personal dislike for the opinions of several of the folks he had to work with often, he did not often let his feelings get in the way of the business of the American people. He worked closely with Tom Donilon after Donilon became National Security Advisor to President Obama in 2010, but Donilon and Gates often disagreed on issues when Donilon was Deputy National Security Advisor to NSA chief Jim Jones early in the Obama Administration. “That’s an order.”“Obama’s order [about the troop levels in Afghanistan] at Biden’s urging demonstrated in my view the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture. That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership…The President announced the troop surge at West Point on December first [2009]… In the end I felt this national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience…I thought Obama did the right things on national security, but everything came across as politically calculated...I was frustrated with a valuable process that had gone on way too long. To be fair, though, national interest had trumped politics as the President made a tough decision that was contrary to the advice of all his political advisors and almost certainly the least popular of the options before him in terms of his political constituents. On reflection, I believe that all of us at the senior-most level did not serve the President well in this process. Our team of rivals let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations. Contending teams presented alternatives to the President that were considerably more black and white than warranted. A more collegial process one that tried to identify points of agreement rather than sharpen differences would have had a more harmonious conclusion and done less damage to the relationship between the military and the Commander in Chief…”Gates is straightforward in what he supported throughout his time as Secretary of Defense for two presidents, and talks candidly about his assessment of people and the things they did that he liked or did not like. Biden, who Gates claimed was on the wrong side of every major policy initiative throughout his time in office, was personally likeable, but Gates felt he was too often focused on political outcomes. One could of course argue that Biden felt this was his “job,” to be the one voice among many that did not focus on the needs of one department, but instead focused on the political ramifications. Gates gives Obama credit for looking at all ramifications and making some difficult calls despite the political fallout.I had an epiphany halfway through this memoir. The poisonous political climate in Washington defeated Obama in a way that elections did not. He may have been elected as a result of the decline of both political parties, both in terms of their efficacy and in terms of popular perceptions of the parties. Gates talks about the endless leaks from his department and from the White House, and how they poisoned the atmosphere even further, forcing spokespeople to line up politically palatable positions in advance of meetings outlining possible consequences of these positions. Gates states he thought the Obama White House and Obama personally were suspicious of the armed services and the men that lead them. Perhaps Obama grew more and more suspicious as his Administration suffered through leaks and the vitriol spewing from Congress. Obama may simply have felt the sands shifting beneath him. Gates recognizes that Obama faced the most difficult opening years of any President he can remember, being involved in two wars, a financial crisis at home, and constant threats and crises overseas.Gates survived long in the changing political climate in Washington because he had common sense and political savvy. When it comes right down to it, what is the Secretary of Defense? He is not a general, who commands troop movements. In some cases, the Secretary does not even have military experience, beyond a short stint in one of the services. He is not elected, but appointed. He distills and conveys information from the defense arm to the political, executive arm. He is a conduit.Perhaps the President should always choose a person for Secretary of Defense who does not want the job, as Gates claimed he did not. Objectively, it is difficult to argue that Gates was not successful in the position. He was first appointed by a Republican and asked to stay by a Democrat. A person who does not want the job may not have a particular axe to grind or a personal agenda. Gates looked at Pentagon and Veteran’s Administration intransigence with the same scalded eye he cast upon the bitter infighting and jockeying for power he saw in the Congress and the “micromanaging” he saw among the National Security Staff (NSS). One has to ask oneself why anyone would want the job if not for personal aggrandizement. Gates says it was his “Duty.” “Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of…The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said early on in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked…American presidents… are too quick to reach for a gun…Too many American ideologues call for the use of military action as the first option rather than a last resort…Obama’s pivot to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic or political priorities. 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. I strongly believe American must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities: we are the indispensable nation and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But, we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States…can do in an often cruel and challenging world….not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression or every crisis should elicit an American military response. We are enamored of technology…but war has become for too many, among them defense experts, members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the American public as well, a kind of arcade video game: bloodless, painless, and odorless…War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”If this book interests you but seems like an impossible dream to read because of its size, I urge you to read the last chapter. In this, Gates talks directly to us about his understanding of and experience in office, sharing insights and realities about the use of military force. Additionally, an interview added at the end summarizes several points he makes at greater length in his book. This is a remarkable document that is as open and candid as the man. It is impossible not to like and respect him, and thank him for handling a very difficult job in a very difficult time. We were lucky he was there to save us from ourselves. He reminds us to thank the military men and women who, because of their sacrifice, allow us to live our lives with the abundance that we do. I wish we, as citizens, would strive to remember our own duty when it comes to our country and our community.-------------April 10, 2014Just read this review blogpost about the book from Peter Osnos of The Century Foundation. He does a better job at explaining why this "blunt and candid" memoir is a book we need to take seriously.

  • Stephen
    2019-02-24 21:04

    One of the better books I've read on contemporary government and politics. It was written by an actual personality, not one trying to secure a place in our hearts or Washington. Michèle Flournoy, Under Secretary to Gates at the Department of Defense, told Brian Lamb in an interview for C-SPAN that she felt Gates wrote this memoir for catharsis; the strong opinions, the letting down of the guard, didn't resemble the rational, thoughtful man she worked for. This surprised her, disappointing her slightly. Later on in the interview she added that there is no other public servant she admires and respects more than Gates (she also offered good advice for those wishing for careers in policy and government: "choose the boss, not the job", an individual who will support and mentor you and won't feel threatened by that very kind of a relationship). For whatever reason my primary concern with the U.S. government up until now has focused on Congress and the presidency. That's not where it's at. The policy work and its implementation is where all the excitement is, since it takes place away from the public eye where our interest cannot follow it because it falls outside the realm of lurid scandal and humiliating gaffe. A book like this, counter to the barrage of misinformation we receive for the sake of being informed, does a tremendous service for showing us how the government actually works outside the public right to know. I may be in the extreme minority in this, but I do not believe in complete transparency of the government at the highest levels where decisions are made; no, I believe in great individuals like Gates and Flournoy who are capable of handling a complex job. Complete democracy is a nuisance and only gets in the way.I will return to this memoir later on to get a better sense of how the various departments, civilian and military work in tandem; how meetings are run and decisions made; how a tremendous amount of information is processed and handled in a chain of command. More importantly, how those of consequence arrive at decisions outside of the kind of intellectual reasoning those of us on the outside use to imagine ourselves within those positions. This memoir itself, written from within an administration that is still in power, shows a remarkable faith in the public based on the idea that secrets once enacted upon can become public knowledge and that every action requires secrecy based as it is on public trust. It's this narrative that Gates writes so well, the blending of personality with policy that interests me greatly. I am not interested in reading for the kind of moral reckoning that those of the mainstream reviews are obsessed by, to make grand judgments on the 2007 surge in Iraq, for instance, so that we can feel morally superior about them (the reviewer in the Wall Street Journal who says: "Mr. Gates deserves great credit for the role he played in our victory in Iraq." People who write like that shouldn't be trusted with the English language.)There are many invaluable anecdotes in this memoir that if treated in a novel would be significant. Out of an abundance here are two:(1) The cost of sending men and women to die in war, having to write letters, speak to their families directly when they're gone, takes its toll on Gates and so he has zero desire to continue as Secretary of Defense for the new administration. But Obama wants him for the new government. Gates scripts out a list of questions to ask the president-elect, and when they meet in a cleared-out airport firehouse under secrecy for an interview it impresses Gates deeply to see Obama remove that very list from his inside suit jacket pocket (for myself, I am very impressed to hear that Obama told Gates in this initial meeting "I'm no peacenik".(2) At the first meeting of Obama's cabinet yet to be sworn in, vice-president-elect Biden pulls Gates aside for some personal advice from a man who has worked under presidents since 1968. How should a vice-president handle himself during military meetings? Gates suggests to Biden it does the dignity of the position well to be present but not known, unlike Cheney who degraded the position and his role with his unfettered involvement. Gates notes Biden thanked him sincerely - then proceeded to do the complete opposite of the advice he sought, "following the Cheney model to a T." I am happy to see Gates quote William Tecumseh Sherman: "every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster." Another winning quality of this memoir is that Gates shows a smooth sense of humor, one that comes naturally, a rarity among any circle of Americans but particularly for those working in the government trying to show everyone how average-Joe they are. And Gates HATES the wind-bags and jackasses of Congress! All those show-boaters who have no interest at all in making government run. With that terrible, cynical attitude of his we can be assured he is one of us.

  • Jerome
    2019-03-21 22:04

    An interesting and very candid memoir. I was looking forward to reading it, and even though a lot of people (generally conservatives) gleefully claimed it was some sort of anti-Obama expose, this isn’t true at all, and I doubt those commentators even finished this book. Gates is very fair in his assessments. He points out the flaws in his bosses but is never purely negative about any of the players.Gates does a good job describing the challenge of confronting the Pentagon’s monstrous bureaucracies, two wars and strained civil-military relations. Gates gives us a good insider’s feel for the personalities and quirks of all the major players. George Bush was a man of strong convictions was difficult to dissuade from achieving a final victory in Iraq, for example, and Obama was very deliberative with a more structured approach to decision-making. Obama did not have much trust in his commanders in Afghanistan, disliked Karzai, and basically wanted to withdraw as soon as possible due to the inconclusive open-ended commitment, the unreliability of the Afghan government, and the lack of real US interests in the country.Neither Bush nor Obama enjoyed good relationships with Congress or had much of a knack for personal diplomacy. Another problem Gates dealt with was the Pentagon’s massive budget and ponderous bureaucracy. Interservice rivalry was alive and well, and interservice communication left much to be desired. Unsurprisingly, Congress gets the roughest treatment in Gates’ book: “broad dysfunction,” “truly ugly,” “most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, and prone to put self before country.”Gates’ insights into the different presidents he served are also interesting. “We have a long tradition in America of electing a president, celebrating him for a few days, and then spending four or eight years demonizing him, reviling him, or blindly defending him.” Gates got along well with Bush, who seemed comfortable with the decisions he made and emerged wiser and more experienced in his second term. With Obama, Gates dealt with an inexperienced president up to his neck in multiple domestic and international crises. Gates had more disagreements with Obama than with Bush. And Obama exercised tighter control over national security decisionmaking and the national security bureaucracy, which had its advantages since big bureaucracies tend to bog down in day-to-day routine issues rather than think creatively over how to tackle bigger ones. At its worst, however, this tighter control led to micro-management. In any case, Gates finds both Obama and Bush likable and worthy of his respect.Gates’s assessments are candid. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t exactly “winnable” in a conventional sense. The preferred endgames in Iraq and Afghanistan were stable government and a US withdrawal that would not be seen as a strategic defeat for the US, along with the prevention of a resurgence of terrorist activity in both countries. Building true democracies there would have taken up too much time, more time than the US had.I also enjoyed Gates’ dry and witty sense of humor:pg. 14: “I was about ten before I learned that Harry Truman’s first name wasn’t ‘goddamn.’ “pg. 63 : “I got a PowerPoint briefing by Iraqi officers. PowerPoint! My God, what are we doing to these people?”pg. 62, regarding Iraqi officials’ unrealistic optimism and empty promises: “I was getting to the point where I could write their talking points for them.”pg. 168: “On April 21, Saakashvili telephoned Putin to demand that Russia reverse course on recognition and cited statements by Western governments opposing it. Putin had used highly colloquial Russian in telling Saakashvili where he could put the Western statements.”pg. 194: “I found the NATO meetings excruciatingly boring...My secret to staying awake was revealed publicly at one meeting by the French defense minister, who was in a rant about how boring the meetings were--he confessed to doodling to pass the time and then outed me for doing crossword puzzles.”pg. 294: “I had never met Rahm Emmanuel, the new chief of staff, who was hell-on-wheels and became well-known for terrorizing everyone, even Cabinet officers. Armed with an inexhaustible supply of f-bombs, he was a whirling dervish with attention deficit disorder.”pg. 429, on giving a speech at Vietnam’s national university: “As I entered the hall, funky dance and disco music was blaring, strobe lights were flashing, and the audience was applauding, whistling and carrying on. I knew that the only way I would ever get such a rock star’s reception would be at the order of a dictatorship.”The book is very candid, informal yet intelligent, and without any apparent desire to protect his own reputation or settle scores.

  • 11811 (Eleven)
    2019-03-10 22:01

    3.5* --- Two administrations of opposing political parties through the prism of the same Secretary of Defense. Unprecedented, a little weird, somewhat awkward, and full of crap I hadn't previously been aware of.Rumsfeld's autobio was more interesting to me but that naturally happens when you're operating from the Pentagon while the building is on fire. Working overtime; still on fire... I'll never get used to that. This book lacked some of the urgency that was written by his predecessor if you are measuring the excitement scale which I advise against. It also had a lot more math for those of you who are super interested in precise budgetary numbers.I recommend both books. There are far more similarities than differences concerning both the Rumsfeld years and the Gates'. I can't say "who was better." Different experiences and approaches to evolving events shaped them in different ways but they were both bright as hell and did well within their circumstances. Both impress me.The positions of the administrations behind these men - THAT's what interested me most in both memoirs. This one delivered on my expectations, as did Rumsfeld's. If that counts for something then yes, I recommend it.

  • Amber
    2019-03-18 22:01

    In Duty, Bob Gates writes about his time as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush (2 years) and Obama (2 years). He replaced Donald Rumsfeld during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when the insurgency was in full swing. I have read numerous articles about “who the best secretary of defense” has been (especially lately with the resignation of Chuck Hagel), and have seen Bob Gates mentioned in almost all of the articles. So even though I am burned out on Bush administration memoirs, I decided to read Duty. I can clearly see why he is admired. He made a lot changes to the structure of the defense department, cleaned up the senseless spending, and put more focus and money on the troops and the preparedness of our military for conflicts not involving states with advanced militaries. The latter makes a lot of sense…. If you consider who we might be in conflict within the next 5 years, it seems to be radical terrorist groups’ verses unruly nations (discounting the always plausible conflicts we may have with North Korea or Iran). The first part of memoir discusses his time under George Bush, and how he oversaw the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second part of the book is dedicated to his time under Obama. The first part was more informative and could get a little dry when he’d discuss certain weapons programs or MRAP vehicles (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected.) The second part gets a little more juicy and political. Although Mr. Gates is similar to myself in that he is bipartisan and more concerned with doing what is right, verses going with his party’s status quo, he clearly favored working under George Bush. He never says this… I can just tell. He calls out the first Obama administration for being more concerned about politics surrounding the war in Afghanistan than the troops and actually succeeding in Afghanistan. I am sure most new administrations feel like they are just in time to fix the mess of the prior administration, and want to do everything opposite, and for Obama, inheriting 2 wars must have been trying. But reading about the arrogance and disillusionment makes it an interesting juicy read. Plus with hindsight, you know who was off base in their assessment. I love his candor throughout the book… for example: “In March 2009, two American women journalists who had crossed on foot into North Korea from China were arrested for spying. A few months later, in July, three other American hikers - two men and one woman – crossed into Iran from Iraq and were arrested. Frankly, I had no patience with any of them; no sentient person goes tootling anywhere near either the North Korean or Iranian border. But we had to try to get them out nonetheless.” I love it. I always wonder why people go gallivanting around the world in heavy conflict areas, and then get mad at the government for not getting them back home. Duty is a good political memoir - enjoyable and informative.

  • Doug
    2019-03-19 17:01

    Updated: I started reading this last night and I am only partway through chapter two. For the sake of disclosure, I am a fan of Robert Gates and I thought that he was an excellent Sec. of Defense. Some takeaways so far:#1 Fmr Sec. Gates could be running for President in 2016. He goes to some length in the first two chapters establishing his Republican and bi-partisan credentials. His age makes a bid questionable, but not impossible. #2 He has stronger ties to Bush 41 than I knew, not unexpected but bit surprising. For example, Gates called Bush 41 for consul on being appointed to Sec. of Defense by Bush 43. According to Gates, Bush 43 did not talk to Bush 41.#3 He does not seem to be fond of Senators from either party. He describes D.C. as a battleground.#4 He has nice things to say about fmr Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner.#5 He describes PM of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki as "out of touch with reality" after their first conversation.#6 Gates describes a "dash" made by Leon Panetta and himself for an airport liquor store in Ireland "to stock up" while en route to Iraq on a fact finding mission with the Iraq Study Group. #7 Gates brought in no staff with him when he became Sec. of Defense. He presents it as atypical behavior for an incoming executive of a bureaucracy. It comes across as laudable and logical. #8 An aside: It is possible that Gates was in the wings as the successor to Rumsfeld. His bio reads like a political player taking a rest on the bench, in this case as President of Texas A&M. Further, the Iraq Study Group could be viewed as a way to allow for two future Sec. of Defense to go and observe before becoming the boss. It could also explain Rumsfeld's disdain for the press, and his public remarks generally, if he knew that his successor was already in place. To quote Fred Thompson's character from HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER "A Russian doesn't take a dump without a plan", neither do former spymasters. Anyways, it wouldn't be shocking if the Bush family had a short-list of names they trust and that Gates was on it, nothing sinister about networking.#8 Gates was an early pro-proponent of the surge in Iraq. He faced opposition from several directions on the policy throughout the process of forming his view and in seeing it through once in office.#9...time for me to go and read the Iraq Study Group report, maybe it will be a light read...maybe I'll just skim it...wikipedia?

  • Dorrit
    2019-03-16 21:43

    I really wanted to dig and and find this book interesting, but just couldn't. Unfortunately at least as far as I got, it was a nearly impossible to follow catalog of activities with no real thread, or analysis. Basically "first I caled this person and said X, then later some other person called me, then I told the president Y, then later another thing happened." Unfortunate, because it had the opportunity to really shed light on an important part of modern history.

  • Nicole R
    2019-03-24 18:40

    I apologize in advance for the long review....this was a long and complex book and there are many points I want to make. I wouldn't call any of it spoilers though....Do not let the 3 star rating fool you, I found parts of this book interesting, compelling, and a unique insight to our government with regards to war and foreign affairs. However, it really was more half memoir, and half military report. And the military report part was mind-numbingly boring.I did not know much about Former Defense Secretary Gates before diving into this book, but I closed the last page with nothing but the utmost respect for him and his 4.5 year tenure under two presidents. Ultimately, the book describes his time from when President Bush appointed him in as Secretary of Defense in 2006, through the unusual request he stay on for the next administration and the transition to President Obama's cabinet, until he left in 2011. I want to start with what I liked about the book: • I have the utmost resect for someone who leaves his comfortable life as President of Texas A&M to answer the call of public service. Gates was under no obligation to do so but made the decision to serve his country. I don't care who you are or if I agree with your politics, as long as you serve honorably then you have my respect. I truly do not believe you can do anything more honorable.• I thought Gates did a great job of writing openly, honestly, fairly, and respectfully of the two very different Presidents he served under. I do not think it will come as any surprise that he seemed to get along better with and genuinely enjoy being around President Bush more than President Obama, but he was not stingy on praise for either man. I appreciated Gate's acknowledgement that they both made hard decisions with the interest of the military members in mind even though they approached the solutions from different angles. Part of that was just the difference between men, but part of it was the difference between the time of the Presidency as well--Bush was in the final years of his two-term Presidency while Obama was just getting started. • I should also mention that this perspective permeated to Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton, the two Secretaries of State he worked with. I was actually surprised by the glowing way he described Clinton and his portrayal of the commonalities they had in the thoughts and paths forward. Gates knew Rice for some time before working with her in the Bush Administration, which was not the case with Clinton in the Obama Administration, but I think he was pleasantly surprised by his time with Clinton and would even call him a fan of hers.• Vice President Biden did not benefit from Gates's good graces. It was obvious those two men did not get along. However, in fairness, I do not think Vice President Cheney and Gates played golf on the weekends either. Biden and Cheney were the exact opposite on military tactics, and I think they nudged their more-reasonable Commanders in Chief in opposite directions.• Gates made me see the war and the decisions both President's made in a new and expanded way. I am not very war/foreign affairs savvy, and Gates shed light on the broader implications of the decisions that were made. I did not think much before about how our decision to invade and contemplation of withdrawals would be viewed on the world stage and the implications it would have for countries other than our own. This is possibly the best part of the book that I will take with me--an awareness of how to look at these conflicts from a different angle and to consider the outcomes with more than just "my" country in mind.• I am sure that Gates's memoir is skewed, but he seems like he was an excellent leader. I liked his focus on improving efficiency within the Department of Defense, his commitment to save money where possible without being cheap on investments that would help our troops, and his dedication to being seen as the head of the Department even when that meant taking care of the dirty work himself. He seemed to want to know and be involved with all levels of details without being micromanaging and when he saw an injustice he worked quickly to correct it. He took ultimate responsibility for every decision made by his 3 million staff. • More than an excellent leader, Gates seems like a good guy. He has a wife of 47 years who was not mentioned often but when she was it was with love and reference to her as a full partner in life. He was loyal to friends and close colleagues. He was respected by people who may not have particularly liked him. Most of all, he loved and supported the troops. This last point is not a small one. He made every decision with them and their safety in mind, while knowing that people would die because of decisions he made. That is a heavy weight to bear and ultimately contributed to his decision to leave office. I could have handled him reminding us a little less often of his love of the troops, it got so that I started rolling my eyes a bit, but I cannot fault him for the compassion and responsibility he felt.At this point, you are probably thinking that there are a lot of great points above. I mean, seriously, why wasn't this rated higher?• Because in the midst of everything I found truly great about this book there was endless description of minute military decisions. Granted, I am not a military tactic aficionado, but it seemed excessive in its detail and bbboooorrriiinnnggg. And, I feel bad for saying that. Given the risks our soldiers take and the sacrifices that have been made, I should have the decency to read these passages with at least a minimal amount of interest. And I did at first, but then it just became way too much for me. I didn't understand what I was reading and it truly read like a report a commander may give to his superior. • A biography on the political history of the war would be the more appropriate place for much of what Gates wrote, thereby keeping his subjective--and more interesting--memoirs separate, but instead it was just all thrown in there together in a not very compelling structure. Because there were so many simultaneous decisions constantly being made about the war, it made for a confusing read. Gates made the attempt to tell one story the whole way through and then backtrack to tell about another situation the entire way through and I had a hard time figuring out who was on first and what was on second. Part of that is poor editing.• The most interesting part was the final chapter. It was Gates personal reflections on the Presidents, the Department of Defense, the wars, the troops, and Congress. THIS IS WHAT I WANTED THE WHOLE TIME! I was amused by his contempt of Congress--not the people themselves, but the body as a whole and its recent lack of functionality. He made many observations about Congress that I have said many times. They are not knew ideas, and definitely not originated by me, but it is nice to hear someone else say that Congress has to change and that the days of compromise need to return.• Gates had great reflection on the media, how senior commanders interacted with the media, and how the media ultimately led to many of their downfalls. It was a cautionary tale to keep your mouth shut and follow the party line in public but his door was always open for you to air your grievances and constructive criticism in private. • Gates also had many frustrations with the pace at which decisions were made, how hamstrung he often felt, and his lack of understanding how people could be so self-interested. I felt his discouragement and appreciated his efforts to change as much of this as he could. He also highlighted how the military was not equipped to fight the type of war we see in Iraq and Afghanistan and their reluctance to change their course even on the brink of defeat. I found these parts hard to read and frustrating partially because of the situation and partially because Gates seemed to make endless excuses for these people.• One of my other biggest critiques is that Gates often raked others over the coals for basing their decisions on political reasons. He stated over and over that he had no tolerance for this but he did the exact same thing! He was not as blatantly open that political reasons played into his decisions, but they did and you could pick up on them in the reading. Suggesting troop levels and drawdowns based on what he thought Congress and the President would approve is the one that comes most readily to mind, but there were many others as well.Ultimately, I am glad I finally got around to reading this book. I gained knowledge and expanded by view of our foreign relations, as well as saw a different side of our two most recent Presidents. However, it would be very hard for me to recommend this book to someone else (unless you are Regina, in that case you should read it) because of the effort it took to get through.

  • Matt
    2019-02-28 16:04

    After finishing the Rumsfeld memoirs, I was curious to see how the man who took over the reins at Defence would handle the task. I knew little about Robert Gates going in, but that soon changed as I was pushed into his chaotic life from the opening paragraph. Gates is clear in his analysis and fills the pages with a strong argument for why the US belonged in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also stressing that he is no 'clean-up man' for the Bush Administration. Gates inherited a mess in both wars, from command posts to troop morale, through to dealing with an ever-elusive list of enemies and political land-mines. Gates argues thoroughly about all aspects of his job, at times going into their minutiae. His arguments, while quite in line with a pro-war stance, is nowhere near as 'yes man' as Rumsfeld and many of the other Bush Administration senior administrators whose memoirs have flooded the publication world over the past number of years. As Gates mentions in his opening, he pulls no punches and will not back down from his comments, no matter who ends up in the crosshairs. This makes this memoir well worth the time of the reader, if for no other reason that a frank assertion of arguments awaits the patient student.Gates holds the dubious role of being the only Secretary of Defence to ever hold the position throughout the passing of a presidential administration torch, made all the more spectacular that it crossed party lines. This is an added spin to the memoir, in that it gives a dual perspective, while also showing the continuity of leadership from the Pentagon. Gates is an admitted Republican, but does not stand in the way of Obama's Democratic agenda and makes it clear that he is there to serve his country, not his party. The memoir does reflect (and Gates comes out to say it at times as well) the shift in roles from the Bush to the Obama administrations. In the former, it was a "we got into this, let's keep it going" mentality, perhaps the main reason Gates was brought in to decipher the Bush-Rumsfeld mess. The latter sought to look at the precarious pull back from both Afghanistan and Iraq, which had its own awkward moments. However, Gates offers that wonderful perspective that rises above the fray and sells the message clearly.Perhaps one interesting thread that appears throughout the memoir is that Gates did not want the role of SecDef, nor did he want to stay on when Obama took the reins. That said, he agreed (and stuck it out) because of his service to the country. How someone could be so frank and forthright baffles me, in that I am used to reading about honour and praise at being chosen. That being said, Gates breaks all the stereotypes in this memoir. Perhaps Gates could read the writing on the wall and noticed how much of a clusterf*** this whole set of decisions ended up being and wanted no role in it. As an academic, Gates was surely aware of the theoretical positives and their practical negatives and preferred to leave it well alone. However, having held many key posts in six administrations before Bush 43 sought him out, Gates felt the impetus to put America before himself.One stereotype shattered in the book is the historical arc of the person's life. A politician is never one to shy away from telling his life story and how he got the spark to run or get involved. Gates chooses to parachute into the SecDef role from page 5 or so of the memoir, giving only a brief intro to his life as a university president. While there are insinuations to his past roles in previous administrations, the arc is lost and this lessens, in my opinion, the strength of the memoir as a political or personal life reflection. Add to that, Gates fills chapters with page upon page of detailed analysis of the war effort, offering much for those whose greatest interest is military manoeuvring but not as much for the person looking for a greater knowledge of the man in general. I critiqued this aspect in Rumsfeld's work and I will do so again here; it bogs the flow down and forces the reader to focus on the wars rather than the man. I found myself skimming, yes SKIMMING over sections, to get to the point and hoped to pull out an anecdote or two. I won't slam Gates for this, but it was just not what I expected or hoped for in such a long memoir. The book is a fresh look at a set of issues the general public surely tires of hearing about, all these years later. To call Iraq and Afghanistan the 21st century Vietnam would likely not be hyperbolic, though the comparison would be a cup of banana pudding to Bananas Foster in this day and age of media coverage and congressional-influence therefrom. Gates opens the floodgates with information and candor, something missing in political memoirs of late.Kudos, Dr. Gates for such an interesting approach to what has become a horrendously stupid set of wars. While a little dense in spots, I get the gist of the argument, for which applause is well deserved.Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

  • Dick Reynolds
    2019-03-01 22:51

    Robert Gates became Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush in 2006, replacing Donald Rumsfeld, after serving as President of Texas A&M University. No stranger to government service, Gates had once been Director of the CIA and member of the National Security Council staff. He had to “hit the ground running” on his arrival in Washington with two wars ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Defense Department is the most complex organization on the planet with three million members, vast amounts of equipment such as planes, ships, tanks and other weapons, real estate, and a yearly budget of over $700 billion. Gates’ major concern during his early period was the health of the troops fighting the two wars and the welfare of their families back on the home front. A trip to the outpatient clinic of Walter Reed Hospital revealed terrible conditions for treating wounded veterans. To their credit, the military service leaders (they didn’t know about it) jumped on this problem when Gates called it to their attention. He admits that his efforts to have the Veterans Affairs Department give priority to recent combat veterans was a failure; he cites the VA as a bureaucracy even worse than the Pentagon. Gates details his battles within his own organization to change people’s thinking and impart a sense of urgency, getting the right equipment to the fighting troops overseas as soon as possible instead of the usual mindset of focusing on future wars. He cites the difficulty of streamlining the material acquisition process and the even harder task of canceling expensive programs because of fiefdom ownership within the DoD or intrusive oversight by a zealous members of Congress. He resented Congressional suggestions for cutting DoD expenses and the members’ collective hypocrisy; it was fine to cut back as long as it didn’t affect jobs back at the member’s home turf. Gates remarks that Congress is best viewed from afar because, up close, it’s pretty ugly. His visits to Iraq and Afghanistan were always a welcome relief from the battlegrounds of Washington. It’s easy to like and admire Gates because he doesn’t take himself seriously. He admits he’s a geezer and was nicknamed “Yoda.” His writing style is not to be directly critical of someone but rather state the facts and let the reader draw his own conclusions. He made some personal observations of current politicians: Joe Biden is a likable person but has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades; Hilary Clinton is smart, idealistic but pragmatic, and has a great sense of humor; Obama is deliberative, interested in detail and has to completely understand a problem before making a decision on it. Gates openly admits to mistakes. He made a significant organizational change in 2010 by putting special operations units and Marines in Afghanistan under control of LtGen McChrystal, establishing “unity of command,” much like Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII. He says he should have done it much earlier. Gates also had problems dealing with staffers in the White House who had a tendency to micromanage the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, reminding me of similar actions back in the Viet Nam war when Robert McNamara was SecDef and LBJ was personally picking targets for bombing runs. Senior military officers such as Admiral Mullen and General Petreus didn’t help matters either when they freely gave their opinions to the media on how the war was or wasn’t being managed correctly. McChrystal famously lost his job because of remarks made to a Rolling Stone correspondent. While military officers don’t lose their right to speak, their open criticism caused a backlash because the President thought he was being ganged up on. Gates left office in June 2011 after four and a half years under two presidents. In the last chapter titled “Reflections” he pays eloquent tribute to the troops he sent into harm’s way and how they’ve inspired him to do his duty. In a poignant ending he asks to be buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. I confess to getting a bit emotional when I read these words because I have many Marine shipmates also buried in Arlington. Mr. Gates, like my fallen comrades, did his duty well and is certainly worthy of this honor.

  • Rachel
    2019-03-24 15:45

    I was simultaneously fascinated and bored by this book. Robert Gates clearly is a very smart man who plainly tried to tell his story as honestly and openly as possible. It was very interesting to learn about his experiences in both the Bush and Obama administration and his opinions and decision making processes. However I also felt this book was excessively long winded and an unnecessarily slow read. While Gates provided a lot of information, he went far more in depth on details that did not contribute much value to them end product and impression of the book. His writing is also a touch dry and unbelievably repetitive. (Ex-the endless accounts of his struggles with congress go on for pages and are largely the same idea whether he is arguing policy or budget or troop number the struggle and his telling of it is the same). The thing that most struck me in his telling is the emotion he conveys when discussing the troops and his interactions with them, it was very touching and reminded me to keep service members in my prayers and to keep doing all the good I can to make their hard work and sacrifice worth while.

  • Bentley
    2019-03-18 15:55

    This was an interesting book from Gates who has served eight (8) presidents in various capacities. As Secretary of War he worked for both President(s) George W. Bush and Barack Obama.Gates described that in working with both presidents he saw similarities - both were aloof and not part of the Washington scene and loathed Congress and neither spent a great deal of time even with members of Congress from their own party. Barack was more cerebral and Gates likened him to Lincoln whereas Bush ruled many times from his gut and did not always listen to the experts which he himself had gathered together. He feels that George W will have to live with the decisions that he made in Iraq and he stated that George W is willing to do it. One thing that I found interesting is that Gates felt that Obama and his inner circle including Biden did not trust or even like spending time with the military leaders yet Bush was comfortable around them and enjoyed being with them in social circles if that occurred. Obama on the other hand absolutely did not and always thought that there was a hidden agenda or ulterior motive behind every request from the military. Gates did feel that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden did want to help military families and that both Bush and Obama were very kind and generous to the troops regarding their needs. Gates gave great praise to Rice and Hilary Clinton and enjoyed working with both. He however did not care for Biden or some of Obama's staff and felt that Biden had never been correct about anything to do with foreign policy and that with his perpetual bluster could give bad advice. Gates also absolutely detested Congress although dutifully attended all necessary meetings. He felt that the greatest doves in Washington oddly enough wore uniforms and that there were a fair amount of "fire breathers" in both the White House staff and Congress who just did not understand that war should be the option of last resort.There were some lengthy harangues in the book and sometimes I felt that this was the "hidden angry man" who had to bottle up his true feelings to be able to act with civility in his job - he loved the troops and that was apparent. McChrystal got the bum's rush from the Obama White House due to an article by a Rolling Stone writer and yet despite some unsubstantiated parts of the article - McChrystal would not defend himself and fight for his job. Gates asked the Obama White House not to relieve McChrystal over this article but Biden was buzzing in the President's ear and there was never an easy relationship with Obama and McChrystal from day one due to Obama's biases regarding the military itself. Even Petraeus who Obama liked better was held at arms length. I think Gates had had quite enough of Obama's cronies and inner circle and their irreverent, zero protocol and absolute total lack of knowledge of institutional traditions - and above all their rudeness and meddling in foreign affairs which they had no knowledge of. Gates even stated that he had to have generals forward incessant calls from low level White House staff to generals (never heard of before in previous administrations) so that these generals would not be bothered with the incessant micro management of even the most mundane of issues. Gates' own relationship with both Obama and Bush was businesslike and neither president was liked or feared by Congress unlike LBJ, Ford, Reagan or Bush 41. They both had few friends in the Swamp. An interesting book which gives the backdrop to so many events dealing with both Afghanistan and Iraq. I listened to this book on audible and there was also a chapter in the audible version which was a live interview with Gates himself about the book. Worthwhile read.More: I have to say that this sentence bothered me a lot as it did the Washington Post writer - not a great commendation of Obama on military matters although Gates did say that both Obama and Bush were very concerned about the wounded, etc. However to me it shows little concern and zero connection to the soldiers who were serving in Afghanistan at the time. Troubling and unfortunately I believe an honest assessment on the part of what Gates observed. Stunning."He recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in the White House Situation Room: “As I sat there I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”Source(s) for the Note: The Washington Post and Robert Gates in DutyUpdate: One thing that I would like to add is that the Rolling Stones journalist who wrote the article which finished off McChrystal's career was Michael Hastings who died in a fiery high speed car crash in 2013.

  • Cheryl
    2019-03-17 16:04

    After reading this book I can’t express how much I like and respect Robert Gates. In the first part of the book there are two sections called "Becoming the Soldiers’ Secretary" and "Walter Reed". I actually had to get a box of tissues because I was crying while I was reading. The caring and dedication that Gates has for all these young people, his Aggies (he was President of Texas A&M when George W Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense) and the soldiers who serve our nation is deeply moving. I enjoyed many parts of Gates’ memoir but there were definitely sections where my attention wandered. I skimmed the sections involving fights over funding (the difficulty of operating the Pentagon with short term continuing resolutions from Congress rather than an official budget was clear), details of how he fought to get MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicles for our soldiers in Iraq (he fought hard and got them saving many lives) and the back and forth over just how many brigades to include in the Iraq surge and when and where to deploy them. These sections were just too tedious for me. That said, I must say that based on the media hype about this book, I expected a scathing critique of the Obama administration which really was not the case at all. Gates was VERY fair in both his criticism and his praise of Obama and Hillary Clinton. His biggest criticisms and frustration were in regard to Congress. The ridiculous dog and pony shows where members of Congress do their best to get a sound bite on the evening news and personally attacked him drove him crazy. (Gates: “The temptation to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quite on the spot recurred often. All too frequently, sitting at that witness table, the exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was a widely shared fantasy throughout the executive branch. And it was always enjoyable to listen to three former senators – Obama, Biden and Clinton – trash talking Congress”) If you are not inclined to read this book, I would recommend reading the last chapter called "Reflections." His insights and candor are excellent.The last two paragraphs of the book demonstrate the character of Robert Gates:“The day before I stepped down as secretary, I sent a message to every man and woman wearing the American military uniform because I knew I could not speak to or about them at my farewell ceremony without breaking down. I repeated my now familiar words: “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 the 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.”

  • Christopher
    2019-03-06 22:44

    This book was released to much fanfare and critical praise earlier this year and I had the privilege of getting a signed copy from him at a book signing at that time. And in spite of what you may have heard of some of his criticisms of Congress and Vice President Biden, this is one book you really shouldn't miss. In fact, this is one of the best memoirs of a person's time in government that I have ever read. Brought into the Defense Department by Pres. Bush in December 2006, Sec. Gates had already had several decades of experience beforehand in Washington bureaucracy and politics, culminating in his time as head of the CIA in the early 1990s. And he stayed on with Pres. Obama in one of the first times a sitting Secretary of Defense was ever asked to transition into a new cabinet headed by the opposition. But, through this personal account, it is clear to see why. Sec. Gates comes off as humble, wise, warm-hearted, and even humorous, especially during his time under Pres. Bush. He seems to have a firm grasp of what the military's capabilities are and when military force should be used. And though, yes, he does have some sharp criticism of Congress and Vice President Biden, it is always about their views or the way they are acting, never about the man (or men and women) personally. He genuinely seems to get along with people, even when he is disagreeing with them vigorously. And through it all comes a sense his sense of duty to the troops he sent into combat and the country he serves. It is genuinely refreshing to read about people in government who genuinely care about people and the greater good in real and not just abstract ways. Something else that is hard to ignore is the differences in the Bush and Obama White Houses. While Sec. Gates gives credit to both Presidents Bush and Obama to go against the advice of their advisors on key decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's White House comes off as more politically minded and suspicious of the military than Bush's. Although, Sec. Gates, in his concluding chapter, points out that he came into the Bush administration after the 2006 midterms when most of the ideologues (he never names them or anybody he personally dislikes. Classy.) had left and that Bush was no longer worrying about reelection whereas the Obama administration was just starting, inexperienced, dealing with severe domestic crises (which Sec. Gates, surprisingly, doesn't touch too much on), and worried about reelection. In short, this is a fascinating, insightful, and sometimes funny look at what it takes to serve your country in one of the most demanding jobs in the world. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in politics and public service.

  • Joseph
    2019-03-24 15:37

    Finally, a book written by a Washington-insider that isn't written by an individual looking for his/her next job, or a self-serving account at how enlightened the author is, or one that is full of pablum bromides that is devoid of reality. Gates actually comes across as a reflective, conflicted, and ultimately self-sacrificing individual. This book actually should be read by business managers as a primer on how to manage complex businesses. Gates isn't afraid of firing individuals, including high-ranking civilian and military leaders, outlines how highly matrixed organizational charts can lead to poor decision-making, and demonstrates who his most important customer was-- the men and women who bravely serve our country. Gates is also to be commended for (mostly) subjugating his ego in service to two very different administrations and is proof of the maxim that it's amazing what can be accomplished if one isn't worried about getting credit for a decision. The only time I felt where Gates' ego impacted his performance is when he comments about the youth of the Obama administration and their "real life" inexperience. His superiority-like tone in this section of the book belies an otherwise self-reflective man who can objectively criticize his own performance without demonizing others. His writing, although not particularly literary ( I doubt readers will be highlighting lines of gorgeously written prose), is still poignant because of the emotions, like agony, Gates feels when sending young men and women into battle and seeing gaping wounds in soldiers, some laying limbless in military hospitals, and watching flag-draped coffins at funerals with distraught parents. He also makes the reader feel outrage at some of the bureaucracy wounded soldiers had to face when claiming their just due benefits and the profane conditions that soldiers had to endure at Walter Reed Hospital like decaying infrastructure before stirring enough outrage before improving services. It's also a reader's delight to see some of the media-constructed phoniness of some of our leaders get punctured by Gates, both democrats and republicans, and the absurdity of politicization that runs amuck in Washington. No, I am not preturnaturally disposed politically toward Gates, but his balanced, humane account along with his selfless attitude toward our troops not only makes me respect and admire his service, but also makes me highly recommend this well-written and thoughtful book.

  • Betsy Ashton
    2019-03-10 19:41

    Robert Gates' book provides extraordinary insight into the behind-the-scenes working of two presidencies. The title alone is telling: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Not a Secretary of Defense, but a secretary at war.Nowhere in this book does Gates forget to remind us he served in the Department of Defense when the U.S. was conducting two unpopular wars. Nowhere does he denounce the two presidents he served as SecDef, Bush 43 and Obama.Gates details his support for his troops in nearly every interaction he has with the White House and Congress. He is critical of the White House under both presidents, often railing against principals who have really very little experience with the troops, micromanagement and political realities where budgets are approved or not based not on the actual needs of wartime reality. In most cases, math trumped approved strategies.Late in a book that would have benefited from tight editing, he takes on Congress: "Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations, micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country--this was my view of the United States Congress." He pulls few punches.Gates is an angry man. He is also a fair man, taking responsibility for his actions and fighting for the troops.

  • Jen
    2019-03-16 22:06

    Note that this is a long book - nearly 600 pages. It also starts off really slow - but does pick up a bit in the middle and end. If it weren't so slow and tedious at times, I would have given it 4 stars.I didn't know very much about Robert Gates before reading this, other than he served as Secretary of Defense at the end of Bush 43's presidency, and for part of the first term of Obama's presidency. After reading this, I'm highly impressed with commitment to troops, how he felt so strongly about doing his personal best to take care of them, and how hard he worked to not let the system (military, hierarchy, Congress, etc.) not to not only not fail them, but do better than the status quo. I was impressed with how many trips to Afghanistan and Iraq he made, and how while there, he made countless trips to remote bases to meet with ordinary troops - not just commanders and the foreign country's presidential leaders. He also made wounded warrior care a priority, and oversaw vast improvements in that area.Another takeaway was that Gates wasn't a big fan of either Cheney or Biden, but had great respect for both Secretaries of State he worked with, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

  • Shaun
    2019-03-15 15:54

    Three (3) stars may be a bit generous here. While Robert Gates will go down in history as the finest Secretary of Defense/War this country has ever had, he isn't the greatest writer. This biography was a bit slow and confusing in parts and his opinions did not always appear to match his actions. No question he truly cared about and loved the men and women in uniform who serve our country so well. Secretary Gates assuredly was better than Donald Rumsfeld and was the man of the hour when our country needed someone like him the most.I wonder how well of a President or Vice-President Mr. Gates would be?! Probably on par with the sixth President he served, George Herbert Walker Bush. Secretary Gates deserved the Medal of Freedom he was awarded and then some. Our country owes a great deal to Mr. Gates and his awesome and patient wife, Becky. Rest well, Ol' Warrior for you have surely deserved it!

  • Craig Fiebig
    2019-03-21 21:50

    The five stars are as much for importance as quality. This is a book anyone interested in politics, defense, foreign policy or history should read. Gates is one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Defense in US History. Uniquely he oversaw the conflict of two wars AND served two different presidents from both major political parties. The experiences he describes are rich lessons for all branches of our political spectrum. His book will likely surprise people predisposed to dislike or even (sadly) distrust him. He will also offer 'lessons' to those presuming he shares their political views. Read him. You will be all the wiser for the time invested, albeit probably frustrated with his capacity to force you to rethink your current perspective.

  • Adam Ashton
    2019-03-03 17:56

    I enjoyed Gates' Bush years in his memoirs, the ones where he's prodding the Pentagon and cracking heads over Walter Reed. I also liked the affection he clearly had for his counterparts in the Bush cabinet. His perspective on the Obama years was less compelling to me. I wouldn't call it score settling because he acknowledges when people had success going against his advice. He just does not seem to like the Obama cabinet. Very strange where he takes offense to Obama beginning a classified meeting by saying make sure you get this right for your memoirs. And then Gates did exact le what he implied he would not: memorialize the meeting in his own book.

  • Kaitlin Oujo
    2019-03-11 20:55

    A really outstanding memoir. If you are interested in U.S. foreign policy and military affairs, you must read this book. It is aggressively open, rich in detail, and extremely introspective. Everything you would want in a SecDef memoir. Robert Gates is not happy.... he has a lot of feeling that are being worked out in this book, and his frankness is really refreshing. I enjoyed reading his personal stories and exchanges. I also really appreciate his in-depth coverage of the presidential and DOD decision making processes.

  • Nick
    2019-02-28 19:48

    This book (along with Rumsfeld's) is must read to get a good look behind the curtain of the national security bureaucracy. It shows even good men with the best intentions have little luck steering an organization with so much money and so many entrenched interests.

  • Bull Durham
    2019-03-08 16:47

    Couldn't get past 100 pages or so. Mr. Gates needed a ghost writer. I don't think his chronological approach worked. I'm sure the material is good and I'm sure there are some great insights, it just isn't presented well. I cannot spare time for such an uninspired read. Crassly stated, it had no juice.

  • Erwin
    2019-03-06 22:55

    I actually finished this up a few months before writing this review... Unfortunately, I can't recall many details of this book. The main thing that comes to mind is Mr. Gates excellent relationship with his students at Texas A&M (where he was Univ President) and his sadness for the sacrifices that his students and other young people made during the last dozen years of US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.Even as Secretary of War, it seems that Gates was just a middle manager in a very large organization. He identified many problems (such as treating injured soldiers) but it was not easy to get those problems resolved. I suppose better to be the mayor of a very small town or the leader of a small company than to be even one row from the top in a very large organization... he simply did not have much freedom to act and implement obviously needed ideas.One general pet pieve he had was just how phony members of Congress can be, giving speeches about the need to cut the Budget, but when the Pentagon or Secretary of Defense wanted to cut unneeded weapons or unwanted programs, the same members of Congress would fight tooth and nail to keep those unwanted projects if it affected their home state... Yet anyone who follows US history and politics should not be surprised by this revelation.Overall, Gates is a good organization man. Seems that any president would be lucky to have a man like Gates on their team... The problem with Gates is the same problem with most good organizational men in the US or any military... As discussed in How Great Generals WinThe great general is like Janus...One face is simple, open, and honest so that the troops love you and the military respects you (and promotes you).One face is cunning, you must deceive your enemy, mystify him, surprise him.Most generals are simpletons because the structure requires the simple, open and honest, yet they only think of direct solutions - which will not work if a) enemies are evenly matched or b) your enemy is a great general.Some of the greats include Attila the Hun, Tamerlane, Alexander of Macedon and his Art of Strategy Genghis Khan the Emperor of All Men, Charlemagne, Hannibal, Hannibal and Me or any of the others discussed in How Great Generals Win... Men like Gates aren't and will never be on that list.