July 6, 2018

A Treasure-trove of History

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Robert M. Gates. New York: Vintage Books, 2014

Were Robert M. Gates today an official in the Trump Administration, he would certainly be considered an “adult”. He, if anyone, is a complete national-security professional, who has always served his country when called upon to do so. For him, it has been a “duty” to serve.

Gates was appointed the 22nd US Secretary of Defense in 2006 by President George W. Bush and is the only defence secretary in US history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president. Barack Obama was the eighth president, Republican or Democrat, Mr Gates served.

Mr Gates started his illustrious government career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a Russian-affairs analyst just two days before Soviet and other Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague, in then Czechoslovakia, in August 1968. After that, he contributed to various intelligence agencies and to the National Security Council (NSC) before ending up as Director of the CIA in 1991.

His book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, focuses on the years 2006–11, when he served first Bush and then Obama. He had left government in 2002 to settle himself into a comfortable job as president of Texas A&M University, when the call came from president Bush to serve, and without hesitation he considered it his duty to serve.

In the best of times, the Pentagon is not an easy place to manage, let alone to lead. It has a direct effect on about three million people and its annual budget is well over 600 billion US dollars. On top of that, while Mr Gates served as Secretary the United States was waging two wars far from its shores, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.

Gates’s book is a veritable treasure-trove for those interested in contemporary history. He dutifully took copious notes of his years at the Pentagon, and he produces a detailed and credible narrative of decision-making at the top of the only military superpower in the world. His nickname in the Pentagon was “Yoda”; just like the celebrated character in Star Wars, Gates is short in stature but—also like the Jedi Grand Master in the movie—he masters the Force, too.

The shaping of US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the last moments of Osama bin Laden, are recorded in the book with photograph-like precision. Over and over again, Mr Gates returns to his duty to support the men and women who did their duty on the battlefield. About 4,000 US soldiers lost their lives while Gates served as defence secretary. The way he returns to this theme is sincere, and the fact that he could not do more to help the soldiers to do their duty clearly bothers him.

Secretary Gates does not shy away from calling a spade a spade. Special treatment is reserved for members of Congress, particularly those on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He calls them “those shenanigans on the Hill who distract me from moving forward with my plans … they are insolent, mean and stupid”. Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t escape Mr Gates’s ire, either. For him, Biden “has been wrong in almost all major foreign policy decisions in the past four decades”.

According to Secretary Gates, President Barack Obama was a “weak politician who readily changes his opinions … agreements with the House are valid just as long as they are politically useful”. Quite surprisingly, it is only Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, who Gates likes and respects, although Gates’s politics are Republican.

How much attention does he pay to such small countries like Sweden, Finland and Estonia? There is not a word in the book on Sweden or Finland. Estonia is mentioned twice; both times to give a special mention to those countries which in Afghanistan experienced the hardest fighting and faced the greatest sacrifices.

I suppose, in Secretary Gates’s terms, these were the countries that were there to fulfil their duty.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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