Book review

‘Duty’ by Robert M. Gates

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arriving at Combat Outpost Andar in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, in 2011.
Jason Reed/Reuters/File 2011
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arriving at Combat Outpost Andar in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, in 2011.

Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates’s memoir, scathingly critical of contemporary Washington, already has roiled the capital. He’s at the top of the news for his criticism of President Barack Obama (consistently uncommitted), Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (consistently wrong) and Congress (consistently irresponsible). But there’s considerably more to his book than the headlines.

The title, “Duty,’’ is simple and describes the man and what motivates him. The subtitle, “Memoirs of a Secretary at War,’’ is multidimensional and describes his life between 2006 and 2010 — when he directed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when he conducted wars with Congress, when he mounted a war against Defense Department bureaucracy, and when he was locked in internal wars in two administrations.

It is enough to take your breath away, and the result is a breathtakingly comprehensive, and ultimately unsparing, examination of the modern ways of making politics, policy, and war.


Gates, the only figure to take up the helm of the Pentagon under a president of one party and relinquish it under a chief executive of another, is not exactly a partisan, though he makes it clear he was more comfortable with George W. Bush, who appointed him, than under Barack Obama, who inherited and retained him. And, what is more, he says that of the two commanders in chief he served, Bush was more comfortable with the military than Obama.

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“Bush seemed to enjoy the company of the senior military,’’ Gates writes. “I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.’’

In various capacities, Gates worked for eight presidents, but what screams out from these 640 pages — the casual reader could do with a book a third this length, though historians eventually may profit from the whole package — is his notion that whom he really worked for was neither the president nor congressional leaders but the men and women who served under him, in ground combat operations, in the air, and at sea. He speaks openly and often of his “love’’ for these individuals, and he concludes his memoir by saying that upon his death he wants to be buried with those who fell in the Afghan and Iraq wars in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, for, as he puts it, the “greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.’’

The book ends with that sentence, but Gates’s tenure in what he calls his “unimaginably powerful position’’ ended because he believed that his efforts to safeguard those troops “was clouding my judgment and diminishing my usefulness to the president.’’

What emerges from these pages is a sense of life in Washington, the partisanship, the pettiness, and especially the parade, endless and remorseless, of meetings, so many that the chief of the most powerful fighting force in history found himself bored, insisting on having lunch alone so he would have 45 minutes a day when he didn’t have to talk to anyone. Of those meetings he says, unforgettably: “[S]ometimes we chewed the cud so long that it lost any taste whatsoever.’’


And then there were the overseas meetings, such as the mind-numbing Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas. “I detested these huge conferences,’’ he admits. “They are boring beyond words, and little ever results.’’

The Bush portrayed here is thoughtful, intelligent, diligent, “a mature leader who had walked a supremely difficult path’’ after the terrorist attacks of 2001. He was, in short, “at ease with himself and comfortable in the decisions he had made,’’ though Gates is critical of Bush’s with-us-or-against-us instinct.

By contrast, his relationship with Obama was, as Gates puts it, “quite strong, but it was always a business relationship.’’ What Obama lacked, in his view, was “passion, especially when it came to the two wars,’’ though he rates Obama “the most deliberative president I worked for.’’

Students of the nation’s two early 21st century wars will find the comprehensive account of Pentagon and White House deliberations riveting. General readers will be drawn to his meditations on power and on life at the center of great military decisions. Here is where the book may be most illuminating; Gates speaks often about the emotional toll the job took, especially as he tried to weigh the moral imperative to protect American troops in Afghanistan with the political imperative not to escalate the US commitment there.

Indeed, the appearance of “political’’ as a persistent adjective in Washington increasingly grated on him, especially in the Obama years. He deplored how the members of the new administration “seemed to lack an awareness of the world they had just entered,’’ and he chafed at the prevailing view among them that “everything was awful, and Obama and his team had arrived just in time to save the day.’’


In the end he came to dislike the anger he felt within himself and wondered what had prompted it. His answer is illuminating:

“It was because, despite everyone being ‘nice,’ getting anything of consequence done was so damnably difficult even in the midst of two wars . . . [O]ver time, the broad dysfunction in Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason, and conciliation.’’

He was, as he put it, “the outsider’’ in the Obama administration, and “a geezer’’ as well. True on both accounts. But his vision is clear, and his tale is sad. Gates takes “Duty’’ as his title, but the account of his service also brings to mind the other two thirds of the West Point motto: “honor’’ and “country.’’

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at