- - Friday, January 17, 2014

By Robert M. Gates
Knopf, $35, 640 pages

Some memoirs are written to explain or apologize, and some are written to settle scores. Although Robert M. Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” settles some scores, my sense is that he wrote it to get his whole experience as secretary of defense behind him. He certainly doesn’t need to apologize. By most accounts, he is one of the best to serve as defense secretary since the post was created in the middle of the last century; he is certainly the best wartime leader we have had in the job.

Mr. Gates accepted the job from President Bush in 2006 when the war in Iraq was at its nadir and the conflict in Afghanistan was unraveling. By the time he left in 2011, Iraq was under control and Afghanistan had at least stabilized, and he dramatically improved the condition of medical care and evacuation for wounded service members. He also accomplished the near-impossible by reining in Defense Department expenditures, which had spiraled badly out of control since 2001. He did not seek the job and came increasingly to despise it. His tenure wasn’t perfect, and he owns up to his many mistakes.

What Mr. Gates obviously regrets is that the venal and self-serving nature of many in Congress and on the White House staff falls far short of the example set by our Founding Fathers and the nation’s leaders in most of our past wars.

Mr. Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gen. David H. Petraeus and a few in Congress are gently handled as Mr. Gates thinks they did their best in the difficult circumstances of a two-front war. President Obama, who kept Mr. Gates on after he became president, does not fare as well. He describes Mr. Obama as disciplined and decisive, and thinks that the current president is trying to be pragmatic about the difficult world that he inherited. The president gets credit for supporting the troops and their families. However, the author’s primary criticism is that the president did not believe in the strategy in Afghanistan that he approved. Although Mr. Gates does not make the analogy, his description of Mr. Obama resembles Gen. Ambrose Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Like Burnside, the president clearly felt hemmed in. Unlike Burnside, Mr. Obama felt trapped by his own military.

Vice President Joe Biden comes off worse than the president. Mr. Gates feels that his obsessive, liberal distrust of the military poisoned the president’s relations with his senior generals. He contends that Mr. Biden has been wrong on nearly every national security issue for the past four decades.

However, the author’s strongest criticism is leveled at the current state of the institution of Congress. Unsurprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are seen as archvillains, his criticism of the current state of both the House and the Senate is unsparing, and his criticism is bipartisan. The lack of vision and self-serving nature of the crop of congressmen that have come along since the 2006 election has made Congress one of the most despised institutions in the country, and Mr. Gates explains how that happened in excruciating detail.

Mr. Gates may have had to put up with the political hacks in Congress and some particularly obnoxious White House staffers, but he would not tolerate fools in the Defense Department. Quiet and soft-spoken with a wry sense of humor, Mr. Gates fired more generals and senior civilian Pentagon officials that anyone else since World War II. To their credit, both Presidents Bush and Obama backed him up in these exercises in accountability. As this memoir shows, Mr. Gates can be ruthless when crossed.

Mr. Gates has been a public servant for four decades under eight presidents. I think that he should have let time heal wounds before writing his book, but it was obviously an exorcism of the demons that he acquired while writing over a thousand condolence letters to the families of our fallen warriors. In my view, it’s an indulgence that he has earned. It was obviously a painful book to write, and he has been successful in making the reader share his pain. I’d recommend it to anyone considering going into public service as a cautionary tale.

The people who need to read this book probably won’t. The self-serving political hacks on both sides of the aisle have already had their public affairs flacks hard at work trying to discredit the work. Sober reflection is not in the nature of most of these people. The country is poorer for it.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps officer, was a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

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