*Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War*

by on January 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm in Books, Current Affairs, History, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

That is the new Robert M. Gates book, which of course has been widely reviewed.  I was very impressed with this work.  I read it as a meditation on the question of what kinds of martial virtue (or lack thereof) are possible in our contemporary age, updating Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch through the medium of the reigns and rules of the two Bushes, Cheney, Rice, Obama (most of all), Hillary, Biden, and of course Gates himself with a bit of Petraeus tossed in.

Here is one excerpt:

I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting.  To his very closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran, Joe [Biden], you be my witness.”  I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.

And this:

As is usual when the president makes a momentous decision, the White House wanted key cabinet members blanketing the Sunday talk shows…As I was flying back to Washington on March 25, the White House communications gurus proposed I go on all three network shows the next Sunday to defend the president’s decision on Libya.  Exhausted by the trip, I agreed to do two of the three.  then I took a call from Bill Daley, who pushed me hard to do the third show.  I told Daley I’d make him a deal — I would do the third show if he’s agree to get funding for the Libya operation included in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) appropriation (the war supplemental).  I said, “I’ll do Jake Tapper if you’ll do OMB.”  Daley whined, “I thought it would cost me a bottle of vodka.”  I shot back, “Bullshit.  It’s going to cost you $1 billion.”  Daley had the last laugh.  The president and OMB director Jack Lew refused to approve moving the Libya funding into the OCO.  The Defense Department had to eat the entire cost of the Libya operation.

And finally, this:

As I had told President Bush and Condi Rice early in 2007, the challenge of the early twenty-first century is that crises don’t come and go — they seem to come and stay.

The book has come under a good deal of criticism for its revelations about a sitting president and commander-in-chief and for its communication of inside discussions, which presumably at the time were considered to be confidential.  I am not sufficiently informed about the appropriate norms to make a final judgment here, but I can readily imagine that Gates is in this regard quite in the wrong.  Good books are not always based on good behavior.  Furthermore, the overall portrait of Obama is, in my view, quite a favorable one and indeed I would say a profound one (the same cannot be said for Biden or for Congress).

1 stef January 25, 2014 at 3:11 pm

“I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.”

And then he did just that? That takes the cojones cake.

2 gwern January 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Maybe it’s self-mocking and ironic rather than earnest when read in full context?

3 Willitts January 26, 2014 at 12:56 am

Irony or payback?

4 Rahul January 26, 2014 at 2:18 am


5 Craig January 27, 2014 at 9:55 am

It is assuredly ironic. It is not deliberately so–it’s ironic in the way that writing a song about irony in which you never use the word correctly is ironic. As such, it might be the most revelatory passage in the whole book, though certainly not in the way Gates meant it to be.

6 Marie January 26, 2014 at 1:28 pm

I think it was a Peggy Noonan excerpt I read once where she rolled her eyes at the neighborhood women who said they held their tongues around her because they were afraid something they said might show up in writing. As if.

7 Michael January 27, 2014 at 11:10 am

The quotation needs a little bit more context, specifically, did the narrative give the details of the policy discussion, or not? If so, then, I guess ironic, but if Gates had some discretion in the preceding paragraphs, then it would reflect very poorly on Obama for thinking about “posterity” above the policy.

My guess is that it is a bit of both, Gates, probably outlined the policy disagreements, but left out a couple of the facts more sensitive to national security. So it may come across worse than it was… we won’t know unless we understand the full breadth of the original conversation.

8 andres January 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm

I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran, Joe [Biden], you be my witness.” I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.

Did you detect any sense of irony when he wrote something like this?

9 Boonton January 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

I guess our President failed to study the management style of the Great Republican Governor Chris Christee who respects his staff and gives them his undivided loyalty and trust. What could possibly go wrong when an Executive follows this policy!*

* This message is not my own, but from my friend Dave who invented a time machine two or three months ago. He got himself stuck in a time warp, he is able to send message a few months into the future (our present) but is only able to read a few of the headlines.

10 Thoreaux January 25, 2014 at 4:27 pm

And if Gates had never written this book nor ever been born… it would make no difference to the nation or history. There is no shortage of obedient bureaucrats to staff the Imperial State.

11 Art Deco January 25, 2014 at 5:53 pm

There is no imperial state.

12 The Other Jim January 28, 2014 at 10:26 am

… and we have always been at war with Eurasia.

13 Curt F. January 25, 2014 at 5:27 pm

For some reason I am unimpressed by the “good deal of criticism”, inasmuch as it is coming from a former Obama official who still serves on a Obama-appointed government advisory panel and who is married to Obama’s ambassador to the UN.

14 Jan January 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Your preoccupation with “protecting our troops and their families from further sacrifice” started to make the job too tough? A reason for resignation that only a truly compassionate public servant would state publicly, and repeatedly.

Obviously writing an honest and complete account of your service is an obligation to the people. Buuut while we’re here, might as well start cashing in ASAP! Cha-ching: the sound of dedication to the troops: http://www.washingtonspeakers.com/speakers/speaker.cfm?SpeakerID=930

15 Skip Intro January 25, 2014 at 5:47 pm

If these excerpts are indicative of the book’s quality, it’s difficult to see what’s “very impressive” about this “meditation”.

I look forward to the next promotion of an upcoming very good David Brooks column.

16 So Much For Subtlety January 25, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I love that the same type of people who are condemning Gates were praising Wikileaks.

And many of them were literally praising people who were reporting on Bush II while condemning Gates.

This is just part of the on-going Cold Civil War. Gates is doing one of their own in, so they attack him. With whatever comes to hand even if it makes them look like hypocrites.

17 Jan January 25, 2014 at 8:37 pm

I’d like it if they had mandatory no holds barred blogging for all members of the cabinet. They should be required to talk about the deliberations of the Administration in real time and air any grievances the day after they happen, or two days after if it happens on a Friday.

18 Willitts January 26, 2014 at 1:01 am

I don’t know where anyone gets the idea that policy deliberations have a privilege of secrecy. I’m not suggesting that classified information be released in real time, but the sausage making is part of the transparency we deserve and we were promised. You can respond, well then presidents won’t discuss the things that might be embarrassing or worsen. Dark thoughts are OK as long as they stay in the dark.

19 Rahul January 26, 2014 at 1:54 am

Legal privilege, no. But there are standards below that I guess? if you and me meet and decide implicitly or explicitly to keep it confidential, the legal protection may be non existent but ethics & honor says we’d probably still respect the confidentiality? I don’t buy absolute confidentiality but your overriding arguments have got to be substantial.

20 Noah Yetter January 26, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Ethics? Honor? In the presidential cabinet?

Are you serious?

21 Marie January 26, 2014 at 1:16 pm

I agree.

However, if an active duty general is not able to voice personal opinions even on overall topics I’d guess there’s the same sort of reasoning behind cabinet members, etc.

Of course, we’re talking about after the fact, but this is pretty soon after the fact.

22 Rahul January 26, 2014 at 1:48 am

Oh yeah? Why not just have CSPAN cover deliberations in real time then? Or put live cams in every meeting room?

23 Millian January 26, 2014 at 5:54 am

What? The same kind of people defending the Obama administration have been condemning both Gates book and Wikileaks. Rand Paul and friends praise both.

24 Yancey Ward January 26, 2014 at 11:09 am

Name one of the former who isn’t a conservative or a neo-con- those are the only people I have seen that condemned Gates’ book and Wikileaks.

25 Jan January 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Almost every elected member in Washington condemned Wikileaks, including Democrats. Come on.

26 The Anti-Gnostic January 25, 2014 at 9:23 pm

LOL. “…A Secretary At War.”

With all due respect to the men and women who go overseas to be killed or maimed for the right of Iraqis and Afghans to have … something … the US doesn’t fight real wars any more. And Robert Gates has never, ever been “at war.”

When the US military goes toe-to-toe with the militaries of China or Russia, or when the US follows the trajectory of Yugosavia, Libya and Syria into bloody, block-by-block street fighting and competition for sovereign power, then I might read somebody’s memoirs.

27 Willitts January 26, 2014 at 1:04 am

In my experience, people who begin a statement “with all due respect” are leading into the exact opposite. This was no exception.

A “real” war with China would be over in a matter of days. On the first day we would destroy their entire navy and air force. On day two, the mass slaughter of its army would begin.

28 John Smith January 26, 2014 at 1:17 am

To Willitts:

Doesn’t this support his point all the more? Namely, that US has reached such a state of military strength, that its wars are no longer “real” since it is in no danger of losing the conventional aspects of it.

29 The Anti-Gnostic January 26, 2014 at 8:27 am

On day three, as radiation wafts across the globe, the market for US Treasuries collapses … On day seven, US military and law enforcement leave their posts to go protect their families.

30 mulp January 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm

You mean like when NATO totally defeated the DPRK in “a matter of days”??

Or the US took over from the French and defeated the DRV in a matter of days?

Perhaps you are thinking that war with China would become nuclear within days and the US would win with 100 nukes wiping 100 million Chinese to China using only 50 nukes to wipe only 50 million Americans?

Even for a grind it out war, the US would fail to do more than a standoff even after five years because China’s industrial capacity is far greater than the US in the sectors required for war: steel fabrication, ship building, especially. A truce would result when the inevitability of MAD became clear.

The Chinese would sacrifice; since Reagan, Americans have clearly voted for no sacrifice because they want tax cuts, no shortages, and no draft. War requires all three as the entire nation sacrifices to win.

To criticize Congress is to criticize We the People.

No movement acted on the principle that the US must defeat terrorists unconditionally and must commit all the resources of the nation to victory.

The talk of “victory” was all free lunch talk.

31 JAB January 26, 2014 at 6:23 pm

It’s not as simple as you think. For example, here’s an interesting scenario that explains the US’s obsession with North Korea and with nuclear proliferation in general:

If you, off the mid-Atlantic coast, loft a relatively small nuke optimized for gamma production into the stratosphere by radar opaque and optically clear balloon, you can bring down the US government with an EMP. North Korea has tested a nuclear device that was a “dud” by normal nuclear warhead standards, but may have been just such an EMP warhead.

A conflict between the US and China, due to the insanely out-dated U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty of 1960, would provide enough geopolitical confusion to execute a false flag operation.

32 Marie January 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Over by Christmas? 😉

33 Boonton January 27, 2014 at 11:48 am

Even for a grind it out war, the US would fail to do more than a standoff even after five years because China’s industrial capacity is far greater than the US in the sectors required for war: steel fabrication, ship building, especially

I suspect in an all out war shipbuilding capacity ceases to be a factor once ports and shipyards are destroyed. At that point you’re left with the navies and there the US wins. China lacks the Navy and Army to project an invasion force overseas.

Where China’s capacity does become a factor is if the US tries to invade China ala D-Day. There a ‘grind it out’ war would probably result in a defeat for the US meaning the US might be able to hold onto some coastal areas but not successfully defeat all of China.

But the type of ‘absolute victory’ seen at the end of WWII is probably more an exception than a rule. In the east absolute victory was obtained with nuclear weapons and the willingness of the Emperor to decide to accept surrender. In the west absolute victory was generated by the USSR’s willingness to throw millions of lives against Germany.

There’s far too much speculation at play here, though. For example, could China maintain it’s central gov’t if the economy had to be shifted away from advaincing consumption standards in order to fight a bloody ‘grind it out’ war? China’s unity covers up deep divisions which are ‘paid for’ by a pseudo-social contract that tolerates communist party rule in exchange for expansion of free markets and the opportunity for prosperity.

It’s also hard to see both countries committing to a true ‘grind it out’ war that didn’t go nuclear at some point.

34 Rahul January 26, 2014 at 1:42 am

Indeed. And only if the fighting involves swords and muskets like real men are supposed to fight.

35 The Anti-Gnostic January 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm

And actually involving an existential threat to the nation as opposed to pretextual nation-building, democracy-spreading or whatever it is we spend billions of dollars a month fighting for these days.

36 Marie January 26, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?

37 The Anti-Gnostic January 27, 2014 at 6:29 am

One of the bizarre things about 21st century America is how unfashionable it is to think that the American government should advance exclusively American interests. Thus, President Barack Hussein Obama nearly had US troops dying in Libya and Syria for the cause of Wahabbist Islam. (Actually, in Libya, he was successful though on a far smaller scale than he wanted). In fact, that was the very justification for unleashing war in North Africa and the Levant: it won’t advance a single American interest!

Think of all the speechifying you hear about American troops dying for “freedom” or “democracy.” Anybody who talks about dying “for America” or for “his people” would be dismissed as a hopeless rube. Just some dead-ender like Phil Robertson, clinging to his guns and religion.

Nobody seriously believes the troops were fighting during the decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan for their country, because it makes no difference to the US whether Iraq and Afghanistan even exist–any time we want, we can wipe them off the map. We actually spend billions of dollars not wiping them off the map.

38 Boonton January 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Thus, President Barack Hussein Obama nearly had US troops dying in Libya and Syria for the cause of Wahabbist Islam

Oh yes, why the regimes of Qadafi and Assad were/are so wonderful and great that only a Wahabbist could possibly want anything but!

39 Boonton January 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm

More seriously, the Middle East is a lot more complicated than Wahabbist=bad. For example, Syria is an ally of the Iranian regime and one of Israel’s main adversaries. The bulk of it’s people are not Wahabbists but Wahabbist Saudi Arabia would rather see a different regime because when Iran is not making trouble for Israel, it’s an advocate of Shi’ite resistance to the Sunni regimes in places like Saudi Arabia. Likewise the Lybian regime did mellow out in the last decade but the fact remains it was one of the few state regimes to directly sponsor a terrorist attack on the US and it’s allies and had been let off the hook till that point. Here I think the long one strategic interests for the US is to demonstrate that we will have a long memory about such things…at least when the party involved is a state rather than an informal non-state group like Al Qaeda.

Saying that advocating regime change in Syria is calling on Americans to die for the ’cause’ of Wahabbist Islam is a bit like saying Americans called to fight Germany in WWII were fighting for Stalinism. Technically true in the sense that Stalin was in a better position after WWII than before, but, shall we say, missing the point.

40 You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille January 25, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Starting slightly off topic, recently 2 of the stars of the 20 most watched TV shows of my childhood died on the same day (approximately 15,000.00 days after the shows went off the air, btw, the professor from the island and Reuben from the Shirley Jones show). The lifetime earnings of Mr Gates (a fairly non-charismatic lifetime eight-figure earning individual who would have been fired after one appearance on a comedy show) would probably have been higher, maybe doubled or tripled, including by maybe an additional 15 million or so (imagine a thousand dollars a day, multiplied with little effort, for every day since the Partridge family went off the air), over the next few years, if he ignored recent mistakes, some of which he was “on board” with, and decided to “tough” it out as a completely Oprah-friendly Biden-friendly Hillary-friendly McCain-friendly Obama-friendly US apparatchik. As one of the many commenters here who has a feeling for big numbers and for statistics, I venture to say, with little fear of contradiction, that Mr Gates really really really really feels he has to speak up to a degree, that he knows this book will cost him big bucks in the long run, and while he ultimately deserves as much criticism as any other USAF OTS grad who wandered into a job too big for him and “picked a fine time” to make mistakes, his thoughts on what things he thinks he did well and what things he thinks he did poorly, are far from prima facie useless. Also, to the apparently-critical-of-US-soldiers-and-fanboy-of-“streetfighting armies” commenter who thinks that “real wars” are limited to a few of his or her favorite countries, while I have nothing against the countries you mention, I sort of (but not really) envy your innocence about the facts regarding how hard life is for the majority of the children of God on this cancer-ridden crime-ridden ideology-ridden disease-ridden earth. How nice it would be to have splendid heroes who are the few on this Earth who have to face serious and painful military challenges, and who are so much better than everyone else on this earth, who have no real challenges in their life!

41 Lucille January 26, 2014 at 10:10 am

If you are right about Gates’ calculus, then the push back, the dishonor, and the complaints about him now are to be expected (and may well be deserved) … one might hope the dashes of irony in the book are sign that he understood that too. It is impossible to attack the system and be of the system (not going to please anyone), so he made a choice (but there is no reason to think that choice won’t payoff well too). At least he had the presence of mind to point out some of his mistakes too. These memoirs are insufferable (and easy to dismiss) when the writer was only superhero in the room, always.

42 Therapsid January 25, 2014 at 11:36 pm

“Furthermore, the overall portrait of Obama is, in my view, quite a favorable one and indeed I would say a profound one (the same cannot be said for Biden or for Congress).”

Tyler Cowen continues to revel in proving how amoral and unprincipled he is.

The man’s a coward. He will never, ever take a controversial stand against the powers that be, on behalf of justice, liberty, or the common man.

43 Jan January 26, 2014 at 7:41 am

Oh, you mean his beliefs and goals don’t line up with your worldview?

44 mulp January 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm

“The man’s a coward. He will never, ever take a controversial stand against the powers that be, on behalf of justice, liberty, or the common man.”

You mean like you have just refused to “take a controversial stand against the powers that be, on behalf of justice, liberty, or the common man.”

What is your controversial stand??

That a total security state is required to stop all injustice?

Or that all bad people must have total liberty to prove they are not merely bad, but evil, and only then will they be brought to justice, but only after 9 go free for lack of proof of certain guilt for every who is convicted?

That others should sacrifice in war while you take your tax cuts and go shopping?

Or the common man is both drafted and taxed more in order to share the sacrifice of war?

I have not read Gates nor heard him, but I wonder if Gates has given We the People a free ride. Does he think Congress in its disdain for duty does not reflect the will of the We the People? If Gates got to ask citizens randomly picked to address his requests, with them putting their own money and lives in the game, would they peel off $20 on the spot with the understanding that would result in everyone else being required to do likewise?

45 Rocky January 26, 2014 at 1:46 am

George bush is a war criminal.

46 Rahul January 26, 2014 at 2:16 am

Why? And if so, why not Obama?

47 prior_approval January 26, 2014 at 3:45 am

The distinction being that instigating offensive war is a hanging offense – as those executed for practicing it in Japan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Military_Tribunal_for_the_Far_East) and Germany (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Military_Tribunal) discovered.

From the first link – ‘”Class A” crimes were reserved for those who participated in a joint conspiracy to start and wage war, and were brought against those in the highest decision-making bodies; “Class B” crimes were reserved for those who committed “conventional” atrocities or crimes against humanity; “Class C” crimes were reserved for those in “the planning, ordering, authorization, or failure to prevent such transgressions at higher levels in the command structure.’

Though possibly, one could see Bush as being like Hirohito, that is, out of the effective loop of the decisions ostensibly made on their behalf. That the top leadership of the United States ‘participated in a joint conspiracy to start and wage war’ against Iraq is common knowledge at this point.

Though none of its members have ever written a book ‘updating Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch’.

And as a side note on former CIA director Gates – the book was pre-approved, of course, as is standard practice for all CIA employees, current or former.

48 ladderff January 26, 2014 at 11:53 am

Only if you lose.

Grow up.

49 prior_approval January 26, 2014 at 11:59 am

The Germans have a word for it – Siegerjustiz.

They also have a word for what seems to be your view – Realpolitik.

Surprisingly, even though they have words for it, the Germans lost a major war to a nation that, wrongly or not, used to hold itself to higher standards.

Much like the previous American pride concerning never using torture, starting with the figure that the British National Army Museum called the greatest commander to face Britain –

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” – George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775

Things change over time, of course.

50 Ape Man January 26, 2014 at 12:37 pm


What nation used to hold itself to higher standards? I hope you don’t mean the the US. That would be uncharacteristically pro-American of you and false at the same time. I am not as anti-US as you often seem to be, but even I can’t bring myself to believe that the second Iraq war was started for worse reasons than the Spanish-american war or the war with Mexico. And that is not even talking about Vietnam.

51 prior_approval January 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm

‘What nation used to hold itself to higher standards? I hope you don’t mean the the US. That would be uncharacteristically pro-American of you and false at the same time.’

The U.S. used to hold itself to higher standards.

There would be nothing ‘uncharacteristically pro-American’ about pointing out that torture has never, until recently, part of the open American practice of treating prisoners.

Other parts of America I profoundly respect, and which other countries in my experience fall far short of, includes such things as the 1st Amendment and the national park system (though apparently, I was unaware that Theodore Roosevelt was a national socialist). Pointing out where the U.S. falls short is not ‘un-American’ – unless ones buys into a Bircher style perspective on America.

52 TMC January 26, 2014 at 5:39 pm

We were still at war with Iraq from the Desert Storm.
Iraq repeated violated terms it agreed to so we resumed the fighting.

53 The Anti-Gnostic January 27, 2014 at 6:31 am

Yes. That would have been the great and good war to determine whether Iraqi Arabs or Kuwaiti Arabs got to sell the oil under that spit of sand known as Kuwait.

54 The Anti-Gnostic January 27, 2014 at 6:37 am

What’s the German term for “we won so we get to kill you?”

55 Max January 26, 2014 at 6:30 am

And nobody was shocked by the notion that

A) they believe the 1 billion is THEIR money
B) They throw it around as if they are peanuts. For a publicity gig..

56 Ape Man January 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I was not particularly bothered by that section because I play these games with taxpayer money myself albeit on a much smaller scale and with characters that are not quite as sleazy. The problem with bosses is that they always want you deliver them the moon and they never want to give you any money or resources to get it done. It is always a struggle to get the money to do the things that you were told to do. Now if Gates had decided to do something on his own initiative that cost a billion dollars and then tried to get funding for it that would be a different story.

The real scandal in my opinion is that Gates felt that the people whose sole job was to pay politics were people who had more power them himself (a sitting sectary in accordance withe constitution) to ask for money.

57 Boonton January 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Happens all the time in large organizations. In fact, it’s probably a good thing on balance since it gets departments to work together on shared goals rather than just compete against each other.

58 The Other Jim January 28, 2014 at 10:28 am

>the overall portrait of Obama is, in my view, quite a favorable one

Ah, but that’s never good enough for the NYT crowd, is it?

Kiss the ring or be ostracized. Speaking truth to power is oh-so-2007.

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