Book review: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

This is my first political biography in years since this genre is particularly my cup of tea but I was sold by the following two points:

(1) Insights into Iraq and Afghanistan wars – Having watched both wars from afar and hearing so much from the media, what better than hearing from the ex-secretary of defense himself.
(2) Robert Gates unique position – Not only did he helm two wars but he was also the only secretary of defense who served two consecutive presidents from opposing parties (George W Bush’s last two years and Barack Obama’s first two years).

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates though was a dense read that took awhile for me to get through, it was overall, an enjoyable and juicy read, almost like going through an exposé that dishes the dirt inside the White House administration and Pentagon.

“I did not enjoy being secretary of defense. As soldiers would put it, I had too many rocks in my rucksack: foreign wars, war with Congress, war with my own department, one crisis after another. Above all, I had to send young men and women in harm’s way.”

In this biography, Gates was astoundingly forthcoming, almost uncomfortably frank that it rankled opinions across the political spectrum. Whether was he ethical in ratting on his ex-bosses will be discussion for another day, yet I cannot deny it was interesting to learn about his experience working with notable political figures.

A photoshopped image of the control room during the live killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. This picture was based upon an original picture by White House photographer Pete Souza. This image was mentioned in Robert Gates’ memoir where he mentioned he had no idea why was he pictured as the green lantern.

There are some parts he did sound self-aggrandizing when justifying his actions and decisions; while at other times, he reminded me of a college frat boy espousing his dislikes for certain people in an in-your-face manner. As much as he was no fan of Vice-President Joe Biden and House of Representative Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, he saved his most critical comments for congress and its politicking.

“Congress is best viewed from a distance – the farther the better – because up close it is truly ugly. And nearly every day I was secretary, I was dealing with Congress up close.”

“I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisition-like treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of congress across the political spectrum… All too frequently, sitting at the 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.”

Apart from domestic political battles, Gates was also deeply involved with the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his approach towards tackling counterterrorism with flexible counterinsurgency strategies and tactics in a mammoth organization were insightful. In light with recent news headlines about Islamist group ISIS/ISIL ravaging Iraq, Gates comments were very prescient about the deteriorating situation in the country.

“While I am open to alternative ideas about our future strategy and tactics in Iraq, I feel quite strongly about one point: developments in Iraq over the next year or two will, I believe, shape the entire Middle East and greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come.”

One thing that shone beautifully through this memoir was Gates wicked sense of self-deprecating humor that lifted the weightiness of the content. For instance, check out his caption for the picture below:
Robert Gates memoirOn a final note, he ended off his memoir with what I thought was a touching decision.

“I am eligible to be buried at 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.”

If you have read Bob Gates memoir, let me know what you thought about it down in the comments section below.

4 thoughts on “Book review: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

  1. hi! I came across this blog thru a wordpress suggestion.

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  2. A nice try at political biography. You could have explained more on the rationale behind Iraq invasion, the lack of WMD, and some more on what happened during the Laden snuff out operation. Such insider information is not that easily available in the public domain. Thanks.

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