Book review / Duty by Robert Gates

Duty: Memoirs of A Secretary at War
Robert Gates
Publication Date
January 14, 2014
Date Read
May 2014

      Robert Gates is a capable writer, able to easily take the storyline of his time as Secretary of Defense and separate it into themes each with their own timelines while maintaining a flow that helps illustrate the complexities of the role. Gates gives an interesting and close look into largest employer in the world by sharing senior tactical decisions used to support the mission. The many interactions discussed let you see how responsibility, accountability and military authorization are shared between bureaucrats and legislators and generals and lower officers. There is also a great amount of information and opinions about some our foreign relations with some friends (Russia?, Saudi Arabia, Israel?) and enemies (Pakistan). A close attention to timing and geography in the book, which includes many such details, versus the names and military ranks mentioned may even provide an unintentional disclosure of military capabilities of the US and other countries.

      Gates seems to take a reformer's attitude, while understanding that the legislature is required to make real change. While bemoaning lawmakers who vote on defense only to bring spending to their states, "Congress is best viewed from a distance". He carried out a "'zero-based' review of all Defense intelligence missions, organizations, relationships, and contracts" where each program should fight based on its own merits not because it already exists. However, he fails to present a zero-based strategy of US military involvement and instead defers to vague notions such as we cannot afford to lose or consequences will be huge like last time. His leadership of the CIA and experience with the Cold War and past US involvement in the Middle East is presented sparingly to help justify why the wars were maintained.

      For his first post-career memoir and for his level of experience, I was surprised to find a lack of candor in questioning the strategy and his uppers. For example, while specific senators are called out for defending wasteful in-state military spending (Patty Murray, Bill Young) he fails to discuss any perceived conflicts of interest from Dick Cheney favoring a pre-emptive first strike on Syria. Perhaps this is part of making sure the troops didn't do it for nothing that he asks of Bush's and Obama's speeches. I was also surprised in a lack of discussion of oil. I don't know anything about the influence of oil on the US's military decisions, but for a book over 600 pages focused on the middle east, it was interesting their major feature, oil, is mentioned only four times. Another omission lies in this quote "the [Iraq] war will always be tainted by the harsh reality that the public premise for invasion ... was wrong" (p 569), emphasis on the word public.

The rest of my reading list is at:


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