Duty (Review)


Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M. Gates, 2013
640 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
March, 2014

"One damn thing after another" is the way Robert M. Gates described a typical day at the helm of Defense. Being secretary was a job he didn't want and one he didn't like once he got there, but his love for the soldiers, and sense of commitment to them, trumped any personal desire.

That love, at times personal and nearly obsessive, served as the overarching theme of Gates's tenure at Defense and also of his memoir. In reading his 640-page blow-by-blow "report," we can only be grateful that someone—and, in this case that someone was at the very top—paid such close attention to the needs of the "kids" on the front lines.

He fought for them within the miliary, battling a mindset addicted to "big wars" and conventional weaponry. He fought for them in Congress, requesting more troops to fill out the lines. What he confronted—on those two fronts alone—is dismaying, sometimes shocking: defense decisions made on the basis of politics and a bureaucracy bloated to the point of unresponsiveness.

Though Gates himself admits he wasn't always successful, he was successful where it counted. He pushed through production of MRAPs to shield the troops from roadside bombs (IEDs); he rounded up more and better survellience equipment; and he reacted immediately to address the scandalous care at Walter Reed.

What's more, he seemd to do all this with a remarkable equanimity—never high-handed, rarely explosive, and always willing to listen to other views. He was respected by all, Republicans and Democrats alike, serving two presidents from both parties. And his memoir is impressive for its balance: he is never (well, almost never) partisan, he takes few (two I can think of) potshots (Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden), and he writes respectfully of those who dissented.

This is a dense, highly detailed, slow moving book—a thorough review of Gates's four-and-a-half-year tenure. For a full understanding of the progress of two wars and especially the men (few women) who led it, Duty is indispensable. Like Gates who agreed to serve in order to honor those who placed their lives at risk, reading this book is not much to ask.

As a book club, think of dividing it up into two months: the Bush years and Obama's. And while you're reading, do take notes...you'll want to. This is monumental and momentous work.

See Our Reading Guide for Duty.

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