Duty (Gates)

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M. Gates, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
640 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307959478

From the former secretary of defense, a strikingly candid, vividly written account of his experience serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House in 2006, he thought he’d left Washington politics behind: after working for six presidents in both the CIA and the National Security Council, he was happy in his role as president of Texas A&M University. But when he was asked to help a nation mired in two wars and to aid the troops doing the fighting, he answered what he felt was the call of duty.

Now, in this unsparing memoir, meticulously fair in its assessments, he takes us behind the scenes of his nearly five years as a secretary at war: the battles with Congress, the two presidents he served, the military itself, and the vast Pentagon bureaucracy; his efforts to help Bush turn the tide in Iraq; his role as a guiding, and often dissenting, voice for Obama; the ardent devotion to and love for American soldiers—his “heroes”—he developed on the job.

In relating his personal journey as secretary, Gates draws us into the innermost sanctums of government and military power during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, illuminating iconic figures, vital negotiations, and critical situations in revealing, intimate detail. Offering unvarnished appraisals of Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Presidents Bush and Obama among other key players, Gates exposes the full spectrum of behind-closed-doors politicking within both the Bush and Obama administrations.

He discusses the great controversies of his tenure—surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan,  how to deal with Iran and Syria, "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," Guantánamo Bay, WikiLeaks—as they played out behind the television cameras. He brings to life the Situation Room during the Bin Laden raid.

And, searingly, he shows how congressional debate and action or inaction on everything from equipment budgeting to troop withdrawals was often motivated, to his increasing despair and anger, more by party politics and media impact than by members’ desires to protect our soldiers and ensure their success.

However embroiled he became in the trials of Washington, Gates makes clear that his heart was always in the most important theater of his tenure as secretary: the front lines. We journey with him to both war zones as he meets with active-duty troops and their commanders, awed by their courage, and also witness him greet coffin after flag-draped coffin returned to U.S. soil, heartbreakingly aware that he signed every deployment order. In frank and poignant vignettes, Gates conveys the human cost of war, and his admiration for those brave enough to undertake it when necessary.

Duty tells a powerful and deeply personal story that allows us an unprecedented look at two administrations and the wars that have defined them. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 25, 1943
Where—Wichita, Kansas, USA
Education—B.A., College of William & Mary; M.A., Indiana University;
   Ph.D., Georgetown University
Awards—Presidential Medal of Freedom
Currently—president of William & Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia

Robert Michael Gates is an American statesman and university president who served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011.

Gates served for 26 years in the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and under President George H. W. Bush became Director of Central Intelligence. Earlier, he was also an officer in the United States Air Force, and during the early part of his military career he was recruited by the CIA.

After leaving the CIA, Gates became president of Texas A&M University and was a member of several corporate boards. Gates served as a member of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission co-chaired by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, that studied the lessons of the Iraq War.

Gates was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush as Secretary of Defense after the 2006 election, replacing Donald Rumsfeld. He was confirmed with bipartisan support. In a 2007 profile written by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Time named Gates one of the year's most influential people. In 2008, Gates was named one of America's Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. He continued to serve as Secretary of Defense in President Barack Obama's administration.

In 2011 Gates retired from government. “He’ll be remembered for making us aware of the danger of over-reliance on military intervention as an instrument of American foreign policy,” said former Senator David L. Boren. Gates was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Obama during his retirement ceremony. In his Washington Post book review of Gate's 2014 memoir Duty, Greg Jaffe said that Gates "is widely considered the best defense secretary of the post-World War II era."

Since leaving the Obama Administration, Gates has been elected President of the Boy Scouts of America, served as Chancellor of the College of William & Mary, and become a member of several corporate boards.

Gates was born in Wichita, Kansas, the son of Isabel V. (nee Goss) and Melville A. "Mel" Gates. He attained the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the BSA as an adult. He graduated from Wichita High School East in 1961. Gates is also a Vigil Honor member within the Order of the Arrow, Scouting's National Honor Society.

Gates then received a scholarship to attend the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1965 with a B.A. in history. At William & Mary, Gates was an active member and president of the Alpha Phi Omega (national service fraternity) chapter and the Young Republicans; he was also the business manager for the William and Mary Review, a literary and art magazine. At his William & Mary graduation ceremony, Gates received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award naming him the graduate who "has made the greatest contribution to his fellow man."

Gates went on to earn an M.A. in history from Indiana University in 1966. He completed his Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University in 1974. The title of his Georgetown doctoral dissertation is "Soviet Sinology: An Untapped Source for Kremlin Views and Disputes Relating to Contemporary Events in China." He received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both William & Mary (1998) and the University of Oklahoma (2011).

He married his wife Becky on January 7, 1967. They have two children.

Iran-Contra scandal
Gates was nominated to become the Director of Central Intelligence in early 1987. He withdrew his name after it became clear the Senate would reject the nomination due to controversy about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Because of his senior status in the CIA, Gates was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran-Contra Affair and was in a position to have known of their activities. In 1984, as deputy director of CIA, Gates advocated that the U.S. initiate a bombing campaign against Nicaragua and that the U.S. do everything in its power short of direct military invasion of the country to remove the Sandinista government.

Gates was an early subject of Independent Counsel's investigation, but the investigation of Gates intensified in the spring of 1991 as part of a larger inquiry into the Iran/contra activities of CIA officials. However, the final report of the Independent Counsel for Iran-Contra Scandal, issued on August 4, 1993, said that Gates "was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran/contra affair and was in a position to have known of their activities. The evidence developed by Independent Counsel did not warrant indictment..."

Gates was nominated, for the second time, for the position of Director of Central Intelligence by President George H. W. Bush on May 14, 1991. This time he was confirmed by the Senate on November 5 and sworn in on November 6, becoming the only career officer in the CIA's history (as of 2005) to rise from entry-level employee to Director.

Post CIA
After retiring from the CIA in 1993, Gates worked as an academic and lecturer. He evaluated student theses for the International Studies Program of the University of Washington. He lectured at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Indiana, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, and the College of William and Mary. Gates served as a member of the Board of Visitors of the University of Oklahoma International Programs Center and a trustee of the endowment fund for the College of William and Mary, his alma mater, which in 1998 conferred upon him honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

In 1996, Gates published his autobiography, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. He also wrote numerous articles on government and foreign policy and was a frequent contributor to the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Texas A&M
Gates was the interim Dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 1999 to 2001. In 2002, he became the 22nd President of Texas A&M. As the university president, he made progress in four key areas of the university's "Vision 2020" plan, to become one of the top 10 public universities by the year 2020. The four key areas include improving student diversity, increasing the size of the faculty, building new academic facilities, and enriching the undergraduate and graduate education experience.

Public service
In 2004, Gates co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S. relations towards Iran. Among the task force's primary recommendation was to directly engage Iran on a diplomatic level regarding Iranian nuclear technology. Key points included a negotiated position that would allow Iran to develop its nuclear program in exchange for a commitment from Iran to use the program only for peaceful means.

At the time of his nomination by President George W. Bush to the position of Secretary of Defense, Gates was also a member of the Iraq Study Group, also called the Baker Commission, which was expected to issue its report in November 2006, following the mid-term election on November 7. He was replaced by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Secretary of Defense
After the 2006 midterm elections, President George W. Bush announced his intent to nominate Gates to succeed the resigning Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. Secretary of Defense. He was sworn in on December 18, 2006.

Under the Bush administration, Gates directed the war in Iraq's troop surge, a marked change in tactics from his predecessor. With violence on the decline in Iraq, in 2008, Gates also began the troop withdrawal of Iraq, a policy continued into the Obama administration.

On December 1, 2008, President-elect Obama announced that Robert Gates would remain in his position as Secretary of Defense during his administration, reportedly for at least the first year of Obama's presidency. Gates was the fourteenth Cabinet member in history to serve under two Presidents of different parties, and the first to do so as Secretary of Defense.

Under Obama
One of the first priorities under President Barack Obama's administration for Gates was a review of U.S. policy and strategy in Afghanistan. While he continued the troop withdrawals in Iraq, which already had begun in the Bush administration, Gates also implemented a rapid, limited surge of troops in Afghanistan in 2009. He removed General David D. McKiernan from command in Afghanistan on May 6, 2009, replacing him with General Stanley A. McChrystal—which the Washington Post described as signaling a switch from "traditional Army" to Generals "who have pressed for the use of counter-insurgency tactics."

In a February 5, 2010 article, Time magazine's Elizabeth Rubin noted that Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "forged a formidable partnership," speaking frequently, "comparing notes before they go to the White House," meeting with each other weekly and having lunch once a month at either the Pentagon or the State Department.

Gates officially retired as Secretary of Defense on July 1, 2011 and was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Obama during his retirement ceremony.

Post Obama
In September of 2011, it was announced that Gates had accepted the position of chancellor at the College of William and Mary, succeeding Sandra Day O'Connor. He took the office of the chancellor on February 3, 2012.

In 2012, Starbucks Corporation announced that Gates had been elected to the Starbucks board of directors. He will serve on the board's nominating and corporate governance committee. In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America announced that Gates had been elected to the National executive board. While on this board, he will serve as the national president-elect. In May 2014, he will begin a two year long term as the BSA national president. Randall Stephenson, chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T Inc. will serve under Gates as the president-elect. Gates will be succeeding Wayne Perry as the national president.

In January 2014, Gates criticized Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan in his autobiography, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, writing, "I never doubted [his] support for the troops, only his support for their mission."  (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/26/2014.)

Book Reviews
Robert M. Gates gives us a forthright, impassioned, sometimes conflicted account of his four and a half years as defense secretary in his fascinating new memoir Duty, a book that is highly revealing about decision making in both the Obama and Bush White Houses…. His writing is informed not only by a keen sense of historical context, but also by a longtime Washington veteran's understanding of how the levers of government work or fail to work. Unlike many careful Washington memoirists, Mr. Gates speaks his mind on a host of issues…[he] seems less intent on settling scores here than in trying candidly to lay out his feelings about his tenure at the Pentagon and his ambivalent, sometimes contradictory thoughts about the people he worked with.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

As I was reading Duty, probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever, I kept thinking that Robert M. Gates clearly has no desire to work in the federal government again in his life. That evidently is a fertile frame of mind in which to write a book like this one….The book is dotted with insider stuff reminiscent of the best of Bob Woodward's work
Thomas E. Ricks - New York Times Book Review

Touching, heartfelt...fascinating.... Gates takes the reader inside the war-room deliberations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and delivers unsentimental assessments of each man’s temperament, intellect and management style.... No civilian in Washington was closer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than Gates. As Washington and the rest of the country were growing bored with the grinding conflicts, he seemed to feel their burden more acutely.”
Greg Jaffe - Washington Post

A breathtakingly comprehensive and ultimately unsparing examination of the modern ways of making politics, policy, and war…. Students of the nation’s two early twenty-first century wars will find the comprehensive account of Pentagon and White House deliberations riveting. General readers will be drawn to [Gates’] meditations on power and on life at the center of great political decisions…. His vision is clear and his tale is sad. Gates takes Duty as his title, but the account of his service also brings to mind the other two thirds of the West Point motto: "honor" and "country."
David M. Shribman - Boston Globe

A compelling memoir and a serious history…. A fascinating, briskly honest account [of a] journey through the cutthroat corridors of Washington and world politics, with shrewd, sometimes eye-popping observations along the way about the nature of war and the limits of power.… Gates was a truly historic secretary of defense…precisely because he did get so much done…. His descriptions of how he accomplished these feats—the mix of cooptation and coercion that he employed—should be read by every future defense secretary, and executives of all stripes, as a guide for how to command and overhaul a large institution.
Fred Kaplan - Slate

Gates's confirmation was a repudiation of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, and his initial mission was to reverse a looming defeat in Iraq. As Gates, in this richly textured memoir, tells it, the Department of Defense had "alienated just about everyone in town" and the new secretary "had a lot of fences to mend." ... [H]is call for restoring "civility and mutual respect" is a cry from the heart.
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for Duty:

1. Robert Gates had no desire to take on the office of Defense secretary. First, why was he so reluctant; second, why did he agree to serve? Do you think his reluctance affected his conduct as head of Defense? Did it perhaps foster in him more objectivity, a greater sense of humility, less partisanship?

2. Twice in the memoir, Gates wonders why senior officers and others didn't come "screaming" to him, when he first took office, about the mess in Iraq. It's an interesting question—what are your thoughts?

3. Throughout the memoir Gates refers to the three distinct wars he had to fight: in Iraq and Afghanistan, within the Defense establishment itself, and with the U.S. Congress. Talk about each of those "wars"—

   • What were the issues?
   • What were the stakes?
   • What were the difficulties?
   • What were the outcomes?

   (This is an "overview" question, which pretty much covers the central idea of the entire book; in fact, it might be the sole question you tackle during your book discussion.)

3. What qualities did Gates bring to the office of the Secretary of Defense? From what you know of Donald Rumsfeld, Gates's predecessor, in what way did Gates's style differ? What most impressed you most about Gates's actions and/or personality?

4. How does Gates portray the major political figures of the day—starting, in particular, with each of the two presidents and vice presidents he worked under. Consider also Steven Hadley, Condi Rice (both in the Bush administration), Hillary Clinton (in Obama's administration), Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki, and Afghan President Karzai.

5. In an otherwise even-handed account, Gates reserves his sole displeasure for Congress, calling it at one point, "truly ugly." Talk about his experiences testifying before various committees and working to get budgets passed. Because we are privy only to Gates's point of view, it's hard not to side with his position and to view Congress as an irritating roadblock in the war effort. Yet, as Gates says himself (in a speech at West Point), Congress's oversight role is absolutely vital for democracy. Does Congress have an obligation to be skeptical of war operations...or should it be more compliant and unquestioning? Where should the line be drawn in a healthy democracy?

6. Talk about the two programs Gates initiated to get equipment to the field where it was most needed: the MRAP (IED proof vehicles to replace the vulnerable Humvee) and the IRS (Intelligence-Reconnaisance-Surveillance) drones and other cameras. What are some of the reasons Gates gives for why the troops did not receive the needed equipment? What was the military's rationale?

7. Gates is highly critical about the military culture and its "big war thinking." As a result, he says, "the difficulty of getting the Pentagon to focus on the wars we were in and to support the...troops in the fight left a very bad taste in my mouth (p.133). He also notes the ...

extraordinary power of the conventional war DNA...and of the bureaucratic and political power of those in the military, industry and Congress who wanted to retain the big procurement programs...and the predominance of big war thinking (p. 143).

Finally, he told West Point cadets that they must learn to "think and act creatively...in a different kind of world." He exhorted them to speak the truth to their superiors and to create an environment in which candor can survive (134).

How does Gates believe the military should evolve? What do he (and others) envision as the nature of future conflicts, and what kind of a military does he see as necessary for the military to prevail?

8. What are the difficulties Gates and other Defense chiefs have faced in trying to cut military budgets? (See p. 315 for one.) Why is it so difficult to trim projects? Can the military cut big weapons systems and still be ready for future wars?

9. In a press interview, Joint Chief of Staff General Mike Mullen called Iraq a "distraction" to the war effort in Afghanistan, something already sensed by many both in and outside the military. The remark was fairly damning of the administration. How does Gates view Iraq—as a distraction...or as a necessary fight?

10. Mullen angered both Presidents Bush and Obama by his frankness during press interviews. Does a president have a right to be served by loyal senior officers? Or do senior military officials have a duty to be frank to the American public? What are your thoughts? What do you think of Stanley McChrystal's conduct with respect to the Rolling Stone interview? Should he have been fired? What does Gates think?

11. Gates sees part of the Afghan problem as the "age-old" case of "too many high-ranking generals with a hand on the tiller" (p. 205). Talk about what he means and how that situation inhibited progress.

12. What other problems did Gates uncover regarding the progress of the war in Afghanistan. Aside from command structure, consider the problems of combat troop numbers, civilian reconstruction projects, intelligence gathering, and relations with President Hamid Karzai? (See especially pp.199-203 and pp. 335-344.)

13. Gates was unswerving in his love for the troops in the field and worked unstintingly on their behalf. At the end of his term, however, he questioned whether his feelings for them risked hampering his effectiveness as a leader (p. 594). What do you think? How much can a military commander be permitted to feel for the young men and women sent into battle?

14. Talk about the conditions uncovered at Walter Reed and the scandalous treatment for the returning wounded (pp. 109-114). How did things become so dire? What does Gates see as the underlying problems?

15. What do the terms "insurgency" and "counterinsurgency" mean? What are the differences between conventional combat operations and counterinsurgency? Consider, for instance, Gates's observations on his visit to Kabul in early December 2008 (p. 211).

16. Talk about the reasons Gates felt that General David McKiernan in Afghanistan needed to be replaced by General Stanley McChrystal?

17. Why did Gates come to see the democratization and modernization of Afghanistan as a "fantasy" (p. 336)? What were his prior experiences with Afghanistan and Pakistan which influenced his views?

18. What surprised you most, or shocked your most, in Gates's account of his five years as Defense Secretary? What have you taken away from reading this book: a better understanding of how military decisions are made, of the workings (or not workings) of military bureaucracy, of the shifting grounds of political life in D.C? What else?

19. Overall, how would you rate Robert Gates's effectiveness as secretary of Defense? Where did he succeed...and where did he fail (by his own admissions...or by others.)

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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