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Duty (Gates) - Discussion Questions

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

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
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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