Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. By Robert M. Gates. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 618 pp.
Memoirs from public officials typically are most instructive in presenting one person's perspective on key events during the time of service and less helpful in appreciating preexisting policy constraints as well as the restrictions of the electoral cycle. Because he served two consecutive presidents as secretary of defense, and is the only defense secretary to serve two commanders in chief from different political parties, Robert M. Gates has an unusual opportunity to present that broader perspective. His insightful assessment of defense policy making under George W. Bush and Barack Obama informs scholarly understanding of key national security debates and policy choices in the twenty-first century.
The book title, Duty, captures the overarching theme well: Gates was not keen to serve as defense secretary or to stay in the office for four-and-a-half years (late 2006 to mid-2011), but he did so because he wanted to work for the troops who sacrifice so much for the United States. The pressures of the job often became overwhelming, especially in Washington--Gates writes that he "did not enjoy being secretary of defense (p. 465), and he refers to his tenure as a "deployment to the Washington combat zone" (p. 468). During his daily, predawn run, each time Gates would pass the Lincoln Memorial, he would ask, "How did you do it?" (p. 220). For Gates, "the only thing that kept [him] going was getting out of the Pentagon and being around the troops" (p. 465). With the United States at war throughout his tenure, Gates was an integral advisor to key decisions about sending increased troops to Iraq for Bush and to Afghanistan for Obama.
Under Bush, Gates participated in and implemented key decisions about the 2007 troop "surge" in Iraq, conflicts with Russia, Syria, and Iran, increasing support from North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in Afghanistan, and managing Pentagon battles over hardware, intelligence, support for wounded soldiers, and more. Gates worked well with the president professionally, but he writes that they "were not close personally" (p. 95), perhaps in part because of Gates's close ties with former President George H. W. Bush, whom he had served as director of Central Intelligence. Gates describes the second President Bush as "intellectually curious" (p. 94) and "a man of character, a man of convictions, and a man of action" (p. 96). In the...