Book Monitor

Memoirs of a Secretary at War 

Robert M. Gates

In December of 2015, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled "The kind of president we need." A synopsis of his op-ed might say that Gates hopes for a truthful, resolute, problem-solving, and unifying President, who understands that power is divided among three branches of government.

In this election season, it would be prudent to heed the words of this man who served the last two presidents, as well as four others. It's also a good time to review his #1 bestselling work, which the New York Times review of books calls "probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever."

Duty offers an inside look at the workings of government in the form of a serious historical account. It's a first-hand record of Gates' hectic days spent meeting with everyone from citizens, to soldiers, to foreign heads of state. This behind-the-scenes look at the complexity of government and interdepartmental politics focuses on relationships between the legislative and executive branches of government, from within the Pentagon.

Gates successfully worked as SecDef under two very different presidents, managed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and addressed policy changes within the military. While the author is a loyal man who wouldn't trash anyone he served or with whom he served, he does offer up honest appraisals. Robert Gates says, "I felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good only for as long as they were politically convenient."

In the area of national security, Gates says that there "was considerable continuity between the last years of the Bush administration and the first years of Obama's presidency, as loathe as partisans were (and are) to admit it."

Gates says that while Bush showed emotion at military events like Medal of Honor ceremonies, Obama never did. He says Obama occasionally displayed anger, but the only "passion" he saw from him was over the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gay service members. Gates says that for Obama, "Changing that law seemed to be the inevitable next step in the civil rights movement." He writes, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission."

What comes across quite clearly is Gates' love and respect for the military service members he sent to war, his quest to do right by them, and the heavy personal toll that responsibility took on him.

(Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 618 pp., $35)