The Magazine

Man at War

A defense chief straddles two worlds.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By ELIOT A. COHEN
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In that classic movie on wartime leadership Twelve O’Clock High (1949), Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) reluctantly recommends the relief of his good friend, Colonel Keith Davenport, who commands the stricken 918th Bomb Group flying out of England in 1942. Savage’s diagnosis of the failure of the unit goes to the commander, and his unsparing critique of Davenport is “over-identification with his men.” The commanding general has Savage relieve Davenport—with considerable success, as the new commander whips the unit into shape and expresses a brutal lack of concern about the air crews’ fates (“Consider yourselves already dead”). But this is just a mask, and by movie’s end, Savage is a psychological wreck, catatonic and broken. He has succumbed to the same syndrome that destroyed his predecessor.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Robert Gates (June 22, 2010)

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Robert Gates (June 22, 2010)


Gregory Peck is no longer around to play Robert Gates, and the casting would be incongruous: the handsome, athletic leading man portraying the pudgy, late-middle-aged spy and university-president-turned-warlord. But the phenomenon is the same: The seemingly ruthless, poker-faced leader with seawater in his veins is so torn up by the losses to his unit that, by the end, he has become a psychological casualty. Gates’s subsequent efforts to downplay this side of Duty do not do justice to this book: His self-portrayal is of a man who goes home most nights to write letters of condolence to the families of the fallen, have a stiff drink, and weep. For those who saw him in government—I did, but only from a distance, and only episodically—the contrast with the impassive bureaucrat we thought we knew is stunning.

Even buried in the reminiscences about interagency processes that yield obscure policy outcomes is a self-portrait of a deeply emotional, and often very angry, man. He hates his job. He despises most members of Congress. He is at war (his word) with his own bureaucracy. He is furious at close allies. He despises micromanaging White House staffers and loathes the arrogant political advisers and sycophantic neophytes who surround the second president he served, Barack Obama. He compares himself to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war—and not to the fire-breathing bully who terrorized generals, drove the bureaucracy, and thereby helped achieve victory, but, rather, the wartime leader on the edge of a nervous breakdown who wailed in anguish, “God help me to do my duty! God help me to do my duty!”

One might think these a desirable set of attitudes in a secretary of defense: compassion for the troops, hostility to those whose own efforts and character do not measure up to the sacrifices of those troops, humility about his own abilities to discharge overwhelming responsibilities. Alas, they are not. Of course, admiration, compassion, and self-awareness are entirely appropriate to such a position; but a brooding concentration on the realities of wounds and death is disabling, as is excessive modesty. Gates himself acknowledges this: The memoir’s very title, Duty, reflects his insistence that he accepted a position he found distasteful to the extreme, and that he remained in it only out of a sense of obligation to the country. Why, then, did he leave it? Because “I could afford the luxury of sentiment, and at times, it overwhelmed me.” By the end of the volume, he informs the reader that he intends to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, among his soldiers. It is an extraordinary decision. By way of contrast, let it be noted that Colonel Henry Stimson, who served on the Western Front in World War I and was secretary of war during World War II, reposes in a churchyard in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

Gates’s submergence in pity and grief is not an isolated phenomenon. It was common in Iraq and Afghanistan to see generals visiting their units with breast pockets stuffed full of laminated pictures of the men and women who had fallen while under their command. It is not that such an acute, personal awareness of loss makes leaders timid and reluctant to use force: As Gates points out, he was the guy signing the orders that sent soldiers into harm’s way. It is, rather, that by exposing themselves to an incessant clawing of private sorrow and remorse while simultaneously maintaining the composure of the impassive professional, the generals, like the secretary, set up an impossible psychological conflict.

In Michael Shaara’s epic The Killer Angels (1974), Robert E. Lee makes this point:

To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. This is .  .  . a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.