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)

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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.

That truth has not changed and will not, so long as countries wage war. It is up to leaders to recognize this truth, and to so manage their own internal equilibrium that the recognition of it does not overwhelm or disable them. There has been a good deal written about post-traumatic stress on the front lines; there is a similar phenomenon at the top of the military and civilian hierarchies, and, unwittingly, this memoir reveals a good deal of it.

Gates served two presidents well. His account of the later years of the George W. Bush administration is unremarkable and uncontroversial. He disagreed with the president on some things, but admired his determination and grit, recognized his intelligence, and, broadly speaking, accepted the tenets of his policy. This included, interestingly enough, an appreciation for the necessary role of ideals and values in foreign policy. Gates may have once worked for Brent Scowcroft, one of the most realpolitik of American statesmen, but he is more in the mainstream of thinking about American foreign policy. He had great regard for his colleagues, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, as well as his own immediate staff at the Pentagon.

Gates’s relationship with President Obama and his administration was far more fraught. He agreed to stay on—although one suspects he did so less reluctantly than he made out at the time, or even than he remembers. To most of those around him in the Bush administration, he seemed to be enjoying a job at which he was very good. But despite some compliments to Obama for having care in making decisions, intelligence, a cool head, and some level of personal concern for the troops, Gates is scathing about the president’s lack of interest in the wars in which he was engaged. Obama, in Gates’s telling, cared passionately about the suppression of military leaks and repealing the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy—and that was it. For the rest, Obama was “deeply suspicious of [senior officers’] actions and recommendations,” and considered time spent with them merely a necessary chore. 

More than one mother sent a son or daughter off to Iraq or Afghanistan doubting the wisdom of the conflict but drawing some comfort from the knowledge that President Bush was determined to win. It is hard to imagine the feelings of a parent doing the same when the commander in chief, by Gates’s reckoning, really did not care about winning: “When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander-in-chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission.” Obama, Gates makes quite clear, did not, and he was not about to pretend that he did. 

Gates acknowledges Obama’s courtesy to him, seeming at times to wish to soften what follows. For if the picture of Obama is, at best, ambivalent, the portrayal of the denizens of the White House who surrounded the president is almost unremittingly negative. Vice President Joseph Biden is, in so many words, an amiable (and, at times, not so amiable) fool who belligerently tells the generals that they “should consider the president’s decision as an order,” as if they were likely to view it as a suggestion. The White House staff are, in Gates’s view, a bunch of hacks and amateurs whose only concern is domestic politics. Indeed, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama admitted to each other that their despised predecessor’s Iraq surge really worked and that their refusal to acknowledge as much, and their own opposition to it, reflected mere political calculations.

The new team came to power as contemptuous of their predecessors as they were ignorant of the realities of war, though profound believers in “the power of Obama’s rhetoric.” The National Security Council staff felt free to run around their boss, retired Marine general James Jones, to the dismay of Gates, a former deputy national security adviser in the best-run NSC ever, that of President George H. W. Bush. And Obama did not do much to correct matters. He would join his team in their Situation Room bull sessions devoted to heaping scorn on the Bush administration, ill-informed and unprofessional behavior that caused Gates to wonder whether it had occurred to any of these wisecracking novices that they were being offensive to him and to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had played a large role in conceiving and implementing those policies

And towards the one professional who stayed on, retired lieutenant general Douglas Lute, Gates is not merely hard but uncharacteristically harsh. Lute, whom Gates had persuaded to abandon a promising military career in order to serve as Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, was a Gates ally during 2007-08. Having seen Lute up close, I can add that few public servants gave more of themselves, more honestly and faithfully, than Lute, though Gates rages against him for attempting to micromanage the war in Afghanistan. Gates, who clearly wishes not to lash President Obama too severely, is thus reverting to the classic trope of blaming the king’s evil counselors, when it is much more likely that the National Security Council staff behaved as it did because that was the way Obama wanted it. 

And, indeed, Gates’s argument along these lines often slips, such as when he admits that Obama came into office mistrusting the military, making no effort to get to know them and always suspecting them of boxing him in. In return, Gates talks of “White House double-crosses,” breaches of faith, and a president “who doesn’t trust his commander .  .  . doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” When Gates, or anyone else, speaks of the Obama White House, one has to remember that the White House is merely a building: The people in it are either doing what the president wants or what they think the president wants. And responsibility rests squarely with the commander in chief himself. If Gates damns anyone here, it is President Obama, whether he wishes to or not.

Which raises the question of why Gates published Duty now. Here, again, there are two Robert Gateses. There is the one who is outraged when the president makes a sour remark about those attending a meeting taking notes for their memoirs. And there is the one who, in fact, writes the memoir, and publishes it while the president is still in office. The publication of this memoir now is a breach of faith and a violation of propriety that is hard to understand. If Gates believes that Obama is a disastrous president, surely he should have published this book in 2012, when it might have influenced the presidential election. If he is merely (and appropriately) contributing to our understanding of history, he should have waited until Obama leaves office. If he thinks he can change the president’s modus operandi and worldview by publishing it now, he is deluding himself.

Gates’s strategic views are similarly conflicted. He acknowledges that the 2007 Israeli strike on a North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria was a tactical success and a strategic achievement for the Israelis, if not for the United States. But he remains outraged that they took such action against a mortal enemy seeking to acquire the most lethal of weapons. When Iranian crowds took to the streets to oppose the regime in 2009, Gates sided with the ever-cautious CIA analysts and State Department officials who said that speaking out would only make the regime worse. He admits, in retrospect, that his view was wrong—and at odds with American values. He advocated a strategy in Afghanistan that formally renounced nation-building while building up a powerful Afghan Army to defeat, or at least reduce to marginal importance, the Taliban. And yet he bemoans the lack of civilian contribution to the Afghan war while failing to explain how to build a strong and enduring military with a wreck of a civilian government behind it.

To dwell on these contradictions, however, would be to fail to acknowledge Gates’s great contribution and supreme gifts. For if Gates was neither organizer of victory nor master strategist, he was a superb administrator who took charge of a dysfunctional Pentagon. He saw that the Defense Department, most definitely including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in thrall to a “damnable peacetime mindset.” Soldiers might have begun wearing camouflage uniforms to work after 9/11—a comfortable but absurd practice, since none are likely to seek cover behind shrubbery or rocks in the Pentagon cafeterias—but peacetime practices and priorities persisted. Through a herculean effort, Gates forced the system to build and ship tens of thousands of purpose-built armored cars (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs) to Iraq and Afghanistan. Until then, the procurement bureaucracy had tinkered with armor of various kinds for the venerable Humvee, itself not much more than a souped-up version of the World War II Jeep. No amount of armor was really adequate for a vehicle that was not designed to handle mines bursting beneath it. Shame on the bureaucrats for failing to get the MRAP, or something like it, to the field in 2004 rather than in 2007—and everlasting credit to Gates for ramming it through. He saved American lives by the hundreds. 

Gates was a strong and steady hand at the Pentagon, but nothing became him so much as his willingness to hold senior officers and officials accountable by dismissing them from office. Whether it was due to scandalous treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed or mishandled nuclear weapons in the Air Force, Gates had no trouble firing generals or service secretaries. When Admiral Fox Fallon, whom Gates had appointed and liked, began criticizing what he believed to be elements in the administration looking for conflict with Iran, Gates gave him the axe. And, most impressively, he decided that he had to fire a good guy who had done nothing wrong—General David McKiernan, the American commander in Afghanistan—because, Gates concluded, McKiernan simply was not up to the job of waging that war. (In doing so, Gates discovered that it was the first case, since Korea, of a general being fired for not being up to a combat command—and to his credit, Gates did it the only decent way a boss should: in person.)

This curious memoir is many things: a contribution to the historical record, an interesting reflection on leadership at the top, and an unnerving warning about the personalities that will dominate American national security decision-making for three more years. It does not always reflect as well on its author as he might have wished, but that is because he is more honest than most memoirists. 

The title is well chosen. Whether or not he enjoyed being secretary of defense (he insists that he did not), it is abundantly clear that Robert Gates did not seek the position and accepted it reluctantly but unquestioningly for the reason explained in the title: duty. He discharged his responsibilities with energy, efficiency, honesty, and intelligence. His job was not to build a military for the next two decades but to keep the war effort together. In that, he succeeded, and he deserves the country’s thanks for it. He deserves, as well, some understanding of the psychic toll those accomplishments took on a man who ends his memoir by contemplating his eventual burial in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Eliot A. Cohen, counselor of the Department of State during 2007-08, is the author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.