Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
by Robert M. GatesGates - Duty

If journalism is the first draft of history, Memoirs are the first draft of legends. Generally written with the ambition to cement the authors place in history, scorn their foes and embellish their achievements. Like most fiction writers however their stories fail to capture the public imagination and slowly fade away.

Not so with this one. Gates makes a push for his own iconography, beginning with the simple yet bold assertion of the title, yet for once this author achieves his target. While there’s a little bit of a boy scout style to some of Gate’s discussions about only being secretary of defence because of a sense of duty (to the country and the troops) and his annoyance at finding politicians practising politics, generally you can’t help but appreciate the man.

I was recommended this book by a US military official at the Pentagon as an excellent explanation of the building and how it (doesn’t) work. On this score the book is excellent, you get a real sense for the management and ideas of management that drove his time in office. Not only with his senior departmental staff, but up to the President and all the way down to how he sought to interact with the troops (civilian Defence officials seem largely missing-in-action from this story).

This is slightly less true for the discussion of issues. Most of the book is on Iraq and Afghanistan, but unless you have a very good knowledge of the conflicts you won’t get much out of the discussions, and then, if you do know about them in some detail, you probably know what you’ll find anyway. It was more telling what he didn’t tend to discuss, namely China and Asia. This might have been an editor’s cuts to keep the book with a main focus, but I suspect it also well represents the attention of the Pentagon from 2006-11. And probably through to today.

So Gates succeeds because he aim’s at a big easy target. He doesn’t claim to have ‘won the wars’ (though implies he avoided defeat in both cases), but simply sets out to establish his legend as one who was asked to serve, tried to do so in a pragmatic, decent manner and largely succeed at it. He never aimed as high as Rumsfeld in reforming Defence, but neither did he ever fall quite so far. There’s a reason this book is still in the bookshop shelves several months after release. It’s an easy and enjoyable read.

Gates is clearly sympathetic to Bush Jnr and very respectful of Obama. He has issues with both their staff and a handful of their judgements (which is where all the press attention was focused), but this is not only to be expected but welcomed. We want leaders who have their own views, press for them, identify where they disagree, but ultimately recognise that serving the country requires implementing and promoting as best you can the views of the democratically elected leaders.

That, more than any 19th century sense of patriotism to the country or ‘troops’, is the real modern version of ‘Duty’. One too easily forgotten, but hopefully well reminded to the many who pick up this book.

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