By Tom Cushing
Much Ado About "Duty"Uploaded: Jan 13, 2014
For a book that's not yet available for purchase, "Duty," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' memoir about his service under eight Presidents, has caused quite a stir. Predictably, most of the immediate, breathless commentary has sought to confirm political preconceptions among the hyper-partisan Beltway broadcast media. We, and he, probably should have seen it coming; it undoubtedly deserves better treatment.
It was not Mr. Gates' intent, as an historian, to unseat Perez Hilton as tell-all columnist-du-jour. But I've always found great wisdom in Eleanor Roosevelt's observation that "small minds talk about people, good minds are interested in events, and really excellent minds occupy themselves with ideas." Cable news got the book first, and obliged the reptile brains of its audience with a heaping helping of gossipy small-talk.
Gates is the perfect foil for both sides in the propaganda wars of the broadcast media. He is a Republican by inclination, a high-achieving Midwesterner by birth; he holds a Georgetown PhD, and, as an academic, he led Texas A&M University during the 1990s. He has been in-and-out of the CIA and elsewhere in government throughout his career, serving Administrations of both Parties. Appointed DoD Chief in 2006 by President Bush, he was famously held-over by Mr. Obama -- as a matter of wartime continuity, as well as a demonstration of the kind of bi-partisanism the new Prez hoped to instill.
He left the current Administration after 3 years, for two stated reasons: first, he had personalized the job. He realized that he had come to approach decisions without the detachment he believes is necessary to make hard calls choices that are inevitably denominated in lives lost. Second, he found himself increasingly frustrated with the political processes of the Obama White House staff, especially their disrespect for channels and their inclination to glom credit and deflect blame.
As to the latter concern, it may have contained elements of conflicting political philosophies in a Democrat-led Administration, heightened by inexperience of a new management team in their jobs, and made worse by the times: the impassioned onslaught of the loyal Opposition. I'll also speculate that there may have been what I'll call generational factors regarding pace and process. He was a Boomer working with a White House full of 30- and 40-somethings, including his boss. It's something I've noticed myself, as my offspring's generation makes-over the world in its image. They do things differently, often in ways I find annoying. Is it surprising, then, that these factors would lead to frustration?
The lefties and righties each got ample, small-caliber sound-bite ammo from the Kansas Republican in Obama's court. He called the Incumbent his "most deliberative" President, and stated that the OBL assault mission nod was the single most courageous decision he witnessed during his long government tenure. He also worried, however, that the Prez was not passionately committed to the Afghanistan war, didn't trust his generals and hated his Afghan counterpart Karzai (wait that's a criticism?).
As usual, talk radio's bloviator-in-chief got it backwards, saying that the presence of complimentary material gives credence to the criticism. Really? When a member of the other party writes, critiques are called "business-as-usual." It's the unexpected compliments take on more meaning.
The "lack of detachment" rationale is even more intriguing. It is important to have military experience as a resume element in Presidential candidates and their very most senior staffers. That's not for substantive weapons knowledge or tactical experience, but precisely because those who have experienced war are most likely to understand its costs in those very human terms.
Ideally, I want my Commander-in-Chief to have experienced the trauma, the dire unmanageable risks and the individual tragedies inherent in armed conflict, at an essential level the better to give him/her pause before committing other people's children, and some other nation's people to those awful processes. Far from disqualifying Gates from his mission, those experiences informed it -- and I regret that they torments simply became too much for him to bear.
Indeed, Gates seems to have written the book to contribute to an understanding of the institution of war the better to manage it and keep it in its proper place as a last resort, not first. As he told NPR's incisive Steve Inskeep:
"… if you look at the book as a totality, it's about war. It's about getting into wars, how you get out of wars, about the risks of launching military operations whether it's in Libya or Syria or Iran. It's about dealing with China. It's about relations between the president and his senior military. It's about defense reform and how we ought to be spending our defense dollars. It's about the role of the Congress in all of this and the impact of the dysfunction in Congress in all of these areas."
That, it seems to me, will be the source of enduring value in "Duty." It's not the often-petty People politics. If those 600 pages succeed as a history, to illuminate Ideas -- the processes by which we go to war, stay in wars and eventually end them, those learnings may endure far beyond the news cycle. Gates' book would then well-serve legacies of the fallen warriors whose memories haunt Mr. Gates, as well as the interests of those who soldier-on.