Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

by Robert M Gates


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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates

From the former secretary of defense, a strikingly candid, vivid account of serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House, he thought he’d long left Washington politics behind: After working for six presidents in both the CIA and the National Security Council, he was happily serving as president of Texas A&M University. But when he was asked to help a nation mired in two wars and to aid the troops doing the fighting, he answered what he felt was the call of duty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307959478
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/14/2014
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 459,792
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Robert M. Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011. He also served as an officer in the United States Air Force and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before being appointed director of the agency by President George H. W. Bush. He was a member of the National Security Council staff in four administrations and served eight presidents of both political parties. Additionally, Gates has a continuing distinguished record in the private sector and in academia, including currently serving as chancellor of the College of William and Mary. He holds a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.

Read an Excerpt

Author’s Note
This is a book about my more than four and a half years at war. It is, of course, principally about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial victories in both countries were squandered by mistakes, shortsighted- ness, and conflict in the field as well as in Washington, leading to long, brutal campaigns to avert strategic defeat. It is about the war against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, those responsible for our national tragedy on September 11, 2001. But this book is also about my political war with Congress every day I was in office and the dramatic contrast between my public respect, bipartisanship, and calm, and my private frustration, disgust, and anger. There were also political wars with the White House, often with the White House staff, occasionally with the presidents themselves—more with President Obama than with President Bush. And finally, there was my bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense and the military services, aimed at transforming a department organized to plan for war into one that could wage war, changing the military forces we had into the military forces we needed to succeed.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama were, respectively, the seventh and eighth presidents I worked for. I knew neither man when I began working for them, and they did not know me. To my astonishment (and consternation), I became the only secretary of defense in history to be asked to remain in the position by a newly elected president, let alone one of a different party. I came to the job in mid-December 2006 with the sole purpose of doing what I could to salvage the mission in Iraq from disaster. I had no idea how to do it, nor any idea of the sweeping changes I would need to make at the Pentagon to get it done. And I had no idea how dramatically and how far my mission over time would expand beyond Iraq.
As I look back, there is a parallel theme to my four and a half years at war: love. By that I mean the love—there is no other word for it—I came to feel for the troops, and the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility I developed for them. So much so that it would shape some of my most significant decisions and positions. Toward the end of my time in office, I could barely speak to them or about them without being overcome with emotion. Early in my fifth year, I came to believe my determination to protect them—in the wars we were in and from new wars—was clouding my judgment and diminishing my usefulness to the president, and thus it played a part in my decision to retire.
I make no pretense that this book is a complete, much less definitive, history of the period from 2006 to 2011. It is simply my personal story about being secretary of defense during those turbulent, difficult years.
Chapter 1
Summoned to Duty
I had become president of Texas A&M University in August 2002, and by October 2006 I was well into my fifth year. I was very happy there, and many—but not all—Aggies believed I was making significant improvements in nearly all aspects of the university (except football). I had originally committed to staying five years but agreed to extend that to seven years—summer 2009. Then my wife, Becky, and I would finally return to our home in the Pacific Northwest.
The week of October 15, 2006, the week that would change my life, started out routinely with several meetings. Then I took to the road, ending up in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was to give a speech on Friday, the twentieth.
Just past one p.m. that day I received an e-mail from my secretary, Sandy Crawford, saying that President Bush’s national security adviser, Steve Hadley, wanted to speak to me on the phone within an hour or two. Hadley’s assistant was “quite insistent” that the message be passed to me. I told Sandy to inform the assistant I would return Steve’s call on Saturday morning. I had no idea why Steve was calling, but I had spent nearly nine years at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC) staff under four presidents, and I knew that the West Wing often demanded instant responses that were rarely necessary.
Hadley and I had first met on the NSC staff in the summer of 1974 and had remained friends, though we were in contact infrequently. In January 2005, Steve—who had succeeded Condoleezza Rice as George W. Bush’s national security adviser for the second Bush term—had asked me to consider becoming the first director of national intelligence (DNI), a job created by legislation the previous year, legislation—and a job—that I had vigorously opposed as unworkable. The president and his senior advisers wanted me to make it work. I met with Hadley and White House chief of staff Andy Card in Washington on Monday of inauguration week. We had very detailed conversations about authorities and presidential empowerment of the DNI, and by the weekend they and I both thought I would agree to take the job.
I was to call Card at Camp David with my final answer the following Monday. Over the weekend I wrestled with the decision. On Saturday night, lying awake in bed, I told Becky she could make this decision really easy for me; I knew how much she loved being at Texas A&M, and all she had to say was that she didn’t want to return to Washington, D.C. Instead, she said, “We have to do what you have to do.” I said, “Thanks a lot.”
Late Sunday night I walked around the campus smoking a cigar. As I walked past familiar landmarks and buildings, I decided I could not leave Texas A&M; there was still too much I wanted to accomplish there. And I really, really did not want to go back into government. I called Andy the next morning and told him to tell the president I would not take the job. He seemed stunned. He must have felt that I had led them on, which I regretted, but it really had been a last-minute decision. There was one consolation. I told Becky, “We are safe now—the Bush administration will never ask me to do another thing.” I was wrong.
At nine a.m. on Saturday—now nearly two years later—I returned Steve’s call as promised. He wasted no time in posing a simple, direct question: “If the president asked you to become secretary of defense, would you accept?” Stunned, I gave him an equally simple, direct answer without hesitation: “We have kids dying in two wars. If the president thinks I can help, I have no choice but to say yes. It’s my duty.” The troops out there were doing their duty—how could I not do mine?
That said, I sat at my desk frozen. My God, what have I done? I kept thinking to myself. I knew that after nearly forty years of marriage, Becky would support my decision and all that it meant for our two children as well, but I was still terrified to tell her.
Josh Bolten, a former director of the Office of Management and Bud- get, who had replaced Card as White House chief of staff earlier that year, called a few days later to reassure himself of my intentions. He asked if I had any ethical issues that could be a problem, like hiring illegal immigrants as nannies or housekeepers. I decided to have some fun at his expense and told him we had a noncitizen housekeeper. Before he began to hyperventilate, I told him she had a green card and was well along the path to citizenship. I don’t think he appreciated my sense of humor.
Bolten then said a private interview had to be arranged for me with the president. I told him I thought I could slip into Washington for dinner on Sunday, November 12, without attracting attention. The president wanted to move faster. Josh e-mailed me on October 31 to see if I could drive to the Bush ranch near Crawford, Texas, for an early morning meeting on Sunday, November 5.
The arrangements set up by deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin were very precise. He e-mailed me that I should meet him at eight-thirty a.m. in McGregor, Texas, about twenty minutes from the ranch. I would find him in the parking lot at the Brookshire Brothers grocery store, sitting in a white Dodge Durango parked to the right of the entrance. Dress would be “ranch casual”—sport shirt and khakis or jeans. I look back with amusement that my job interviews with both President Bush and President-elect Obama involved more cloak-and- dagger clandestinity than most of my decades-long career in the CIA.
I did not tell anyone other than Becky what was going on except for the president’s father, former president George H. W. Bush (the forty- first president, Bush 41), with whom I wanted to consult. He was the reason I had come to Texas A&M in the first place, in 1999, to be the interim dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. What was supposed to be a nine-month stint of a few days a month became two years and led directly to my becoming president of Texas A&M. Bush was sorry I would be leaving the university, but he knew the country had to come first. I also think he was happy that his son had reached out to me.
I left my house just before five a.m. to head for my interview with the president. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought a blazer and slacks more appropriate for a meeting with the president than a sport shirt and jeans. Starbucks wasn’t open that early, so I was pretty bleary-eyed for the first part of the two-and-a-half-hour drive. I was thinking the entire way about questions to ask and answers to give, the magnitude of the challenge, how life for both my wife and me would change, and how to approach the job of secretary of defense. I do not recall feeling any self- doubt on the drive to the ranch that morning, perhaps a reflection of just how little I understood the direness of the situation. I knew, however, that I had one thing going for me: most people had low expectations about what could be done to turn around the war in Iraq and change the climate in Washington.
During the drive I also thought about how strange it would be to join this administration. I had never had a conversation with the president. I had played no role in the 2000 campaign and was never asked to do so. I had virtually no contact with anyone in the administration during Bush’s first term and was dismayed when my closest friend and mentor, Brent Scowcroft, wound up in a public dispute with the administration over his opposition to going to war in Iraq. While I had known Rice, Hadley, Dick Cheney, and others for years, I was joining a group of people who had been through 9/11 together, who had been fighting two wars, and who had six years of being on the same team. I would be the outsider.
I made my clandestine rendezvous in McGregor with no problem. As we approached the ranch, I could see the difference in security as a result of 9/11. I had visited other presidential residences, and they were always heavily guarded, but nothing like this. I was dropped off at the president’s office, a spacious but simply decorated one-story building some distance from the main house. It has a large office and sitting room for the president, and a kitchen and a couple of offices with computers for staff. I arrived before the president (always good protocol), got a cup of coffee (finally), and looked around the place until the president arrived a few minutes later, promptly at nine. (He was always exceptionally punctual.) He had excused himself from a large group of friends and family celebrating his wife Laura’s sixtieth birthday.
We exchanged pleasantries, and he got down to business. He talked first about the importance of success in Iraq, saying that the current strategy wasn’t working and that a new one was needed. He told me he was thinking seriously about a significant surge in U.S. forces to restore security in Baghdad. He asked me about my experience on the Iraq Study Group (more later) and what I thought about such a surge. He said he thought we needed new military leadership in Iraq and was taking a close look at Lieutenant General David Petraeus. Iraq was obviously upper-most on his mind, but he also talked about his concerns in Afghanistan; a number of other national security challenges, including Iran; the climate in Washington; and his way of doing business, including an insistence on candor from his senior advisers. When he said specifically that his father did not know about our meeting, I felt a bit uncomfortable, but I did not disabuse him. It was clear he had not consulted his father about this possible appointment and that, contrary to later speculation, Bush 41 had no role in it....

Continued in DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War…

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Chapter 1 Summoned to Duty 3

Chapter 2 Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq 25

Chapter 3 Mending Fences, Finding Allies 80

Chapter 4 Waging War on the Pentagon 115

Chapter 5 Beyond Iraq: A Complicated World 149

Chapter 6 Good War, Bad War 197

Chapter 7 One Damn Thing After Another 239

Chapter 8 Transition 258

Chapter 9 New Team, New Agenda, Old Secretary 287

Chapter 10 Afghanistan: A House Divided 335

Chapter 11 Difficult Foes, Difficult Friends 387

Chapter 12 Meanwhile, Back in Washington 432

Chapter 13 War, War … and Revolution 468

Chapter 14 At War to the Last Day 524

Chapter 15 Reflections 566

Acknowledgments 597

Index 599

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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 164 reviews.
BNA1 More than 1 year ago
Having actually red the book and NOT the hype of the reviews, I can honestly say that this is a good read. I cannot however, figure out why anyone of either political party affiliation can walk away from this book thinking "their" guy was a hero.  Secretary Gates is candid in his descriptions of the culture and attitudes of BOTH White House Administrations. He never truly bashes either and is forthright in his descriptions. A great book by a great American be he pro Bush or pro Obama. I would like to say for the record, that I clicked here to see reviews of the the WORK not to read comments of a political nature.
cd1947 More than 1 year ago
Robert Gates has written an extremely interesting book and I find it very hard to put down especially since it is a book on history.  No matter what your political affiliation may be, this book is on target with what the responsibilities are at the top of the food chain in Washington.  I would enjoy meeting this man in person and talking about how he came about with the desire to write this .  Here is a man who has worked for both sides of the political parties in Washington and survived.  The best part in my opinion of what he rights about is his compassion to the military personnel.  His desires to make it right for all to serve should make him a perfect nomination for the highest award that can be given out by our President to individuals who make a definitive change to our government - Robert Gates is one of those individuals.  Look forward to reading more of his books.  This book should be required reading for seniors in high school and government  studies in college.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Please delete to comments, that are not reviews, from guests that have not read this book! This is not supposed to be a political soap box.
OzHall More than 1 year ago
Politics aside, fantastic read and interesting perspective!!!! Barnes and Noble needs to police their Rating section to delete the spam 1-3 star ratings on this title, over 15 of the sub 4 star reviews were off topic spam placed to decrease the overall rating of this title.
UncommonBuzzard More than 1 year ago
Insight into actual decision making. Not just a self lauding pile of self serving crap. Love the ridiculous left pundit harping on how the *right* use the book to supposedly support their position.  Clearly if one actually READ the book, one would realize Gates bent over backwards to be fair about an administration he was at odds with, soback the partisam truck up o ye disgruntled lefty and read the bloody book before yowling.
survivorCM More than 1 year ago
great read no matter what your political affiliation. This is our country and more important than dem., rep, indep. or whatever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Robert Gates' memoir is thoughtful and personal. I appreciated Gates' insider understanding of people and situations that I only read about or hear on Sunday morning shows or when I am aware someone who may be making a significant difference for Americans are discussing something compelling. As a Marine wife, I became critical not so much of Bush as I became of what I knew was a sincere regard and appreciation for the cost to families like mine but of his inability to pull the best out of what I recognized when I voted for him, one of the strongest Cabinets of any Administration. Now I understand better why. I also feel a little solaced in that in 2008 there really was not a good candidate on the ballot. I even wanted to like McCain. His family is decent at least. Any NCO's considering whether this is worth the money right as they are leaving the military, should definitely pick it up! Then go to your home of residence and sign up to run against any one of the people we have in Washington DC. All of the House of Representatives get changed like diapers if the nation gets tired of the stench. The ones in the Senate have to reek like a slaughterhouse before their offices get changed. This book will encourage you whether you are a Democrat or Republican that the status quo in Washington was set to change and today, as nationally concerned private citizens who care about America I pray it inspires one of those of you who were once naive and free to honor your brothers and sisters. Go home and get sworn in again next year. Then you will truly honor those who gave all and now, "Rest easy."
JHHNC More than 1 year ago
A good read but a little slow at times. It was interesting, but scary, see the inside workings of the White House. The Obama White House’s distrust of the military is disappointing but not unexpected. The Gordian Knot is Congress and their pet projects. Money being spent on waste, while the basic needs of the solder and sailor is pushed aside or worst cut to show “political resolve”. There needs to be a way to for the military to rejected projects that they feel are not needed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read this book.
Paterson More than 1 year ago
I am an Army vet whose opinion of Bob Gates was not very high when I started to read his book. And there was a section that made me want to shake my head, but I continued and was glad I did. His story helped to restore my belief that there are decent people in this world and much of the junk we now call news today is exactly that, junk. Bob Gates' background stories on how things work or don't work in politics made for a good read. His sense of fairness came through in all chapters. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind and love of this country. I'm very glad he did not appear to lean either left or right as he portrayed the fights and squabbles that now consume so much time and are passed off as political discourse nowadays.
arkietraveler More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time reading the entire book at one sitting. Had to put it down and read something else for awhile. Why? The detail, in fighting, posturing and politics is just too much even though it is what occurs in DC. I understand why Gates goes into so much detail but it does get tedious after awhile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a lot of justification for decisions made. not much new.
RobSea More than 1 year ago
Interesting read. Seemed to be pretty balanced in his praise and criticism of both political sides. Would absolutely recommend. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It shows the workings of the Defense Department and how it interacts with other agencies and the White House. It was a real eye opener as to the frustrations and daily battles the Secretary went through. This is a must read to help understand the military budget cuts today and how it will negatively affect this nation. Thanks for your daily battles, you were a soldiers (marine/sailor/airman) Secretary. This is a very good read. Well worth the money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well written book that provides insight into the role of the Secretary of Defense. The reader gains a birds eye view into the inner workings of politics and gamesmanship in the nation's capital as our civilian and military leaders deal with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Robert Gates is an exceptional leader who demonstrates his sincere compassion for the young men and women of our country who were sent to war and those who returned home severely injured or killed in the line of duty. This was an a great read.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
The only Secretary of Defense and one of few cabinet members to have served two successive U.S. presidents (Bush'43 and Obama) of different parties, Robert M. Gates was Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011. His memoirs Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War could have been title "I hated my job, but somebody had to do it." Gates takes over 600 pages making sure the reader knows that. This is a book more about personalities and feelings rather than facts. Gates was appointed by Bush'43 to replace Donald Rumsfeld and to get the U.S. honorably extricated from one "bad" war, Iraq, while simultaneously stemming the downward spiral of the other "good" war, Afghanistan. The author makes the point several times that, in his opinion, both wars need no justification, and, hence, presumably no explanation. The "war" for Gates was in Washington D.C., not the Middle East. The first half of Duty describes his interactions with the Bush'43 administration, Congress, and the Pentagon brass over strategy. His vision of D.C. intransigence, stupidity, self interest and greed is disturbing. Gates makes sure that you see him as a brave knight firmly on the side of the troops in the field battling the forces of evil D.C. politicians. Noble indeed, but could anyone really in these times really get away with any other position. Well, maybe Don Rumsfeld? While painting himself convincingly as a compassionate leader and highly competent manager, Gates nevertheless repeatedly hints throughout Duty that he, perhaps, protests too much in claiming to hate his job. He repeatedly uses "fire" and "fired" with somewhat too much relish to describe civilian and military re-assignments. As noted, there is very little "meat" in this book, except for several "juicy" commentary on D.C. notables. Therefore, one tends to focus on the few substantive facts that Gates does present with greater scrutiny. An example provides some insight into Gate's particular worldview. Having carefully documented his management credentials, Gates at one point makes the following observation with respect to the Defense budget: With defense spending at 15 percent of all federal expenditures (it had been over 50 percent when Eisenhower made his speech about the military-industrial complex), the lowest percentage since WW II, I was convinced that the defense budget was a very modest part of the nation's fiscal problems. (page 560) Given Gates' management skills such a statement can only be viewed as somewhat disingenuous. The author knows full-well the absolute magnitude of the Defense budget has in fact increased somewhat steadily since WW II. The reason that the proportion of Defense spending has declined from the highs of the post-WW II era is that the rest of the federal budget has increased even faster than the Defense budget. Two now-enormous budget items - Social Security and Medicare - have grown to dominate the Federal budget post mid-1960s - there just wasn't much other Federal spending in the 1950s to compete with the defense budget. As a proportion of the GDP, the Defense budget has increased more than twice since 1950. It may still be a "...modest part of the nation's fiscal problems", but it is not a negligible part. If you are interested in the personalities of government decision makers, this is a book for you. If you want to understand why certain decisions were made during this period, read someone else's memoirs. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
O-6 More than 1 year ago
My perspective comes from 23+years as a Marine, enlisted and officer, who spent far too many years in the D.C. circus. The book is well written, does not contain any bombshells that have not appeared elsewhere, and may be of interest to those who also have spent too many years in the D.C. circus. Best seller? Probably not best read as there will be many who put it on the shelf before the last page is read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nice, straight forward description of Bill Gates' experiences as Secretary of Defense. It is politely written,fair representation of those with whom he interacted, and demonstrates how government works. His presentation of thinking on the Afghan war and the limitations that existed is most interesting.
FoxyLadyTX More than 1 year ago
I am in the middle of this book now. I must say I thought it would be dry, but wanted to check it out anyway. I have found some rather revealing information and amusing insights into our government. I have a new respect for Robert Gates. I believe that he did the best job he could for the soldiers, but our Congress looks at things differently.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Military industrial complex is alive and well and only the business of politics is more dangerous to our future.   Gates has written  an exceptional work - page turning read that clears the smoke and mirrors approach to governmental decision making.  Where are the statesman who will weigh all decisions by their contribution to national goals and not by the impact on their next election, next executive position or next special interest monetary contribution?
dph2902 More than 1 year ago
Very interesting read, particularly if you are interested in how differently the Bush and Obama White Houses operate and dealt with the military and Pentagon. Some good perspectives on Congress also.
Retired_05 More than 1 year ago
Great book for many reasons. Writes about the frustration of fighting wars on all fronts, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congress, White House staff and the culture of the Pentagon. He is not adverse to criticize his superiors but is professional in how he presents it. I’ve read other books about the internal operations of the executive branch and although not many new revelations he seems to confirm the sometime dysfunction. Although a relatively long book it is an easy read as you can skim through some paragraphs if you are familiar with the news.
mysteryman38 More than 1 year ago
Bob Gates is not a great writer, but he's good enough to have shortened the passages about his deft handling of problems and their causes. This is a largely self-serving book that has many details otherwise unreported until now, but they border on the trivial, and thus his self-praise is over-stated. Unless you're starved for knowledge about him (Bob Gates), I wouldn't recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The best inside view of what was really taking place in Irag and Afghanistan.I would recommend this book to anyone interested in what is going on in the world of war and politics.
Hoompa More than 1 year ago
This is not an easy read ~ 650 pages.. but once you start- good luck putting it down! the detail that Gates pulls from his Texas A&M mind is amazing! Spoiler alert.... The observations he describes on HRC are so "spot on" Can't wait for this movie, I can see Kevin Spacy as Gates, and Lawrence Fishbone as Obama- Oh no I meant Samuel Jackson :)