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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Robert Gates

(Alfred A. Knopf; US: Jan 2014)

The greatest victim of the digital age has surely been memory. With the daily onslaught of information being streamed from every interconnected outlet, bridging the gap from the present to the dim memories of last month can make it feel more like years have passed than just a few weeks.


The facts of any major event are still available, logged away in the system-less filing cabinet called the Internet, and given enough time one can sort through all the miscellaneous, often disconnected information and create something comparable to a time line, a general consensus of what has happened.


But facts and information only present a one dimensional chronology, they can induce recall, but they don’t convey the emotive experience of a time, a place or event.


If a month be years in this scenario, then a decades would equate to lifetimes. In our lifetime, especially for those of us in the States, there may be no more impacting or important period than those years between the destruction of the World Trade Center and today. For a nation tired of war it may be painful to remember, and there comes no comfort for those years as chronicled in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent memoir, Duty. For those, especially New Yorkers, still scarred by the original dynamo that ripped their lives from the comfort of frivolous wealth, the early ‘00s may represent the watershed moment where everything started to go horribly wrong.


It is through war that we forge the narrative of our history and a path into the future.

Remember those dark days? Entrenched in one war by a single act, and then another in quick succession it seemed like the nation was united by the desire for vengeance. There was a time when it was, ‘If you’re not for us, you’re against us!’ or ‘If you don’t like it, get the fuck out!’ There’s only so many times one can hear that last pre-manufactured slogan vehemently blathered by a psuedo-patriotic politician or talk show host before the prospect of escape became rather attractive.


I chose the Baltic. So recently initiated into the democratic method, there was a definite sense of possibility among the three tiny nations. It was a place where a young man could act like he knew who the hell he was, and live very comfortably for very little money doing it. While America suffered under bleak economic prospects and the quagmire of war on foreign soil, Estonia was on the up, peace and prosperity with only minor contribution via the coalition of the willing. This ex-patriot enjoyed a privileged status in the Baltic. Far removed from the policies and directives of the homeland one could play both sides, exotic American ambassador or dissenter, readymade for the politics of the company inquiring.


Some distance away from Tallinn’s medieval square, out of sight from the hilltop fortress or the tourist traps of Uuhs Strasse was a bar called Woodstock. Back home it would have been considered a dive, but for it’s time and place it was merely a slightly rough locals’ hang out. It’s name was deceiving, though. There were only two types of patrons: aging alcoholics who took drinking as seriously as their pick up games of chess and boisterous young skin heads who allowed no room for disagreement by merit of their steel toed jack boots.


As there is no fun without some element of danger, Woodstock quickly became a favorite when the isolation of labor on a failed project, the foreign language and culture became too much. After several months of frequent patronage I hadn’t once encountered a tourist, but one night woozy from spirits, there appeared the unmistakable presence of an American. Everyone in the bar knew from a single glance at his Nikes and the big Carhart winter jacket, the young man’s origins. From loneliness, from isolation and boredom I spoke to him.


Oddly tanned for winter, and rough looking, rugged and muscular, we spoke about hometown sports teams, recent movies and the like, but as we went rounds for each other the war and politics surfaced. We were opposed on both issues, but the conversation was amiable, perhaps due to our mutual removal from implications. He asked what I did. I boasted about being a writer no one had read. I returned the question. He smiled off handedly, rolled up his sleeve to show me some type of military insignia tattooed across his bicep, then without a hint of shame or a tint of pride he said simply:


“I make war.”


In three words he cut through all the bullshit of a divided nation. It was neither an apologist’s ‘I couldn’t pay for college,’ nor the attempt at bravado meant to intimidate contained within, ‘Simper Fi’. It was simply a fact, neutral in regard to politics, personal opinions, or even responsibility. His statement displayed the absolute lack of hysteria in which the American empire had so recently become engaged. 


In regards to politics, or more pointedly in consideration of the two great wars of this era, there have been very few fence sitters. We’ve seen a dire lack of moderates, and the thin sliver of society that may have evenly weighed political agendas in reference to what is best for the whole seemed to evaporate the moment flight 11’s wheels left the tarmac.


What made it worse is the growth of the bullhorn from which both sides have voiced their disinformation. While the Right has attempted to create a righteous, semi-sacred institution from the concept of retaliatory /preemptive war, the cynical Left has equally demonized and dismissed the invasions as wasteful violations of international law. What is lost in the entire screaming match is that motives and means make very little difference in the face of the process.


It will be decades before a national consensus congeals around the manifestation of current initiatives. Like Vietnam or Korea before it, the Global War on Terrorism has seen involvement by an entire generation of young Americans who, for the most part, aren’t entirely aware of what they are getting into upon joining. Planned out by the rich and powerful, with strategies executed by old men and women far removed from any battlefield, these wars, like all the others, have been fought on the backs of the youth and paid for by the blood of the poor. It is this inequality that disparages the national conscious, that requires so much time and focus for a coherent collective narrative to surface, and finally answer the question, ‘Was it worth it?’ The first great work to begin to address this tunnel from which we will eventually emerge, is Robert Gates’ Duty.


Like genocide or slavery, the term ‘war’, is just another word to most Americans. Sure, we understand the immediate connotations, the struggle between opposing powers and the geopolitical ramifications of the outcome, but the word remains just that: a word. As Americans we occupy the unique position of the being the planet’s largest exporter of both war and culture. American history is not merely steeped in conflict, we are born and bred of it. One could even reasonably argue that like Rome before us, war has become more central to America’s national identity than even liberty. In comparing war and liberty, one cannot deny the measure that Americans profess to love sees incremental assault on a nearly continuous basis, while the measure they claim to abhor, to reserve as a last measure enjoys abundant proliferation.


So let us not mince words here, or confuse topics. While Secretary Gates’ civic role is central to the memoir, his past involvement with the CIA, the SNC, or the six previous administrations, or his dealing with civil authorities from every branch of the Federal Government, Duty, as the name would imply, is foremost about war. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is, to summarize Secretary Gates’ four and a half years as the civilian conductor of these conflicts. For the general public these wars have been easy to ignore. Pop culture and sporting events are far more entertaining and much easier to understand. As was the case for 1930’s Germany or pre-war Southern society. But there is a very real, very despicable significance entwined in that word, war. As a nation, the sooner we address the implications of such an ugly topic, these wars, the better.


At this point, its best to consider American foreign policy in regards to these conflicts much like the young drunk in the Baltic bar. As a matter of public record, the history should be considered factual, the hysteria shouldn’t be considered at all. But because of our histories, its hard not to begin reading Duty without some sort of personal agenda. Few Americans have the luxury of emotional distance from these conflicts, just as few Americans lack opinions on them.


It seems Secretary Gates was well aware of this as Duty focuses intently on the mechanism and execution of conflict rather than the motivation. Leaving the presidency of Texas A&M in the last month of 2006 to accept George Herbert Walker Bush’s Presidential nomination to Secretary of Defense, Gates was thrust into two of the most mismanaged conflicts in American history. To characterize that time, Afghanistan was rarely mentioned, and though it had been invaded first, the casualty rates for American troops there were lower, the weak central government in Kabul was more secure in comparison to the veritable shitstorm that was Iraq.


Though little good news can be expected from a war zone, some weeks after Gates’ confirmation the Ace of Most-Wanted Iraqi Spades was executed. This presented a small blip of contentment in the face of so much incompetency, death, and lack of a clear agenda. After the initial invasion of Iraq, (the laughable ‘Mission Accomplished’ warship scene) a short window of relative peace was quickly proceeded by an all out civil war.


While everyone can agree Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator, few are willing to admit that the tight fist of a dictator provides stability in its own right. Thrust onto a democratic platform after millennia of autocratic rule Iraq faced inner-dependence like a sailor in port after a long voyage. Few political parties had any experience with organization, let alone running campaigns, and the eventual election of a coalition government including both Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis (the Sunni’s had threatened a boycott) headed by Nouri al-Maliki, provided little in the way of protection for the people of Iraq. Much is made of the inefficiency of the American system of democracy, one can only imagine the proceedings of a baby government takings its first steps towards being a failed state.


In the face of this political landscape both at home and abroad, and the emerging insurgency in Iraq, it quickly became apparent that America’s strategy for Iraq was not only poorly formed, it totally precluded a definite termination. If America had won, why were their troops still occupying the country? If they had won, why were more people dying than ever before? It is at this point Secretary Gates began to emerge as the hero he would become.


Early in the memoirs, Gates make mention of his devotion to the troops. All reference is quickly attributed to lip service. Was there anyone who ever supported the war but not the troops? As the IED became the preferred method of attack on Coalition troops, it became glaringly obvious the lightly protected HumVees used by virtually every combat unit in the AOR, could not withstand a detonation from below without serious injury to its occupants.


The benign solution of armor seems like a no-brainer. Just add armor, right? Well, by the fourth year of the war the blank check strategy had proven ineffective, in addition to tanking the domestic economy. Add to that the ineffectual concept: additional armor applied to the vehicle bottoms made them inoperable. However, there was another option. The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) had reduced casualties up to 75 percent for similar attacks. And indeed, a Marine General had ordered a thousand. It sounds stupid, and hard to grasp, but the gears of democracy shift slowly and were never designed to keep pace with the real time of warfare, anyway. The General’s request had been shelved. 


After reading about MRAPs in a newspaper article, then discovering the General’s original request had been denied, Sectretary Gates became the driving force behind securing a fleet of the vehicles. In an emergency amendment bill $1.5 billion in funds was swiftly passed through the normally cumbersome Congressional channels. In less than a year thousands of MRAPs were in production and eventually 27,000 or so would find their way to the battlefield. The number of lives and limbs saved by the correction of this simple oversight is nearly immeasurable.


To go in-depth into every effective beneficial policy or strategy change spearheaded or else engaged by Sectretary Gates would exhaust your patience, here. A very brief synopsis runs as follows: the firing of incompetent leadership, the refocus and rehabilitation of the Veterans Affairs Military Hospitals, the reassessment of strategy in Iraq that lead to the troop surge, a song so nice he played it twice to great effect in Afghanistan as well, the change in policy that provided transportation and lodging to the families of fallen service members and press access to their return at Dover Air Force Base and finally the dissolution of ‘Stoploss’, complete with back-pay for those afflicted.


It’s generally not a good idea to read a memoir or biography and take the author’s word for all that passes at face value. Indeed, while reading Duty, one is taken down memory lane of stalwart Republican talking points. However, there isn’t an account in the book that isn’t a matter of public record, and one must relinquish their political with the realization Secretary Gates was retained by a diametrically opposed political party after a cutthroat election.


If Secretary Gate’s personal character doesn’t appeal to you after reading Duty, then there’s little doubt his writing style will. A flawless communicator, he is one of those rare individuals with an ability to explain very complex concepts and interactions in a simple, easily digestible format. Despite the length of the memoir, and the rather dry bureaucratic miscellany involved, this nearly 600 page work rarely suffers the monotony one would naturally suspect. Another standout feature is Gates’ use of metaphor, which is surprisingly colorful for a government employee whom we might otherwise suspect would be mired in dull bureaucratic prose.


His second memoir (the first being From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War) Duty is elegantly laid out with seven chapters evenly devoted to separate administrations, divided by a chapter devoted to the transition between the two, and capped off with a touching ending devoted to reflection over his career as Secretary of Defense. Throughout the work, Gates displays a candor which opposes his tight lipped public position, but it is with the final chapter Gates seems to truly drop his guard and reveal his feelings. There’s a touch of remorse in there, but a great deal of pride, too, which tugs at the audience’s emotions to a degree few writers of fiction could ever hope to achieve.


If any lesson could be learned from this work, it’s that the American military, along with the political climate that serves to further it, has failed to progress in step with the country’s scientific and technological bounds. Americans tend to enter conflicts with more money than strategy, and thus, resemble the lumbering Goliath in that we are ill suited to endure prolonged engagements. There are no short wars, and despite America’s advanced weaponry, the real strength of its constitution remains in people—not the line towing elected official, nor the regs-or-dead ranking officer—but amongst those few who can exercise creativity and imagination alongside reason, those who can remain compassionate in the face of so much violence and destruction. With a few more men like Robert Gates in American military and government leadership, we might have won these wars. 


The outbreak of war inspires reaction. One can flee like I did or sign up for the fight like the stranger in the bar. For most of us, the sad fact is that we eventually choose to ignore it. The world of pop culture is a beautiful thing to get lost in, and at its best it furthers our understanding of the world we live in and compels us to think critically. However, it should not hold a greater significance in society than our awareness, participation, or dissent. It is through war that we forge the narrative of our history and a path into the future.

Rating:

A multiple university drop out Ray is probably still drunk, feverishly writing the Great American Novel on his laptop while squinting into the weak rays of the morning sun in an obscure country, happy his heart still beats if only to satisfy his legions of loyal followers.


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