Duty is  Robert Gates’ memoir as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011. Appointed by the republican President George W. Bush, Gates was retained by the democrat President Barack Obama during the Iraq and Afghan wars. He’s the only Secretary of Defense to serve successive administrations, much less of different political parties. His insights are relevant because President Obama remains in office through 2015, and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton may contend for the presidential nomination.


To save the Department of Defense (DoD) budget for fighting current wars, Gates orchestrated a review of large Defense acquisitions and was successful in ending production of the F-22 fighter and canceling the VH-71 presidential helicopter, the kinetic energy interceptor, the airborne laser, the Future Combat System, and more. Large, multi-year, military acquisitions are difficult to kill, and Gates killed thirty or so. Amazing.

I liked Gates’ story of the raid for Osama bin Laden because little has been published and Gates showed himself to be against this highly successful raid. Gates recommended against the raid by US forces into Pakistan, instead favoring a less-risky drone strike that might not yield definitive proof about bin Laden. Obama’s advisors were divided, but Obama authorized the raid. The raid turned out to be very successful. Gates writes “I was very proud to work for a president who made one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House”. After a success, it’s easy for everyone to take credit, so I especially appreciate Gates’ praise for the president who did not follow his recommendation and risked his own legacy.

The story of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) had the most emotional impact for me.  In 2009 the US military had a DADT policy for gays, where gays who serve openly are discharged from the service but are tolerated if they keep quiet. In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Obama urged repeal of DADT, although it was not supported by senior military. Admiral Mike Mullen, who held the most top military position, gave this testimony to a Senate committee:

Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

I found Gates to be credible. Here’s what he thinks about the world and leadership.

On the Arab states, Gates writes “I believe we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a very long period of instability and change in the Arab world. Above all, we must stop pretending to ourselves that we can predict (or shape) the outcome.” “Can states whose boundaries were artificially drawn up by foreigners and that are composed of historically adversarial tribal, ethnic, and religious groups — above all, Iraq, Syria, and Libya — remain unified absent repression?” On our Botswana safari, our African guide told us much the same thing about African states and tribes.

Presidents Bush and Obama “had much more in common than I expected”.

  • “Both were most comfortable around a coterie of close aides”
  • “Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party”
  • “Both had the worst of both worlds on the Hill: they were neither particularly liked nor feared”
  • “Accordingly, neither had many allies in Congress who were willing to go beyond party loyalty, self-interest, or policy agreement in supporting them”

I was surprised by this praise for Hillary Clinton: “I quickly learned I had been badly misinformed. I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United Stated all over the world. I promised myself I would try never again to form a strong opinion about someone I did not know.”

As for Vice President Joe Biden, “he’s down to earth, funny, profane, and humorously self-aware of his motormouth. … Joe is a man of integrity … Still, I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, “I’d looked into Putin’s eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone-cold killer.”

Throughout the book, Gates voices his admiration for the troops as he signs deployment orders, writes personal condolence letters, attends funerals, and visits troops. It’s almost too good to be true. But Gates ends Duty with “Your countrymen owe you their freedom and their security. They sleep safely at night and pursue their dreams during the day because you stand the watch and protect them. … My admiration and affection for you is without limit, and I will think about you and your families and pray for you every day for the rest of my life.”

“I am eligible to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I have asked to be buried in Section 60, where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest. The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.”


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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