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  • Duty
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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 9 July 2014
“I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment, mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others” Bob Gates includes this quote on the last page of ‘Duty’. Does it sound like a private comment from Obama? Bush 41? Its actually a quote from George Marshall, who every US Sec of State and Defence rightfully holds in awe ( well, when I say every, I haven’t read Rumsfeld’s memoir yet, but I suspect even Rumsfeld must).

Gates was asked by George W (referred to as Bush 43) in 2006 to pick up the pieces following Rumsfeld’s resignation. The pieces being two wars, only going disastrously, one gradually worsening. He had been head of the CIA during Bush 41’s time, and a senior official in both NSC and CIA in the Regan/Bush cabinets. His reason to take on Secretary of Defence in 2006 was ‘if he soldiers are doing their duty, so must I”. HE finds that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have no appetite for the wars, and he gets really angry trying to focus the Pentagon on ‘winning the wars we are in’. This translates in each area of the defence forces being reluctant to divert funds from long-term programs to more immediate priorities eg. The accelerated procurement of mine-protected transport vehicles. Some part of the joint chiefs attitude may have been formed by Rumsfeld’s ‘ you go to war with the army that you’ve got”, and their curiously disengaged attitudes might have been influenced by his (described in Bradley Grahams’ By His Own Rules’)

Gates gives the Bush 43 administration a pass on internal bickering, though he does say that by the time Gates arrived that neither 43 or Cheney were up for re-election, and that most of the policy decisions had been set. However his description of 43’s thinking on the Iraq surge, shows 43 in a good light, Cheney comes across less devious, less argumentative than in other books’; though no less conservative and aggressive (in policy terms). I liked Gates’ take on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 – basically how did the CIA miss it (a huge issue, curiously ignored by main media); opposed to using US military to destroy it without first using diplomacy; and opposed to allowing Israel carte-blanch to destroy it. In the end Gates feels that 43 gave Israel a tacit green light, by not opposing their plans strongly enough.

Gates was asked to stay by Obama, and while never overtly disloyal to Obama, he is very critical of the infighting and micromanagement in the White House. Leaks about, Gates criticises named NSC staffers as leaking to Bob Woodward (in Obamas Wars) and fostering deep distrust between the Pentagon and the White House. This isn’t helped by the many speeches which the joint chiefs and army commanders give, some of which express opinions at odds with policy. Obama is portrayed as very deliberative, not invested in the Iraq or Afghan policies, and very concerned about US political reactions. Gates does praise his decision on Osama bin Laden; Gates likes Hilary and disagrees with everything Joe Biden says (though curiously he acknowledges Joe’s warmth).

Congress gets the worst of Gates’ anger however, he is openly derisive of their knowledge their professionalism, their attention span, their motivations. He describes how one Congressman holds up funds for the new mine-proof vehicle because of the proposal to divert funds from Humvee (the jeep the new vehicle was to replace). He is scathing in comparing the US congress’s inability to pass budgets with its complaints about the dysfunctional Iraqi and Afghan legislatures.

In the end, with all these frustrations, he tells Obama that he ‘has run out of juice’ and hands over to Leon Panetta, a savvy politico, influential in congress and with the President. He feels that his concern for the troops, his responsibility for putting them in harm’s way, weighs increasingly heavily on him and disrupts his ability to do his job with objectivity and discipline. I think there’s a fair measure of self-awareness here. I think the quote from Marshall quoted at the top of this review is instructive, Marshall is a latter-day saint, instrumental in toppling Fascism and rescuing Western Europe from Communism, and, by implication, allowing time for Western Democratic Capitalism to outpace Communism. But his methods were effective i.e. ruthless when necessary. In a very brutal sense US casualties in both wars were in the low thousands – low enough that Gates could write personally to the families of the fallen – infinitesimal in comparison with other wars the US has fought. If you thought the purpose of the wars was sufficiently achievable and worthy, it would be possible to see the sacrifice as necessary. I strikes me that Gates came to view the sacrifice as unnecessary. Not just that the politicians were fickle - Marshall suffered direct political attack (‘Who lost China?’) and even Eisenhower did not stand up for him – not just the Defence administration was inefficient and wasteful, but I think the base problem for Gates is that neither he, nor the Joint Chiefs believed in the Mission. And there’s not much discussion of this in the book – if the mission was to deny terrorists a base of operations, their potential bases had spread to Yemen and North Africa; If it was to install democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would take decades and billions of dollars. I think Gates was tormented by the job he inherited – make some sense of the wars the US was engaged in, save face and get out. In the end, I think, this mission proved so contradictory – if we were only there to find an exit, how did you face the families of the fallen soldiers who died while the country waited to get out?

I was not surprised that the pentagon nearly defeated him, I didn’t think his experience in running organisations (CIA, Texas A&M) was sufficient executive experience to run a huge organisation. I was also surprised with the almost complete lack of analysis of the US defence posture in the book – almost nothing on China, just how difficult the PLA are to deal with, including how they surprise their own politicians. What it the US mission in the world ? What is its Defence posture? Will it limit itself to keeping sea-lanes open, and try to dominate Space and Cyber ? These are huge tasks in themselves, for a guy steeped in geo-political analysis I was surprise this was absent from his description of his work at the Pentagon.
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on 10 February 2014
I think that Robert Gates is a very good story-teller and is also able to describe complex questions in a very interesting and amusing way.
In spite of the thickness of the book it was quite easy to finish.
People, who are interested in the world of to-day and to see it specially from an American point of wiev should read this bood.
The author can be both humorus and emotional and tell us his story with a revieling distance to the many difficult problems, that he has to deal with.
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on 31 January 2014
A well written and direct view of the defining recent military events and the political influences surrounding them. The author is honest and selfless in self criticism and gentle in his criticism of others.
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on 9 February 2014
A compelling account by an forthright and at times irascible but compassionate man with unrivalled practitioner knowledge. A first-class exposition of what real leadership requires.
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on 2 February 2014
the writing is very candid and easy to read. the delivery speed can be improved. i was afraid the book got lost for a few days before it finally arrived.
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on 5 February 2014
I enjoyed Mr Gates take on working with two Presidents from such disparate backgrounds. It seemed an honest and reasonable view. Well worth reading.
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on 13 April 2014
A fantastic book well written, interesting and a great personal insight to the Whitehouse foreign policy of he Bush and Obama administrations.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 January 2014
Having read 9 books by previous Defence Secretaries I can say this is the oddest.
Gates served for 6 years as Secretary having previously served in national intelligence roles and Director of the CIA.
In all he served 8 Presidents, and was the only Defence Secretary to be asked to stay on in that role by an incoming President of a different party.

He has a PhD in Soviet History in addition to a first and a masters degree. He was head of Texas University prior to serving George Bush as Secretary.

His memoirs are odd because he seems to dislike almost everyone he served or worked with apart from the armed services whom he confesses he 'loves' (he served as a lieutenant for a short term).

He rails against the Washington bureaucracy, some senior military and is clearly none too keen on President Obama of whom he says has never wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan.

A man of dry wit, and formidable intelligence he has a remarkable cv but having read his memoirs one can only wonder why he served so long for an establishment he clearly dislikes intensely.

He, rightly, says he is very concerned about British defence cuts arguing that they will result in our inability to play a major role in any future war-many senior military agree. Of course, our poor showing in Iraq after the military victory and the fact that American forces had to come to our aid in Helmund (both events having been deliberately kept from the general public because they resulted from political ineptitude, inferior equipment, a poor understanding of counter-insurgency and a number of below average Brigadiers on 6 month appointments who seemed to believe they had to show their mettle by changing their predecessor's tactics. The result was that by the time these were implemented another Brigadier was on his way.The Americans were not impressed)lends such concerns greater weight.It is already clear that a major cock-up with a new computer system that has cost millions means it is highly unlikely the necessary number of reservists will be recruited in time to fill the gap left by cuts in regular forces.

Despite these caveats this is a very readable book by a politician who deserves credit for being one of a very few who has the courage to speak honestly about the travailles of working at the centre of government and having to witness the jealousies, backbiting and personal feuds that pervade that hot-house environment.
The memoirs of our Defence Secretaries are by comparison self-serving and very politically correct.

I would recommend reading his earlier book: 'From the Shadows' about his time in intelligence before reading this one.
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on 9 February 2015
This audiobook has accompanied me on my way to work and is highly recommendable, as it delivers accounts on a number of aspects, such as serving under two administrations, running the biggest "account" in the US federal government in times of war and calamity and managing a political environment. The author gives a candid, reflective account with humour and passion, and the production is well read, well informed by his previous experience in Washington and at Texas A&M. The only thing missing are beginning and end statements on each of the 20 disks, but that is a manageable flaw.
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on 15 January 2015
What it was really like, in Iraq, Afghanistan and especially Washington, as Secretary of Defence serving, uniquely, two consecutive presidents, a conservative Republican at the end of his term and a liberal a Democrat at the start of his. Vividly shows exactly how and why today US Govt fails again and again to attain a level of performance, as defined by its constitutional mandate, that would rate a grade better than C minus.
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