Monday, April 14, 2014

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

This is an excellent book.  Former Secretary Gates left a job he really enjoyed, President of Texas AM University, to return to public service and lead the Department of Defense at the request of Former President Bush (43) and stayed on in that role for most of President Obama's first term.   This book focuses primarily on the US war actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in its most interesting parts, on the functioning of the government.

If you aren't really into understanding the details of military manpower deployments, this book is still interesting enough to pick up:  skip those parts and stay for the reality of how things are run.

As much as I am a fan of Secretary Gates' book, it took me a very long time to get through this - it was just too depressing.  No, not the description of war and the impact on soldiers' lives and families - although that is always at top of mind in any discussion of our military.  Rather it was the extraordinary dysfunction of the US military apparatus at its most senior levels, the absolutely criminal incompetence of much of the US Congress, the number of critical leaks to the press by those in high positions, and the arrogant and ill informed staffing of President Obama's senior White House civilian team.

The repeated discussion of leaks quite upset me.   The same folks who want to lynch anyone associated with WikiLeaks are frequent leakers themselves:  Pentagon brass, White House staffers, Congressmen, you name it!   I really do not understand why Secretary Gates didn't have every single one of these leakers, whether on the DoD team or the President's, indicted for treason.   But the fact that the President lives with leaks - on Sunday morning news shows, in newspapers, in blogs - as a way of life when it comes from varied parts of his administration simply removes any moral high ground for prosecuting folks like Julian Assange.

Secretary Gates' description of the behavior of the most senior military and civilian DoD staff is also disheartening and demoralizing.  Service leaders prioritized their own turf over doing what is right for our soldiers in the field.  The Defense Department seems like a lumbering organization that consistently fails to urgently consider the needs of our soldiers and their families, but is quick to make excuses for its errors.  And even the Secretary of the Department is unable to fix the culture, perhaps because it is difficult to fire middle managers, even senior managers, in the military, or perhaps it would have taken more of a full time effort than Secretary Gates was able to devote to fixing the mess when he was busy fighting two US wars during the years he was in his position.   I imagine that if he couldn't do it, then it is unlikely to be fixed in the future.  

The implications of the lack of urgency?  Soldiers harmed in IED explosions because vehicles that would protect them weren't a priority - but humvees, made in some Congressman's district (AM General is clearly a big campaign contributor), were still on the books even though the military didn't want more of them.  So were aircraft that cost billions (yes, that's billions with a "b") but were either unnecessary or just too expensive to justify outside of a Congressman's desire to have local business move on at the expense of not only the budget (that we all pay taxes for) but at the expense of equipment that might be far more effective for our soldiers on the ground.

Drones, which could fly unmanned in dangerous regions for air cover, were not a priority in the Air Force because the only promotions and medals went to those who flew manned aircraft - unlike the attitude of the Army which saw drones as a way to advance positions more safely.   Would you want your friends or children to enter a military that - at the very top of the chain - treats their lives in such a cavalier fashion (even if the bulk of the military chain of command is actually quite competent).

Moving on to Congress:
"Why did I so dislike being back in government...?   From the bureaucratic inertia and complexity of the Pentagon to internal conflicts within the executive branch, the partisan abyss in Congress on every issue from budgets t the wars, the single-minded parochial self interest of so many individual members of Congress, and the ... micromanagement [of the Obama administration's civilian staff]..."
Congress, in particular, is described as a disaster.  Secretary Gates points out the outrage of the US Congress over Afghanistan's slow progress towards enacting important legislation in their country -- when the US Congress has been no more effective in enacting important legislation, funding the government responsibly ("... the failure of Congress to do its most basic job: appropriate money."), or running things well themselves.
"I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisition like treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum - a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when the press and television cameras were present."
"I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department for being inefficient and wasteful but would fight tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district no matter how inefficient or wasteful."
"While American politics has always been a shrill, partisan, and ugly business... we have rarely been so polarized and so unable to execute even the basic functions of government... I believe that is due to the incessant scorched-earth battling between Congress and the president... but even more so to the weakening of the moderate center of both parties in Congress.  Progress in America historically has come from thinkers and ideologues on both the left and the right, but the best of those ideas have been enacted into law through compromise. Now moderation is equated with lacking principles, and compromise with 'selling out.' " 
And finally, noting that the most dovish people in any discussion of war are the military commanders who have to send their troops off to face death and massive injury:
"Too many ideologues call for the use of the American military as the first option rather than a last resort to address problems.  On the left, we hear about the 'responsibility to protect' as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iran is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a 'soft' foreign policy...And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces.... But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response."

I have a hunch he was talking about Senator McCain as much as anyone in that last quote; my sense is that McCain wanted US troops in Syria last year, and probably at the time of this writing, he'd like to see US troops in the Ukraine, positioning a war with Russia.   He scares me, but that's beyond Secretary Gates' book.

This is a terrific book because it is a reveal of what happened in the US government under two radically different presidents (Bush 43 and Obama), and is told by a very credible and politically unaffiliated source.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

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