Monday, January 27, 2014

A Great Read - Robert Gates’s book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Guest Post by LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN

Wow,  I recently finished Robert Gates’s book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War -- it’s a great book. I had, like many of you, read some excerpts in the Wall Street Journal, the review in the New York Times, and heard the hoopla prior to it hitting the shelves.  Some of the early reviews managed to pull the same quotes from the book, giving us the impression -- wrongly as it turns out -- that the former Secretary of Defense was slinging mud all over the place.  Not so.  Not even close.  Well, instead of writing a review of the book, I want to highlight a few things in the book that are unfortunately missing from other reviews.  And that is 1) his management style, and 2) some tid-bits that deserve some reflection and thought for anyone wearing a uniform in today’s military.  I hope these scraps are enough to persuade you to pick up a copy and add it to your personal library.  Here we go:

“Symbolic gestures have substantive and real benefits.”  Secretary Gates made an effort early in his tenure to meet senior military commanders -- Combatant Commanders, the Joint Chiefs -- on their turf (e.g., COCOM HQs, “The Tank”) rather than summoning the Commanders to the Pentagon.  He noticed that [his] “approach in dealing with the military leadership had a far more positive impact than [he] had expected.” 

On PowerPoint. “ was the bane of my existence in Pentagon meetings; it was as no one could talk without them.”

Write the note.  Following Admiral “Fox” Fallon’s Esquire interview, and the subsequent fallout, he sent Secretary Gates a “very gracious, handwritten letter of apology...”

Go into a meeting with a strategy and a desired outcome.  “A meeting in the Situation Room was never just another gathering...outcomes were important, and I always had a strategy going in.”

On Influences.  “Political scientists, historians, and reporters are often completely unaware of events or experiences unseen by the public eye that influence important HBO movie, Taking Chance...had an important impact” [on his decision to publicly honor fallen service men/women arriving at Dover, AFB].  (Me: If you haven’t seen Taking Chance, you need to find a copy and watch it.)

Not all leadership is equal...and just because you are the “next in line” doesn’t mean you are the best qualified for the job. “...[T]he qualities important for military leadership and success in war are not the same as those required in peacetime.  In war, boldness, adaptability, creativity, sometimes ignoring the rules, risk taking, and ruthlessness are essential for success.  These are not characteristics that will get you very far in peacetime...too many officers were assigned to command positions because the stateside personnel system identified them as “next in line” rather than because they were selected as best qualified for the combat mission.”

Know your expertise; Know your lane.  “For some reason, more and more senior officers seem compelled to seek a high public profile and to speak out, often on politically sensitive issues or even on matters beyond their responsibility (not to mention expertise).”

And I could go on.  There is a lot to absorb in 594 pages.  Even from the few quotes I included above there is plenty to chew on.  It is one of the most honest and candid political memoirs that I’ve read.  Yes, to some the word “honest” is an oxymoron when coupled with the words “political memoir.”  I get it.  But my guidepost when reading this type of work has always been this:  is the writer able to criticize and analyze themselves?  And can they highlight mistakes they made?  Do they discuss how they would have done it differently if given the chance?  If they can do these things, then in my opinion, I would consider it an excellent candidate for an “honest and candid political memoir.” I believe Secretary Gates has done all these things, and done them well.  But hey, go pick up a copy for yourself and make your own decision.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer currently attending US Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  The views above are his and his alone, and do not reflect those of the United States Navy or the Department of Defense.


Anonymous said...

Captain Lambert,

It is indeed strange that many individuals can scan a work such as generated by the past Secretary of Defense, Gates and come up with so many different conclusions about what he had to say in his many hundreds of pages, nearly everyone that has made comments about Secy Gates work has been based on their own agenda, But this is the way the world has been for a long time and it is not apt to change anytime soon.

Very Respectfully

Mike Lambert said...

Master Chief,

As always, thanks for your comments. I really appreciate that you continue to read the blog. All the best. With great respect, Captain L

Unknown said...

With Respect for the previous commenter - What good Intelligence Officers do is summarize large amounts of information and succinctly convey it in a way that id understandable and meaningful, With that in mind i believe you did a fantastic job.

Unknown said...

i found the review well written and persuasive....I think my next stop will be a book store or library to get this book.With respect to the previous comment I would say that one should expect a goog intelligence Officer to be able and take a lsrge amount of information and then be able to present it concisely and in a way that is meaningful. In that regard I believe Chris did a fantastic job.

Chris said...


Thank you for the comments!