[This article was published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 342-362.  The version here is the article as originally written.  In the published version, the discussion of 9/11 was moved to the end of the article.  Because of the importance of the 9/11 subject, Murphey prefers the version presented here for his permanent collected writings.]





A Provocative Look at Robert Gates’ “Memoirs of a Secretary at War”

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired



Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Robert M. Gates

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014


                    In this article, we attempt to do something that Robert Gates probably never intended as he wrote these memoirs of his tenure as U.S Secretary of Defense during the middle years of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.   We are taking his very readable personal narrative and probing deeper than Gates himself has chosen to do.  This involves taking seriously the many issues raised by the wars and the policy decisions regarding them, all as touched on in his book.  The critique expressed here is intended to be “provocative” by delving into a number of issues that can benefit from more thought.


Key Words: Robert M. Gates, U. S. Secretary of Defense, Iraq war, Afghanistan war, events of 9/11, “suspension of disbelief,” American global intervention, dangers and presumption in U.S. global role, “moderation” in America, fighting insurgencies among civilians, out-of-control organizations, American profligacy, conflict with Islamic customs, limits of compassion, moral equivalence of mass protesters, Arab Spring, Veteran’s Administration health care scandal. 


          Robert Gates was the United States’ Secretary of Defense from December 2006 to the end of June   2011, a period that spanned the final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the first two and a half years of Barack Obama’s.  It was a span that placed him at the center of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Gates is an eminently likeable fellow, and readers will find his memoir of those years a personal account that makes the book open and inviting.  It isn’t exactly light reading, since he discusses a great many policy issues and decisions, but because he rarely probes below the surface he avoids entangling readers who do not wish to go deeper. 

This surface-treatment is no doubt a welcome thing for the reading public in general, who will want to enjoy him and his narrative; but it is not nearly so desirable for those who want an in-depth, thoughtful discussion.  In our critique here, we hope to examine seriously some of the issues Gates’ book brings to the fore (or, perhaps just as tellingly, omits).  Unavoidably, there are too many issues to allow us to discuss them all.  Because much of our critique will be critical, sometimes sharply so, it is worth saying early-on that the intention is by no means to be mean-spirited.  Gates is the sort of fellow whom it would be easy to welcome as a friend.

          Before we can talk about the book seriously, however, there is a threshold matter that demands attention.  Gates sees the world in conventional terms, and acted on that basis as Secretary of Defense.  Even though he had long worked at and near the top of the American intelligence community (including as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1993) and as Secretary of Defense, and for that reason can be taken to have been privy to the innermost secrets of the U. S. government, his conduct and his book are premised on the international scene’s being just what the average person is given to believe about it: that Islamist jihadists committed the 9/11 attacks, and that the United States and its allies are engaged in yet another existential struggle of indeterminate length, this time with aggressive fanatics from across the Islamic swath.

          The citadels of established opinion, and virtually all the media, in the United States have occasionally sought to rebut those who have raised questions about this scenario, but have mainly tried to suppress those questions by ignoring them.  That does not mean, however, that those questions do not exist.  A large number of serious and technically qualified people – including demolition experts and, among others, the “Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth” – think the evidence compelling that the World Trade Center buildings (including Building No. 7, a 47-story-tall skyscraper that was not hit by an airplane and that is almost never mentioned) were brought down by controlled demolition.  They see a number of other discrepancies in the official narrative.  The implications are earth-shaking.  They suggest we have been living in a world of make-believe since 9/11 and that we are like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave who saw only shadows on the wall.  Quite independently of 9/11, we know that on a large number of other matters inquiry has been suppressed, so that Americans (and through them probably the world at large) see personalities and events in ways far removed from reality.  We have examined many of those matters in these pages.[1]  We will proceed to discuss Gates’ account on its own terms, but this can only be done through what in theater is called “a suspension of disbelief.”

          A familiarity with Robert Gates and his mental landscape will be useful as we look ahead to the issues we will discuss.  In all, he served eight presidents during his long career.  In addition to the service we have mentioned as Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, and nine years at the National Security Council, he has been in the academic community first as interim dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and then as that University’s president.  He grew up in Kansas, went to the College of William and Mary for his bachelor’s, to Indiana University for his masters in history, and to Georgetown University for his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history.  Most recently, he has become the president of the Boy Scouts of America.  It is safe to say that he is one of the preeminent men (1) of his generation.

          In a sense, he has been an archetype of his time, being someone who has fit in well.  He considers himself “a moderately conservative Republican,” which is something that has a peculiar meaning in today’s American context.   His “conservatism” consists of not having been among the activist, anti-establishment figures of his generation.  His “moderation,” however, somewhat belies that conservatism.  “Moderates” in the American context are those who acquiescence uncomplainingly in each of the cultural, political, economic and social initiatives of the ideological establishment.  They don’t presume to lead the way, but they instinctively “go along to get along.”  There are many examples of this sort of moderation in the book, but one of the best comes from a May 2014 Associated Press report about Gates’ assumption of the Boy Scouts’ presidency: “Robert Gates, the new president of the Boy Scouts of America, said Friday that he would have moved to allow openly gay [i.e., homosexual] adults in the organization… but said he opposes any further attempts to address the policy now.” (2) It is this non-confrontational condonation that makes him so agreeable and lends itself to the easy readability of his memoirs.  So also does his ready acceptance of America’s reigning myths and his sliding easily over disquieting historical truths.  Most readers will nod in agreement, say, when he writes of the “fear that led Franklin D. Roosevelt to intern the Japanese-Americans.”(3)  It is agreeable to accept his statement that “promoting democracy around the world had been a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy since the beginning of the Republic… What has differed has been how to accomplish or pursue that goal.”  What this brushes over, of course, is John Quincy Adams’ famous dictum that the United States ought not “to go abroad seeking monsters to destroy,” a policy that was mostly followed until it was sharply abandoned in 1898 and that was by no means compatible with the “promotion of democracy” through worldwide intervention as we have come to know it.(4)  As we have seen, Gates received a doctorate in Soviet history, so when he mentions “the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland” but does not refer at the same time to the Soviet Union’s invasion that divided Poland with Germany, it is natural to suppose that his omission is not due to his ignorance of history, but is rather a case of his following in well-established ideological footsteps.

          Gates’ “moderation” often involves endorsing the far reaches of a concept and then seeming to want prudence in carrying it out, but not to the point of obliterating the goal.  A call for prudence in execution would seem sensible in any context, and is to be admired in itself.  And yet, we arrive at our central criticism of his worldview and of his performance as Secretary of Defense.  The broad concept he embraces is the same as that favored by nearly all factions in American society today: that the United States should be both the policeman and the social worker of the world.  Thus, he would guard against policies that might diminish the “global security role for the United States,” arguing that “our security needs and responsibilities remain global” and that “I strongly believe America must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities.”  It is not surprising that his vision of the American role includes such a thing as having “a robust air and naval presence in the Pacific, especially in East Asia,” in effect placing the United States in the middle of the fractious relationships between China, North Korea and their neighbors.  When Russian president Putin criticized America’s dominance and “almost uncontained hyper-use of force,” Gates didn’t acknowledge Putin’s point, but instead called it a “diatribe.”  His desire for prudence appeared when he didn’t want “another enterprise in nation building” in Libya and argued that “we should not overestimate our ability to influence what would happen after Qaddafi fell,” but it is consistent with his overall mode of thinking for him then to do an about-face.  Accordingly, he praises the overthrow of Qaddafi, calling it “a huge setback for al Qaeda by giving the lie to its claim that the only way to get rid of authoritarian governments in the region was through extremist violence.”  For us to see that Libya is now in the throes of violence and chaos following the West’s (and United States’) intervention does not require a new “ah-ha” experience on our part; Libya’s tribal divisions being what they are, the chaos was predictable from the beginning.  It’s noteworthy that his view of American “national interest” is expansive, since he says that something becomes a part of “our vital national interests,” even though he might otherwise not consider it to be, if “our closest allies feel that it affects their vital interests.”  This opens up a vast field.  It means, say, that if allies such as Israel consider something a vital interest to themselves, “we have an obligation to help them.”

          It is important to understand why the idea that the United States should opt for global intervention to seek out and act against any injustice that draws the attention of the American media and should minister expansively to the miseries of the world’s poor and of those who are caught within inhumane cultures is both, as the cultural commentator Samuel Huntington has observed, dangerous and presumptuous.  The presumption is evident for a number of reasons.  One is that the American people are themselves in continuing ideological flux, so that whatever they set up as the standard for others has no assured permanence even from Americans’ own point of view.  Another is that Americans, including their top leaders, have a profound ignorance of other peoples, their cultures, divisions and history.  Gates sees this when he says “we had no idea of the complexity of Afghanistan – tribes, ethnic groups, power brokers, village and provincial rivalries.”  Speaking of Iraq, he adds that “our prospects in both countries were grimmer than perceived, and our initial objectives were unrealistic.”  If this is so of Afghanistan and Iraq, is it not true also of Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine – and of such others as the United States may aspire to refashion?  Yet another reason the world-intervention role is presumptuous is that, even if Americans fully understood a given culture, the world’s billions have their own preferred ways of life, often deeply rooted and with long histories.  In political terms, we would speak of “their sovereignty” and of the “right of self-determination” so extolled by Woodrow Wilson.  No doubt many of their practices are repugnant to Americans, and sometimes even to any civilized person.  But here, “presumptuousness” blends into “impracticability.”  Those who would reform the world stand like a child with a pale facing the ocean.  The will may be there, but the means are totally lacking.  Not only is the ocean vast, but it has more intricacy and depth than the child can ever imagine.

          It isn’t hard to see why such presumption is also dangerous.  It may be helpful to cite two examples that have the benefit of being far removed from today’s context   .  One that comes to mind is the killing of Nathan Meeker and seven other members of the U.S. Indian Agency at the White River Ute Reservation in northwestern Colorado in September 1879.  Meeker was a well-meaning but pious representative of the U.S. government who was intent on reforming the Ute Indians.  He opposed their racing their ponies, and infuriated them by having their racetrack plowed under.  They struck a blow for their own prerogatives by a rampage known today as “the Meeker Massacre.”   The episode is reminiscent of our second example: the death of Ferdinand Magellan.  By April 1521, Magellan had almost completed his round-the-world journey to the Spice Islands when he landed in the Philippines.  He claimed the islands for Spain and sought to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  When Lapu Lapu, the king of the island of Mactan, refused to go along, Magellan invaded with a small force dressed in armor.  The resulting scene was not unlike the one that saw the demise of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana centuries later.  Magellan and 49 of his men waded ashore and set about burning the villagers’ houses.  The diarist aboard the Magellan expedition later reported that this “roused [the natives] to greater fury.”  1500 of them chased the invading party into the water, where Magellan was cut to pieces.  The whole episode illustrates the dangers of seeking forcibly to refashion people who insist on their own right to life, and this is further illustrated by the fact that even today, almost five centuries later, “Filipinos restage the battle of Mactan on the beach where it occurred, with the part of Lapu Lapu played by a film star….”(5)  

          The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have played this out on a much larger scale.  As wars without well-defined and limited “end games,” each transmuted into an attempt at nation-building on a Westernized central government model.  The expenditure of lives, limbs and treasure was immense.  In both of them, what remains after the United States departs will be the same welter of internecine conflicts as existed before the interventions.  The Pashtuns remain in place as the Pashtuns, and the Sunni/Shiite estrangement (complicated by countless smaller self-asserting tribes and sects) continues, not only unabated but exacerbated.  The people there continue their lives.  

          Neither the danger nor the presumption is evident to most Americans.  A sentimental naivete, fueled by a combination of hubris and ignorance, has roots going far back into the religious history of the American people.  It is what critics call “the do-gooder mentality.”  It is worth reflecting, also, on the fact that numerous interests play upon and feed off of this naivete.  Some of these are nation-states pursuing their ends within the world of Realpolitik.  Beyond that, the admonition “follow the money” is a good one.  The “military-industrial complex” of which President Eisenhower so famously warned would not exist in nearly so immense a size without it.  Much of the corporate world is intermeshed with this complex.  And the vast web of NGOs (“non-governmental organizations”) spread out across the world is itself a force to be reckoned with, supporting thousands with often generous salaries.  When we point these things out, we do not, of course, mean to question the sincerity and good intentions of the millions of people involved.  Nor are we against doing good, if the sentiment is guided by realism.     

          If our analysis so far is correct, it means that Robert Gates’ service as U.S. Secretary of Defense might well be seen in a very different light than he himself sees and portrays it in his memoirs.  What it suggests is that he was the very busy executor of a Fairy Tale.  He gives a good insider’s account of the history of those years, but the disconnect between the harsh realities of the world, and most especially of Iraq and Afghanistan, and what the United States thought it was doing put Gates in a quizzical position.  Let us suppose that the apostles of global intervention, taken collectively, amounted to today’s Don Quixote.  That would make Gates their Sancho Panza.

          There are a number of separate points about the book that call for examination – too many, as we’ve said, to allow for us to discuss them all.  There is much to think about.

          Civilians and insurgents.  In the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland faced a well-nigh insurmountable problem of how to protect a civilian population while trying to destroy an insurgency that made a point of mixing with that population.  He attempted rather unsuccessfully to relocate civilians in centers away from their villages.  The depopulation was intended to allow him to turn large swaths of the countryside into “free fire zones” in which anyone present could be considered an enemy.  We know, of course, that things did not turn out nearly so neatly; large numbers of civilians chose to hunker down in their rural villages.  Although that choice was fully understandable in human terms, it defeated the strategy that was intended to protect them.

          The U.S. military faced the same problem in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Gates says “the Taliban would hide among the population, use civilians as shields, and kill anyone who opposed them.” That was the context in which “we were extremely careful to avoid civilian casualties – uniquely, I think, in the history of warfare.”   He adds that “I don’t believe any military force ever worked harder to avoid innocent victims.”  When civilian casualties were caused by U.S. action, Gates offered “sincere condolences and personal regrets,” and “consolation payments” were made to families. 

          The military was, in effect, being called upon to “square the circle” – i.e., to do the impossible, at considerable risk to American soldiers doing the fighting.  Questions that run through a reader’s mind time and time again are “how was it intended to be accomplished?  What were the ‘rules of engagement’ for ground forces and pilots?  Why has the issue not posed the same conundrum as Westmoreland faced in Vietnam?”   Gates, however, seems unaware of the difficulty, has no curiosity about it even though it was one of the hardest realities he faced, and never discusses it.

          “Progress” versus reality.  Gates tells how he was “floored” at one point when President Obama said to him “I don’t have the sense it’s going well in Afghanistan”  Gates then assured the president that “I believe we are making progress.”   The incongruity of this is apparent when we recall that when Gates told of this he had just informed readers that “there had been no real improvement in the standing of the Afghan government outside Kabul, with little or no central government presence in the provinces and villages and continuing corruption at every level – perhaps most harmfully by local officials and police, who routinely shook down ordinary Afghans.”  Five pages after the passage about the president’s comment, Gates says a general briefed him about how “the choice facing us was a theocracy run by the Taliban or a ‘thugocracy’ run by the likes of AWK [Ahmed Kali Karzai, president Karzai’s reputedly corrupt half-brother].”

          The idea that, despite it all, “we are making progress” illustrates, we think, Gates’ deeper fantasy that there was in fact a way, “given enough time,” to “achieve success” in refashioning alien societies.  Consistently with his mental bipolarity, he eventually came to think in terms of limiting the objectives, such as “to train the Afghan army to prevent al Qaeda from returning”; but he wanted to continue an American military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan for an indefinite number of years.  He never discusses what a significant but limited force could accomplish.  Would it primarily serve as a trip-wire entangling Americans in future troubles and forcing either an ignominious departure or, more likely, the renewal of an American combat role?  The overall picture is that Gates was a hard-working, intelligent functionary with opinions on many things, but pushed along by events rather than having a consistent and realistic set of goals.  This was not simply his own failing; such goals were not available as part of the Fantasy in which the United States was enmeshed.

          The disconnect between policies and their implementation.  Gates says “I depended upon others for effective implementation of my decisions.”  He could, of course, hardly do otherwise.  We are struck, however, by how the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars show how little control people at the top really have over what happens down below.  At many junctures, one thing comes through clearly: that Gates was like the rider of a recalcitrant horse.  He was usually impotent, and realized it.  This was something beyond his control, despite his abilities and experience as a competent administrator of large organizations.  One is reminded of the wisdom of Marshal Katuzov as described by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace.  Kutuzov, in contrast to Napoleon, knew that he could put the pieces in place before a battle, but that accident, unpredictable human factors, and the twists of fate would control once the battle got underway.

          A good example is the inability even of the Secretary of Defense to control one of the major parts of the military effort in Afghanistan.  The following passage tells the story: “There would be questions about why so many of the additional troops – Marines – were sent to Helmand province with its sparse population… The Marines were determined to keep operational control of their forces away from the senior U.S. commander in Kabul and in the hands of a Marine lieutenant general… The Marines performed with courage, brilliance and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission… I should have seized control of the matter… It was my biggest mistake in overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  (This can be seen on both a macro and micro level.  It means that a good many young Americans lost their lives or their legs in what they, their parents, families and countrymen thought was a necessary sacrifice, when in fact it wasn’t.  There is untold tragedy – and much culpability – in that.)

          Gates had constantly to struggle with the very department he headed, seeking responsiveness.  “One of the biggest challenges I would face throughout my time as secretary [was] getting those whose offices were in the Pentagon to give priority to the overseas battlefields,” leading him to comment on “that damnable peacetime mindset inside the Pentagon.”  He found an unwillingness at senior levels to put dollars into “providing the troops [in Iraq] everything they needed for protection and for success in their mission.”  Gates wanted the Air Force to use more drones, but ran into a wall of resistance until “the service finally embraced the future role of drones.” 

He wanted to eliminate certain programs, not to reduce the overall military budget but to adapt it better to the type of wars the United States was likely to fight.  He found to his dismay that “Defense is not disciplined about eliminating programs that are in trouble, overdue, and over budget.”  Complex and overlapping offices led to calcification: “When I sought to fix the problems I have described, I came to realize that in every case, multiple organizations were involved, and that no single one of them – one of the military services, the Joint Chiefs, the undersecretary for acquisition, the comptroller  -- had the authority to compel action by the others.”  To cut through this bureaucracy, Gates found it necessary to create special task forces separate from the formal structure.

The problems went far beyond the convolutions of the Department of Defense, which Gates describes as the “largest, most complex organization on the planet.”  Part was attributable to political imperatives within Congress, which, to satisfy each senator and representative’s local constituents, “requires the military services to keep excess bases and facilities and to buy equipment that is no longer needed or is obsolete.”  Even the White House contributed to the Tower of Babel effect: “I could already see a president [Obama] and White House staff, as so many before them, seeking total control and trying to centralize all power – and credit for all achievements….”  When the Libyan crisis arose, Gates “was furious with the White House advisers and the NSS [National Security Staff] [for] talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”  Especially galling was that there were people in the White House “advising the president on foreign policy issues that they knew nothing about.”

          There was little coordination in the conduct of the wars.  Gates gives an example in the area of “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).”  “Each military service was pursuing its own programs, there was no coordination in acquisition, and no one person was in charge to ensure interoperability in combat conditions.  The undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the CIA with its drones (mainly flown by the military), and the director of national intelligence all had their own agendas.  It was a mess.” 

We are told that President George W. Bush created an “NSC war czar” in 2007 “charged with coordinating the military and civilian components of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  This was years after the latter started in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Even this belated move must not have solved “the U.S. command and control problem,” however, because in early 2010 Gates found it necessary “to bring all American troops (including both special operations and the Marines) under the U.S. theater commander, at last establishing ‘unity of command.’”  “It had taken far too long to get there, and that was my fault,” Gates says, taking on himself blame for something that was at least equally the responsibility of the presidents and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

          Incompetence and profligacy.  The enormous civilian input into each war effort was not within the Secretary of Defense’s domain.   Nevertheless, our review of “the disconnect between policies and their implementation” would be incomplete if we did not note how incompetent and profligate the American performance was on the civilian side.  The size of the undertakings is indicated by an Associated Press report in March 2013: “To date, the U.S. has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants to help Iraq.”  “In Afghanistan, U.S. taxpayers have so far spent $90 billion in reconstruction projects during the 12-year military campaign.” 

The AP account tells how the final report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) cited “multiple examples of thwarted or defrauded projects,” laying “bare a trail of waste.”  Among them: “The U.S. began building a 3,600-bed prison in 2004 but abandoned the project… [It] cost American taxpayers $40 million but sits in rubble.”  “Subcontractors… overcharged the U.S. government thousands of dollars…, including $900 for a control switch valued at $7.05 and $80 for a piece of pipe that costs $1.41.”  An attempt was made to rebuild a destroyed pipeline under the Tigris River, but “a geological study predicted the project might fail, and it did,” costing “an additional cost of $29 million” over the initial $75 million.

          Two books already reviewed in these pages have given similar accounts of out-of-control waste.   One that had to do with Iraq was Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.(6)  The author, who served as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service officer in Iraq, found “opportunism, careerism, indifference, failures of communication, short-termism, a love of hype, obliviousness to reality, bureaucratic make-believe, prodigality and corruption.”   Profiteering was, of course, part of the opportunism; a $150 billion pot was inevitably a magnet for those ready to take advantage of it.  Van Buren illustrates all of this with graphic instances. 

The other book had to do with Afghanistan: Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.(7)  The author was a senior correspondent for The Washington Post.  He reported one abortive project after another, including “a sprawling commercial farm with miles of strawberry fields,” costing several million dollars before “USAID officials realized… the groundwater and soil were too salty to grow crops.”  The construction of a cobblestone road had to be abandoned after “local leaders [who had not been consulted ahead of time] complained that ‘the cobblestones hurt their camels’ hooves.’”  Chandrasekaran said “International Relief and Development spent several million dollars to buy thousands of gasoline-operated pumps… but when provincial leaders got word of the plan, they howled.  The pumps, they argued, would suck the canals [from which the pumps were to draw water] down to the mud, leaving farmers downstream high and dry.  Since the pumps couldn’t be returned, they were left in warehouses to gather dust.”

Need to “respect Afghan customs.”  Gates was critical of the fact that “we often disrespected their [the Afghans’] culture or Islam and failed to cultivate their elders,” saying that “respect for the Afghans and their customs was critical.”   It is not surprising, then, that he never mentions the proselytizing the United States has done in Afghanistan for women’s rights as seen through Western eyes. 

The drive for change has been an active one.  Jenna Pickett of Virginia Military tells us that “throughout the first [George W.] Bush administration a series of public pronouncements and reports painted an optimistic picture of improvement in the conditions of Afghan women following the U.S. invasion….”  In 2013, Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer told how “at a recent Georgetown University symposium, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and John Kerry all urged Americans not to abandon Afghan women after U.S. troops exit next year.” 

It is often said that “the United States is not at war with Islam, but only with Islamist jihadists.”  It is difficult to square this, however, with the United States’ effort to refashion several Islamic societies in a Western image.  This involves promoting “democracy” while at the same time rejecting elections won by Islamic majorities, and pushing hard for a version of “human rights” that seeks in many ways to abolish differences between men and women.  It also promotes the universal acceptance of homosexuality.

Whatever the merit of these positions, it is clear that they are sharply at odds with Islamic beliefs and customs.  Pickett, whom we have just quoted, went on to observe that “cultural attitudes in Afghanistan strongly resisted the progressive changes being introduced by the Bush administration and its Afghan partners.”  Ida Lichter in the Huffington Post says it more graphically: “The public execution of Najiba, a woman accused of adultery, is testament to the brutal customary laws of Taliban and Pashtun cultural practice in Afghanistan. Other examples of increasing recent violence against Afghan women include the rape and torture of 18-year-old Lal Bibi by Afghan Local Police and the assassination of Hanifa Safi, the provincial head of women's affairs in Laghman province.”

We can’t help but think that when Gates does not see the wide gulf between American aspirations and his call for “respecting Afghan customs,” it illustrates again a failure to come to grips with realities.  “Respecting their customs” sounds good, but surely the matter shouldn’t be left at that; it calls for serious thought.

Compassion for the troops.  Gates expresses his deep feeling for the troops and their families.  He tells how “I was overwhelmed” when a mother told him “I have two sons in Iraq.  For God’s sake, please bring them home alive.”  He felt the weight of this responsibility the entire time he served as Secretary of Defense, and he mentions it many times.

As with so much else, though, this is mixed with incongruity.  We need not belabor the point already made that the wars went on interminably without realistic objectives.  When Gates repeatedly wanted “more time” for increased military efforts, and an eventual indefinitely-long presence in both countries, this all called for more lives lost and catastrophic injuries. 

This in itself is not hard to understand.  Even the most caring military leaders, those who would hope to keep casualties to a minimum, often have to subordinate their compassion to the imperatives of war.  What is not nearly so easy to understand is the instance in which Gates sought to “consult the troops” on a major issue affecting them directly, and then “brusquely” brushed aside their opinions, asserting their duty to comply.  This occurred when the issue came up of whether “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed and homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly.  Gates established a Pentagon working group “to consult the troops.”  The result was that “the survey showed substantial resistance among combat forces.”  The commandant of the Marine Corps was among those strongly opposed.  The survey, though, turned out to be entirely for show.  Gates reversed himself, and said he spoke “rather brusquely” to the effect that “I can’t think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the American armed forces on a policy issue.”  In bankruptcy law, there is such a thing as “cram-down.”  A similar thing was applied by Gates on the homosexuality issue.  Despite the survey, he applied the usual military principle of disciplined obedience, with the bottom line being “shut up and do as you’re told.” 

But our discussion should go further.  Observers of American culture since World War II will do well to notice that allowing the open service of homosexuals is, in fact, considered compassionate by establishment opinion.  For many years, compassion toward the feelings of the majority has rarely been considered, on this and other issues.  This may seem a strange convolution of value preferences, but it is not hard to understand when we consider that for well over a century the American intelligentsia has harbored a deep alienation toward virtually every element of the American majority.  It comes rather naturally, from that perspective, to think of those who do not welcome sharing a foxhole or shower stall with a homosexual a “bigot,” and hence someone to whom there is no need to extend compassion. 

Continuing an odd moral equivalency.  Governments throughout the world, including those that are clearly legitimate when judged by democratic principles and others that are otherwise rooted, are today subject more than ever to mob-action coups d’etat.  Such challenges have always existed, but they are heightened when cell phones, texting and tweeting make possible a rapid mobilizing of large masses of people. 

The international community has long entertained an odd moral equivalency that insists that even stone- and Molotov cocktail-throwing crowds must be given obeisance by the existing authorities.  We recall scenes in South Korea, say, where crowds of young men threw Molotov cocktails at lines of policemen passively protecting themselves with large shields.  There has for many years been a quizzical diffidence in acting against such mob action.  Situations in which it arises vary across a broad spectrum, which makes one wonder why there should be a per se norm covering the subject.  Although this may seem a minor subject compared to the others we have discussed, the international context today makes it foolish to consider it so.  Peoples everywhere should question whether the diffidence will at all times serve them well, rather than accept it unthinkingly. 

In January 2011, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whom Gates describes as “a dictator who had been in power for more than twenty years,” was overthrown by mass protests, called together by electronic media.  U.S. President Obama ostensibly stayed neutral as he invoked the usual expectation, “condemning the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators.”  The call for governmental restraint was far from neutral in effect, however, as we see from the success of the coup.  In his State of the Union address shortly thereafter, Obama made it clear that neutrality was not what he hoped the effect would be: the United States, he said, “stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”  A long period of political turmoil has ensued in Tunisia between contending secular and Islamic parties.

A similar coup occurred not long after that in Egypt, where, as Gates tell us, “young, Internet-savvy Egyptians read Facebook pages and blogs about developments in Tunisia and in the latter half of January began to organize their own demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo.”  Some members of the Obama administration questioned whether the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally, would serve American interests.  Gates, however, argued that “our course should be to call for an orderly transition.”  He phoned the Egyptian minister of defense and “urged him to ensure that the army would exercise restraint in dealing with the protesters.”  Mubarak offered several compromises to his opposition, but the mass action escalated until he was overthrown.  Eventually, elections were held and were won by the Muslim Brotherhood and “the ultraconservative Islamist Salafist Party,” who installed Mohammed Morsi as the new president.  It wasn’t long before the army overthrew him.  Gates says “whether they will give genuine democracy another chance remains to be seen.”  There was no condemnation of the overthrow of the elected Islamic government.

Libya was the next domino to fall in the “Arab Spring.”  Its long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi acted “ruthlessly” to protect his regime against mass protests that were again called together by the ubiquitous electronic media.  Gates says “the UN Security Council condemned the use of force against civilians.”  In the ensuing civil war, Qaddafi was overthrown and murdered.  In Libya’s case, the aftermath has been an anarchy of contending militias and intertribal warfare.

The question of how to defend its existing government against large demonstrations is of especial importance to any nation that may be targeted by the United States for “regime change.”  Mass action has become a major instrument of foreign intervention.  The Obama administration was especially active in promoting the mass-action ouster of the elected government in Ukraine, and has been quick to legitimize the government installed after the coup.  It hasn’t all turned out well, it seems so far, from the official American point of view, as Ukraine has lost Crimea and may ultimately lose its predominantly Russian-speaking eastern industrial sectors.   Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and any number of others are subject to future challenge by mass action, either spontaneous or manufactured.  In the long run, the United States would do well not to assume itself immune.

Our interest here is in critiquing the conventional wisdom held to by Gates and most others in the “international community.”  The automatic assumption of moral equivalency between demonstrators (who may or may not be truly representative of a population as a whole) and a given government is dubious if taken as a given.

The Veterans Administration health care scandal.  It will surprise many Americans that the scandal that has erupted in the spring and summer of 2014 about the health care given to veterans by the V.A. system has a long history, much of which is recounted by Gates, who we know left office three years earlier.  He devotes an 8-page section to problems in the treatment of “wounded warriors,” telling of his many frustrations in trying to make the system responsive.  The Walter Reed Medical Center scandal broke on his watch, brought to his attention by articles in The Washington Post.  We will leave it to readers of his memoir to see the details.  It is sufficient to say that the problem was much larger, and long-lasting, than just a scandal at one facility.  Looking ahead prophetically, he writes that “outpatient and posthospitalization treatment of the wounded and their families was a scandal waiting to happen.” 

Gates is careful to mention that the problem is rooted not just in a lack of leadership and bureaucratic bungling, but in the exigencies brought about by two long wars.  “Because no one had expected a long war or so many wounded, no one had planned for or allocated the necessary resources….”         

Many untouched subjects.  As we have seen, Duty is a memoir of Gates’ years as U.S. Secretary of Defense, not a thoughtful explication of the many subjects about which a Secretary of Defense would have intimate knowledge.  Because it leaves so much unanswered, it is a disappointment to those who would care for more.  Here are some of the subjects (among many others) that might well have been explored:

Why he embraced the goal of a unified central government in Iraq in preference to a tripartite division of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish governments either as separate nations or as self-governing parts of a federation.   

What his rationales have been for some of his preferences.  We are thinking of such things as the closing of the Guantanamo prison facility and the welcoming of open homosexuality in the military.

What he can tell readers about the tribal, religious and ethnic complexities with which the United States has been dealing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He never discusses who the Taliban are, their relation to the Pashtuns, the role of “warlords” in Afghanistan; and similarly, with respect to Iraq, the equally great intricacies of its demographic.  Although we assume that “know your enemy” (as well as potential friends) is important, Gates sheds no light on even so central an element.

How he thinks it has been feasible to “reconcile with the Taliban,” which he mentions from time to time.  This is brought up casually as though it does not cry out for explanation.

Why it takes so many years to “train the Iraqi (or Afghan) army”; and why the soldiers, once trained, fight so poorly compared to how their countrymen fight for their own tribes or local militias.  In other words, has it been realistic to predicate American strategy on an assumption that the citizens of either country will be motivated to fight for a secularized central government?

Why it is considered in the national interest of the United States to continue giving vast military support to Taiwan several years after the end of the Cold War despite the large-scale business interplay between Taiwan and mainland China; why South Korea, with a population and economy much larger than North Korea’s still requires American protection 61 years after combat ended in the Korean peninsula; and why Europe cannot handle and pay for its own defense.

Why the invasion of the United States by millions of illegal immigrants is not a vital concern to a Secretary of “Defense.”

What explanation can be given to the American public about the status of the “prisoner of war” issue.  The black and white POW flag flew prominently under the American flag at the 2014 “Capitol Fourth” independence day festivities on the Washington Mall, and is seen all over the country.  It’s reasonable to ask why.  Is the issue still open regarding prisoners abandoned after past wars, or are the flags kept flying as simply empty dumb show?  Secretaries of Defense should be able to tell us.  The issue is important in its own right, but further raises the question of how so many things such as this one can attract so little curiosity, thought or genuine concern.


Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is a readable book by a sympathetic public figure.  What we have sought to do here, however, has been to take the book seriously.  We would hope that Gates will find time to write a follow-up considering the many things his memoirs have left unanswered.




(1) We are not unaware that a reference to “preeminent men” is ideologically verboten          among “people whose opinions count” in the United States today.  That it is so is itself, in our opinion, sufficient reason to use the description.  Gates is, after all, a male.

(2) The Wichita Eagle, May 24, 2014.

(3) For this reviewer’s study contradicting the conventional wisdom that Roosevelt “interned” the Japanese-Americans, see his “The World War II Relocation of the Japanese-Americans” in his The Dispossession of the American Indian – and Other Issues in American History, which can be accessed free of charge at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Book 7 (i.e., B7).

(4) For an excellent discussion of this fundamental shift in American policy, see Patrick Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire, which was reviewed in this Journal’s Summer 2000 issue, pp. 253-256.  The review may be accessed at the website cited in Endnot 4 here as Book Review 54 (i.e., BR54).

(5) See Laurence Bergreen’s fascinating account, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), p. 287.

(6) Our review of this book can be accessed free of charge at the Murphey collected writings website as Book Review 160 (i.e., BR160).

(7) The review of Chandrasekaran’s book is Book Review 162 on the same website.





[1]  Unless a reader has our prior issues readily at hand, the easiest way to find our discussions of those issues is online at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info  Many of the articles and book reviews there have to do with piercing the sophistries that cloud so many subjects.