I met former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates twice, both times in the remotest reaches of Afghanistan. If anyone is entitled, indeed obligated, to pen a blunt book about America’s two longest wars, it is this deliberative ultra-insider and Washington wise man. Gates writes with an unfiltered voice and in very detailed fashion—600 pages of ungilded prose—to the benefit of readers, the nation, and, undoubtedly, curious troops.
So what lies behind the curtain of official Washington at the highest levels of government in a time of nonstop war?
Well, it ain’t pretty. It’s mostly petty. It’s policymaking at its worst; policies that rarely matched frontline sacrifice.
In late 2007, Gates traveled to the outer edge of our military’s overstretched empire. He had come to visit us in Khost Province in easternmost Afghanistan, where 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta spent time. After almost three years in Fallujah, I had been sent there as the State Department representative. Dark-suited and circumspect, an Army brigade commander with his team and I briefed Gates in a hilltop fort with two-foot thick walls on our tough fight in the strategic province. I remember telling him “one of the biggest battles in Khost is not between our military and Haqqani’s Taliban, but within the mosques and madrassas.” Throughout that briefing, he asked sharp questions, said little, and conveyed a sense that he understood the risk inherent for all us in maneuvering through an increasingly deadly insurgency.
As Gates’ helicopter departed, I was reassured. In past war-zone visits by politicians, my experience had been just the opposite. For example, in Fallujah, during a discussion on the dangers of Anbar province, a congressman unexpectedly asked Marines about their views on the “high cost of dental care” for service members. It seems he had championed a bill on the subject. This led a Marine general to remark, “Well, congressman, I’ll make sure all of my Marines get their teeth checked tomorrow.” In another MASH-like instance, a southern senator visiting Helmand looked at the maps on a general’s office wall and asked us, “Helmand, Kandahar … what’s the difference?” (Note: To this day, the senator appears on Sunday morning talk shows, airing his “expert” opinions about U.S. foreign policy.) Another congressman watched college football rather than meet with local Iraqi leaders. And so on.
The enduring value of Gates book is the bright spotlight it casts on the workings of the inner sanctum, home to the elite, the powerful—and power-hungry, all members of the lobbied and moneyed class. Gates’ insights only reinforce many of the worst stereotypes of politicians, in line with what I witnessed firsthand. Smallness. Self-serving. Unaware. (Most, but not all.) This bracing and, in truth, more balanced account than recent media spin convey should be welcomed, not castigated. It makes for disturbing and dispiriting but essential and educational reading. Veterans particularly deserve to know when emperors and their hangers-on from both sides of the aisle have no clothes.
Other authors, such as Bob Woodward, James Mann, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, have covered these dramas. But Gates does so having experienced the dysfunction up-close and across administrations, over decades of service. This makes his revelations that much more striking and, yes, alarming in a headline-worthy way. He is not writing as a journalist. He is writing as a major participant. A decider. A truth-teller—the consequences be damned.
On Afghanistan, America’s longest war now in its 13th year, Gates is especially detailed. He reveals a White House national security team at war with itself and a conflicted commander in chief. He describes youthful aides calling top generals directly, thereby circumventing the chain of command. In his words, “For a [White House] staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House-and probably cause for dismissal. It became routine under Obama.”
Part of me wishes former Secretary Gates had resigned from government in protest over the games and ego-driven gamesmanship he witnessed. And then released his account sooner. In his book, he notes the thought crossed his mind on more than a few occasions, especially during Purgatory-like Congressional hearings. (Former Secretary of State, four-star general and veteran Colin Powell might have decided to resign as well—before unwisely making the case for the Iraq invasion at the United Nations in 2003.) And yet a bigger part of me is reassured our frontline troops still had Gates in the bureaucratic battles back home.
Why? Because he fought the good fights. A couple of instances and lessons-learned resonate most with me in his tome.
First, Gates writes—in perhaps his most damning indictment of all—about the little people in big jobs in Washington who lacked a visceral sense of war. He likewise highlights this failing among a detached citizenry on the homefront. And, unusual for DC protocol, he holds them to account. Gates warns of a joystick-like affinity to modern warfare (drones anyone?), a dangerous disconnect he deplores.
“For too many people-including defense "experts," members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens-war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless. But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain. The people who understand this best are our men and women in uniform. I will always have a special place in my heart for all who served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan—most in their 20s, some in their teens.”
Second, he prioritized procuring equipment that would help minimize the threat of roadside bombs. He got frontline troops what they needed, V-shaped vehicles—mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAPs) with more armor—telling Pentagon brass and bureaucrats delay would be unacceptable.
“Whatever the reason, there were hardly any MRAPs in Iraq when I was briefed in April 2007. But I knew damn well that our troops were being burned and blown up in Humvees well before I became secretary and that had they been in MRAPs, many soldiers would have escaped injury or death.”
Gates goes on to write how he reiterated “my now-familiar exhortation: ‘Hurry up! Troops are dying.”
This was personal. Marines and soldiers and I spent too many convoy rides in open “bucket trucks” and flat-bottomed Humvees before more MRAPs arrived, thankfully because of Secretary Gates.
He saved lives. Many.
A caveat: Washington operatives criticized me for being “too close” to the troops, especially Marines, during my seven-year State Department tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Gates, I also lost my policy objectivity—mea culpa—but for all the right reasons, as I believed then and still do. Policy memos are drafted in blacks and whites. Certitudes. Counterinsurgency, as practiced, is all about grays. Uncertainties. In both wars, our troops sacrifices were colored crimson in distant Iraqi deserts and Afghan mountain valleys.
In a Helmand military hospital, I remember seeing a young Marine quadruple amputee, probably still in his teens, attached to machines just hours after being wounded. Now limbless, he slept, drug-induced, unaware of what awaited him upon waking. I recall watching a corporal savaged by shrapnel struggle to survive. So young, he went so fast, barely half of him left on the slickened operating room table, white-then-red surgical gloves and shiny, sharp trauma room instruments—a frantic but failing blur of motion under unforgiving bright lights. And, down the hall, an Afghan child playing with his bandaged stump after a coalition bomb landed in his family’s mud compound.
Gates saw far more of our wounded than I did.
Conscience gets the better of one, of all, in such situations. Or it should.
Gates ends his book by noting he will be buried in Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery. It is a moving postscript. While Arlington is our nation’s most famous and sacred veterans cemetery, I almost wish the former defense secretary had opted to be buried back home, in his native Kansas. Wichita is also home to a number of our KIA.
Such out-of-the-way gravesites symbolize all the American families who sent their sons and daughters to faraway war zones, killed, then buried close to hometown high schools, baseball parks and Rotary Clubs. Each Memorial Day, Washington’s establishment visits Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown. I’m waiting for leading politicians—indeed a commander in chief one day—who turns his (or her) attention and Air Force One westward, landing and motorcading to honor our buried KIA in a small place, far from the Potomac River and our nation’s capital. Wyoming, Iowa, Texas, Colorado … And, yes, perhaps in heartland Kansas. I’m sure Gates would be there.
This epic-length memoir begs an underlying question in my mind. Gates writes about jogging along the Mall in Washington, stopping near the Lincoln Memorial, asking the dead president who ended a civil war: “How did you do it?” This passage prompted questions of my own: How should, indeed will, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars be memorialized? What message and words are to be etched in marble?
I have ideas, and I’ll be writing about them in my own war book—how to do justice, or try, to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families, the KIA and those who survived. I am not sure, however, any architect or commission will be able to capture just how hard and hollow these wars have been for such a narrow part of the U.S. population, deployed over and over and over. Perhaps Bob Gates can be drafted and persuaded to sit on a future committee assigned to determine how best to memorialize the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
That might be the most fitting, final “duty” he undertakes in retirement. Architects will need good counsel from a leader like Gates as they seek to honor, in scripted stone somewhere along the National Mall, our equally dutiful veterans.