Review of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War” by Robert M. Gates

Note: This is a joint review, as we listened together to the audio version of this book.

Duty, by Robert M. Gates, is a no-holds-barred, candid account of the operation of the Department of Defense (DoD) and of the deliberations of the cabinet and national security apparatus under Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Gates doesn’t appear to pull any punches, and there is some very meaty stuff in this book. It is clear from the bridges burned in this book that Gates does not want, or at least anticipate, any further involvement in the political arena. In fact, he appears to detest politicians. However, he respects both Bush and Obama whom he describes as acting more like statesmen than politicians the vast majority of the time.


Much of this memoir concerns the wars fought by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates, who had previously been head of the CIA, firmly believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was a dangerous megalomaniac, and so Gates had supported the decision to go to war. In 2006, before becoming Secretary of Defense, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group (“ISG”), a group of distinguished national security experts which recommended a “surge” – a substantial increase in the number of American combat troops to create security in Bagdad. President Bush carried out the surge in spite of a lack of support from Democrats as well as the joint chiefs and heads of the various services. Similarly, Obama supported a surge in Afghanistan in spite of opposition. Gates commends both of these men for their decisions.


Gates’ impressions of foreign leaders are particularly interesting. He thought Dimitri Medvedev showed promise as being a statesman with whom we could work, but he didn’t last long enough to fulfill that promise. While Bush claimed to have looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and saw a man he could trust, Gates regarded him as “a stone-cold killer.” He considered Benjamin Netanyahu to be egomaniacal and duplicitous. Hamid Karzai, he charged, is ineffectual and crooked.

Gates describes in detail the internal debates over what to do about the Arab uprisings. Gates opposed intervening militarily in Libya, and felt we were much too quick to withdraw our support for Mubarak.

The Arab Spring as shown in The Economist,  Feb. 24, 2011

The Arab Spring as shown in The Economist, Feb. 24, 2011

For Congress, Gates has nothing but scorn despite allowing that it is an important part of government and a potential guardian of our liberty. To Gates, “Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly.” He categorizes the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “rude, nasty and stupid.” The worst of the Congressmen were the hypocrites who accused the DoD of fiscal inefficiency, but who opposed any of his attempts to close unneeded bases in their districts or to discontinue unnecessary weapons programs that had suppliers in their districts. He would prepare for congressional hearings by answering “the way I really wanted to, barking and cursing and getting the anger and frustration out of my system, so that my public testimony could be dispassionate and respectful.”

Hillary Clinton receives very high praise for her wisdom, intelligence, and effort. Joe Biden is described as “impossible not to like,” but almost always wrong on serious national security issues and far too sensitive to the political repercussions from the Democratic “base.”

Hillary Clinton and Jo Biden, October 11, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Jo Biden, October 11, 2008

We finished the book perplexed as to how conservative commentators in early reviews of this book could have possibly seen this memoir as an indictment of Obama. If those commentators were honest, they would admit that Gates held Obama in very high regard. For example, he describes Obama’s decision to execute the raid on Bin Laden in violation of Pakistani sovereignty “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed at the White House.” In fact, Gates is far more critical of George W. Bush’s policies (though not of Bush personally). His complaints about the Obama administration mostly pertain to what he labels as micromanagement by staffers and bureaucrats. He does discuss Obama’s distrust of his generals, but then goes on to admit that Obama was justified in his concerns.

Gates accomplished a great deal during his tenure as Secretary. He oversaw the conduct of two wars simultaneously. He directed the redesign of the heavily armored vehicles used to transport troops, greatly reducing the incidence of injuries due to improvised explosive devices. Under his tenure, the DoD also greatly reduced the time it took to medevac injured soldiers from the battle field. Gates also claimed that he made sure that injured veterans received better medical care after their service had concluded.

Gates advocating a large cut in military spending in 2010

Gates advocating a large cut in military spending in 2010

Gates is no shrinking violet, and has a high opinion of himself. But there is no denying that he has served in important and influential positions in the American government, and that, at the very least, his insights and impressions provide a valuable perspective of America’s role in the world from an insider.

Evaluation: There is definitely a bias to this story – for example, Gates’ discussion of American concerns in Iraq and Afghanistan never once mention our interest in the oil fields of Iraq or the pipeline project in Afghanistan. But that very omission lends importance to this book too, and will provide plenty of grist for historians and political scientists.

We listened to the audiobook read by George Newbern, who did a perfectly acceptable job. Highly recommended for those with an interest in how our government operates (or doesn’t, as the case may be).

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 20 compact discs (25 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014


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4 Responses to Review of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War” by Robert M. Gates

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I love Newbern’s narrations but I hate politics so I probably won’t look for this book.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    Politics just make me want to move to a remote island, honestly. But I’d heard pretty good things about the book so I’ve been orbiting it every time I go into the book store. I think audio would be the only way for me to go here, but seriously doubt I’ll get to it. My biggest issue with these types of books is that I just don’t know enough facts (as they are always skewed by the media) to know whether I’m being lied to or not.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m not sure I’d make it through this one, but loved your review. Conservatives can say whatever they like when the vast majority of their listeners/viewers will just take their word for it. I wonder if Jason would like this. He doesn’t really like politics but I’m always prodding him a bit because I think it makes him better at his,job. Off to put it on hold…

  4. Rita K says:

    Mike listened to the whole book, too and thought it was a good summary of Gates time in DoD. He also wondered how it could be considered as highly critical of Obama. He loved the parts about Congress!

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