The working title of this book review was … Why I Don’t Read Political Autobiographies Any More.
I’ll dispense with my usual formalities and go straight to it (although, I just reviewed a few of the negative reviews of this book on Amazon and they all mention issues similar to mine). So …
I have always been fascinated by politics and when I was in college I enjoyed reading biographies and autobiographies of major political figures. Then, one day, the light bulb went on and I realized that most of the biographies were written by people who had an agenda — either consistent with or opposed to the agenda of the biography’s subject. And that agenda would always color the story. And similarly, with autobiographies, they are almost always written to describe how great and wonderful the author was in the performance of his duties, while everybody else threw road blocks in front of him or her. It’s been a lot of years since I have read a biography or autobiography of a current political figure.
Robert Gates’ Duty is a monumental example of why I won’t be doing it again (unless there’s another one on the New York Times Book List). For those who don’t know, Robert Gates was appointed the Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush and filled that role for the last two years of the Bush Presidency. While he wanted desperately to go back to his private life then, President Obama asked him to stay on in his administration. Gates agreed to do so and served for two and a half more years.
The book is filled with criticisms of everybody else and stories of how hard Gates tried to do “the right thing.” Over and over and over again. It just got to be so repetitious. Which is really the worst part of the book. The chapters generally followed the same format:
Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Congress is full of obstructionist assholes, but I did my best because I was called to serve.
Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Somalia Pirates, the Department of Defense bureaucracy is full of obstructionist assholes, but I did my best because I was called to serve.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Terrorists, the White House is full of obstructionist assholes, but I did my best because I was called to serve.
Wash and repeat. Wash and repeat. Over and over. And over and over. The repetitious cycle in which this book was told was just ridiculous.
And then there was this … there were a number of situations in which Gates demonstrated such an utter lack of awareness, it’s amazing. Stunning. I was gobsmacked by the following three examples:
- In the Foreword of the book, Gates states the following: “I came to the job in mid-December 2006 with the sole purpose of doing what I could to salvage the mission in Iraq from disaster. I had no idea how to do it, nor any idea of the sweeping changes I would need to make at the Pentagon to get it done.” That alone is borderline gobsmack material. But, there’s more. Later in the book, we find out that at the time Gates was appointed in December 2006, he was serving on the Iraq Study Group — a group of individuals charged with developing recommendations for, get ready for this, salvaging the mission in Iraq from disaster. So, at the time he was appointed to serve as Secretary of Defense, a position of critical important in solving Iraq, he claimed not to have a clue how to do it. How the hell did he get the job? But, even more so, he was serving in this group responsible for doing exactly what he claimed not to have any idea about, while helping that group produce recommendations. I just … wow.
- Gates recounts a conversation with Obama and other advisors. At the conclusion of the discussion, Obama makes a statement and then admonishes everybody that his statement was off the record in case any of them were working on their memoirs. Gates expresses that he was offended by the statement — not the statement Obama wanted off the record, but the statement about any of them working on his memoirs. And, then, he goes and writes his memoirs and relates the statement Obama wanted off the record.
- And, finally, and I think the worst of everything that is in this book is this one. Throughout the book Gates professes his love and respect for the troops and tells some incredibly touching stories of his interactions with the troops. I don’t question his commitment to the troops (although some might given his orders and approval of sending tens of thousands more troops into both the Iraq and Afghanistan war). I also don’t question that Gates is an honorable man who tried to do what was right. My problem is with this: There was a chapter where he wrote movingly about some very specific interactions with troops — meeting with Rangers-in-training as they finished their most difficult training week and providing them with a cooler full of frozen Snickers bars, for example. Several pages of such stories. And, then, the very next chapter began with him describing his own three year deployment to the “Washington combat zone.” I don’t know, if I was one of those soldiers I would be so incredibly offended that he would even think of what he experienced as Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C., as a combat zone. In that one sentence, he demonstrates such monumental cluelessness, such utter lack of awareness of how words have meaning. If he really respected those troops, he would have recognized that there is nothing even approaching a combat zone that he had to deal with.
That’s it. On to my next book. Back to fiction.