Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gates, the un-Rumsfeld

Back in December 2008, I thought I saw a subtext in one of the core themes in Gates' writings about Pentagon procurement:

Gates: Have the army you'll go to war with

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' precis of the Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy in Foreign Affairs, A Balanced Strategy, can be read as an extended inversion of Donald Rumsfeld's fatalistic "you go to war with the army you have." Gates' mantra: have the army you'll go to war with. Here as in many speeches, he spotlights the imperative to reform the Pentagon bureaucracy so that it responds more swiftly to the immediate needs of soldiers in the field -- and can think past ingrained assumptions about what kinds of conflict the U.S. needs to prepare for in the future. Hence his subtitle: "Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age."
Five years later, no sooner did I crack open (okay, conjure on-screen) Gates' new memoir when I came across the same inversion of Rumsfeld's infamous mantra, this time in Gates' own voice. At the outset, elaborating on his book's title, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates enumerates several "wars" he had to fight in office, ending with this:
And finally, there was my bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense and the military services, aimed at transforming a department organized to plan for war into one that could wage war, changing the military forces we had into the military forces we needed to succeed (Kindle locations 52-54).
That "war," in Gates telling, emanated from what seems to be the book's core autobiographical claim: that Gates was driven by, indeed obsessed with, safeguarding the welfare of the troops that Bush's bungling (he doesn't put it that way, but the substantive indictment is clear) put and kept in harm's way.  Some of what he did on the troops' behalf is compressed by Fred Kaplan in a remarkable review of Gates' book:

He also went to bat for the troops. Some readers might roll their eyes at Gates’ many recitations of his love for the troops, of how teary he gets when he visits them in hospitals or writes condolence letters to the relatives of those killed. But these emotions are genuine. He singlehandedly shoved $16 billion in a supplemental budget so that several thousand heavily armored MRAP troop-carriers could be built and sent quickly to Iraq and Afghanistan, against the objections of all the service chiefs—and, as a result, several thousand soldiers’ and Marines’ lives were saved.* When he read of the horrors at Walter Reed hospital, he fired the secretary of the army and cleaned up the mess at once. He also fired the Air Force chief of staff, a four-star general, for slowing down production and delivery of reconnaissance drones, which in Iraq helped the troops spot roadside bombs and track down the insurgents who planted them.
Gates' "wars" to secure those life-saving MRAPs, drones and improved care of the wounded can be tracked in his 2008 speeches as well as doubtless in his new book.

Indeed -- I'm guessing a bit here, based on two extended excerpts and book's opening chapter -- it looks to me as if the book might be viewed if not as an anti-war book than as an anti-dumb-war book: the passionate attachment that Gates claims was so strong it ultimately made him question his fitness for office was antidote to Bush's folly and Rumsfeld's callousness (notwithstanding that Rumsfeld gets a pat as a "class act" in the narration of Gates' swearing-in, with perhaps more stroking to come. And in the '08 speeches, Gates cast his antagonist as institutional Pentagon inertia, the product of many decades.)

And in an irony that many (e.g., Kaplan) have already commented on, while Gates professes to have agreed with every major decision Obama made to extricate the U.S. on acceptable terms from Bush's wars, he faults him, not for not sharing his regard for the troops, but for not sharing his faith in the war efforts he sought to end. Just how Gates derived his own faith in the Afghanistan strategy in particular -- given his cold-eyed view of Karzai's government -- remains (for me) to be seen.

Gates' America, no longer pearly

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