Robert Gates: A man still at war

January 12

Former defense secretary Robert Gates in the study of his home in Skagit County, Washington, where he wrote “Duty,” his memoir of his time overseeing two wars. The neck brace is the result of a recent fall at home. (Scott Eklund/For The Washington Post)

Robert M. Gates is a crier. He is also an expert at restraining himself.

The war is fought in the throat, and lost in the eyes.

He clears his throat as if it will hitch his composure back into compliance. His eyes, however, water and redden. It’s clear what will happen if he blinks.

“I’m — ” he says and stops.

“I’m — ” he says and stops.

“I think I’m — ” he says and stops. “I think I’m at peace.”

He sits in a wooden swivel chair but has stopped swiveling.

“I think one of the things that would’ve weighed on me” — he clears his throat — “is if” — he clears his throat — “is if I’d felt” — he clears his throat — “like I — excuse me — had left — if there was something in terms of taking care of the troops that I could’ve done but didn’t.”

His eyes say it, but a phlegmy murmur confirms it anyway: “I think about ’em every day.”

Exactly 9,774 service members were wounded in Iraq on his watch, by his count, and exactly 1,266 service members were killed.

Enough to make you clear your throat.

It was in this swivel chair that he wrote “Duty,” his second memoir, in which he bluntly quantifies the sacrifice that he oversaw and tried to mitigate. It was on this desk, with its glass jar of peanut M&Ms, that he tapped out the observations of the only secretary of defense to serve as the connective tissue between administrations of different political parties. It was with this view of a gray lake and a gray sky in Washington state, cloaked in cedars and hazed by rainfall, that Robert Gates relived the anguish of being secretary, a position of mind-boggling responsibility during not one but two wars.

There are several passages in “Duty” that climax in tears.

“And so,” he typed at his desk, circled by woodcarvings of eagles, “virtually every night for four and a half years, writing condolence letters and reading about these mostly young men and women, I wept.”

Donald Rumsfeld — his predecessor, that gargoyle in the eyes of doves — would never cry. Except he does, in Errol Morris’s new documentary “The Unknown Known,” when recounting a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One thing can break such hard noses, and it’s a man or woman they send into battle. Gates dedicated “Duty” to those service members. Nearly every other page is an indictment of American politics and Washington, where Gates served for nearly half his 70 years, ever since he drove a dark-blue 1965 Mustang stick shift from Kansas to the capital for an entry-level job at the CIA.

That drive really ended here, on a lake an hour north of Seattle, in the fog, tulips in the ground, real eagles overhead. The nondescript Gates home is down by the water, on a lip of wetland beside prime territory for largemouth bass. His study, a couple of dozen paces uphill from there, is really a fancy cabin that looks and feels like a mini-presidential library. It was built for a man who served eight presidents (LBJ to Obama, minus Clinton). Having retired from government 21 / 2 years ago, the secretary is now one relic in a sea of mementos. He has ensconced himself in history books, in positive affirmations of his duties, underneath a cathedral ceiling of cedar.

The subtitle of “Duty” is “Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” though “Anxieties” might have been a better plural noun. In his desk at the Pentagon he kept a hand-copied passage from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” in which she describes Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, racked with sobs and wailing, repeatedly, “God help me to do my duty!” after making a decision that would culminate in a soldier’s death.

Robert Gates says he’s at peace. He wears his duty, though, like a millstone around his neck.

If a 600-page book about How doesn’t quite get at Why, then a two-hour conversation in his study might.

* * *

It looks like someone beat him up.

Robert Gates’s head seems to have manifested the turmoil described in his book. Two Wednesdays ago, he tripped on a hallway rug and fell. He fractured his first vertebra. The neck brace has to stay on for a couple of months. A small, dark-red gash has scabbed over beneath his fine silver hair. He’ll recover from the fall soon enough, but recovering from the reaction to his book might take longer.

After some contents of “Duty” were reported last week (its publication date is Tuesday), the media used the words “bombshell” and “White House betrayal.” Former Obama staffers took to cable news to dismiss a book they had probably not yet read in full. Columnists excoriated Gates for not raising such hell while he was still in office. The White House defended Vice President Biden, whom Gates writes has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Fox News declared that the book “slams Obama’s leadership style,” though Gates writes that the president is “first-rate in both intellect and temperament” and that his problem-solving nature was Lincoln-like.

“People will use different parts of the book for their own purposes, and that’s just inevitable no matter what you write,” Gates says last week, in his swivel chair. He is wearing light-blue dad jeans and a blue striped dress shirt with his reading glasses folded in the breast pocket.

Cool rain patters on the wood deck outside a sliding glass door.

The study is bright and colorful and set to 70 degrees.

“There are no evil people in this book,” he says, his voice soft and creaky. “There are no villains. And certainly not the two presidents. . . . And I think if people read the whole book, as opposed to cherry-picking sentences, then I think it’s pretty hard to say that I vilify anybody.”

The whole book is . . . long. It is tedious. And moving. And irreverent and pious and staunch and self-pitying, sometimes on just one page. It equivocates and contradicts itself, but then, don’t we all?

And yet despite Gates’s clear respect for Obama, “Duty” implies that the president doubted the strategy to surge in Afghanistan but sent troops into combat anyway. Isn’t that a rather serious charge to level against the commander in chief?

“That’s a tough question, and I guess the distinction I would draw is that I think he saw Afghanistan as important,” Gates says. “But I came to have the feeling — because it wasn’t there all along — that he had real reservations about the strategy.”

What bothered Gates was the disparity between candidate and president, between sober deliberation and passion for the mission. Obama ran as an opponent of the Iraq war and an advocate of the Afghanistan war, and his transition team’s Afghan policy paper said the United States has “the patience and determination” to win. That message was muddled or compromised in the White House by the second half of 2009, Gates says, as political will evaporated.

“I think part of it is trying to sort out the politics and the philosophy,” he says. And “so there was this vivid contrast between the campaign rhetoric and the dissent within the administration, and particularly the questioning in the White House and the [national security staff] about Afghanistan, compared to where State and Defense were.”

But Obama, in the end, acted “courageously and boldly” when he ordered the surge, Gates writes, and showed that “national interest had trumped politics.”


“Duty” conveys Gates’s clear respect for President Obama, pictured here at Gates’s retirement ceremony. Yet the book also implies that the president doubted the strategy of a troop surge in Afghanistan but sent forces into combat anyway. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The secretary, in person, is placid. He says he hasn’t been registered with a political party for many years, though by any measure he is an Eisenhower Republican, a Kansas Eagle Scout to the core, one of those obedient, bushy-tailed kids in a Norman Rockwell painting who grew up into a Cold Warrior. He believes in God but not predestiny (“We make the world that we live in,” he says). Civil service means something extra when applied to Robert Gates, who got so much credit for his civility and stoicism during tectonic shifts in both wartime strategy and White House occupancy. Gates’s signature bureaucratic move was holding back his opinions, keeping his cards close, so no one could cast him as a combatant.

The man who wrote “Duty,” however, is a man at war with himself, or at war with the role he had to play in Washington.

“I did not enjoy being secretary of defense” is the first sentence in Chapter 8.

Four pages later, excerpting an e-mail: “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”

Didn’t such animus for the position require him to resign from it?

“I think what I detested was the constant conflict in Washington — of where something was so obviously the right thing to do, and for it to be such a big fight,” Gates says. “That was the part of the job that I detested. People would often ask me, ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ and my response was always, ‘How can you be the secretary of defense during wartime and enjoy yourself?’ The hospitals, the funerals, the condolence letters. Seeing the kids on the front lines. Anybody who is a secretary of defense during war and says they’re enjoying the job, that’s the person to whom I’d say, ‘You better step down!’ ”


Gates, at his confirmation hearings as secretary of defense in 2006, is the only person to have served in that role for two president of two different parties. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

There is a villain in “Duty,” and it is politics, the straw man of choice for any official who wants to be perceived as above it all. It was politics, after all, that helped derail Gates’s first nomination for CIA director in 1987 during the Iran-contra scandal. It is politics that makes Congress “nasty and stupid” (“Duty,” p. 99). Gates was above it, though, or at least perfected the act of behaving so. In late 2006, a Republican president drafted him from his perch at Texas A&M University to reboot the war in Iraq, which involved doubling down on what much of the country viewed as a calamity. A Democratic president retained him to tack toward Afghanistan while the economy was collapsing. He oversaw surges in both countries. He trimmed spending at the Defense Department, the government’s largest agency, and hacked away at the hydra heads of its bureaucracy. He befriended Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he calls “smart, idealistic but pragmatic” and a “superb representative of the United States all over the world.” He demanded shorter medical-transport times from bloody ambushes in Helmand province and vehicles with heavier armor for the bomb-laden back roads of Fallujah.

Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former vice chief of staff of the Army and senior military assistant to Gates, was sitting over the secretary’s left shoulder when he laid out those demands in a staff meeting.

“I will never forget that meeting, and the expression of people” there, Chiarelli says by phone. “They were shocked. Every single one of them had never heard it in the way he said it. He basically told everybody: ‘I want this done in 15 months. I want you to bring to me anything that bureaucratically gets in the way of getting this done.’ ”

A quiet man, when he is angry, gets even quieter.

Or he publishes a book. He pinches his raw nerves and picks at the scabs. The result is a messy first draft of history that foreshadows a grim future.

* * *

The lake fills the footprint of a glacier that retreated 15,000 years ago. The
Gateses moved here 20 years ago, after he retired from government the first time, partly to be as far away from the other Washington as possible. But the capital pulled him back again, and then again. While writing his book, he’d pack a ham or chicken sandwich at the house and then disappear into his study by 9 a.m. His wife, Becky, wouldn’t see him again until around 5. One imagines the secretary banging out his demons on the keyboard, stopping only to swig from his Dr Pepper or unleash invective he had repressed while in front of combative congressional committees. “There is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that” was often on the tip of his tongue, he writes in “Duty.”

That, and: “I quit.”

“Well, those were intended in substantial measure to be humorous parts of the book,” Gates says demurely, “because I got so much credit for being disciplined and civil and bipartisan and so on, and I felt like it was useful for people to know the discipline that was required to make that happen.” The lesson therein is “you better figure out how to put up with all this bulls--- because you will fail if you don’t figure out how to work with these guys.”

His paramount worry is not terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. It is paralysis in Washington, which leads to “mindless” bureaucratic triggers like sequestration, which cuts defense in exactly the wrong way, which leaves us more vulnerable. He thinks the power of party leadership and committee chairmen has weakened over the past 30 years, as representatives desert the middle ground and splinter their caucuses.

“When I first went to Washington, the president could get a dozen members of Congress down to the Cabinet room, and if they could agree on what was in the best interest of the country, those guys could go deliver,” he says. “So it’s the ability to govern that I think has changed, not the partisanship or the vituperative nature of our politics.”

Gates, swiveling now, is framed by a wall of books. His next read is the first volume of a Margaret Thatcher biography. It’s sitting underneath his framed Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose citation honors Gates for “selflessly” dedicating his life to “ensuring the security of the American people.”

On the coffee table in front of a stone fireplace is a photo scrapbook titled “Secretary Gates in Afghanistan.” Behind plastic on the first page is a handwritten letter signed “With great respect and deep appreciation, Dave Petraeus.”

The words “great” and “deep” are underlined.

“No one did more to get our troops the equipment, ISR [Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance], MATVs [all-terrain Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles] funding, and other resources that we needed — and that saved so many lives,” wrote the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. “And no one did more to gain the policy and Congressional support that make it all possible.”

On top of a bookcase is what looks like a large stone tile ripped from a terrace, except its middle is blown through. The brass plaque underneath says: “Because of this MRAP, four soldiers walked away from an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attack in Cheshmeh-e-Shir, Afghanistan, on Oct. 3, 2010. Your commitment to equip our troopers saved their lives.”

It helps, when you’re an ex-secretary of defense, to be reminded of the good, because it’s so easy to think of the countless cemeteries down countless winding roads where families have buried their sons and daughters in the name of national security or foreign policy or democracy or freedom, or whatever these wars have been for, or against.


In Kunar province, Afghanistan in late 2010, Gates pins combat -infantry badges on soldiers at Forward Operating Base Connolly. Reflecting on the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those who died, Gates says: “I think about ’em every day.” (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Iraq is teetering again on chaos.

Afghanistan, where service members are still dying, has not signed its security agreement with the U.S. military, which is due to exit by year’s end.

A man who occupied an “unimaginably powerful position,” as he describes the secretary of defense, can move as far away from Washington as he wants, and Washington will still find him, especially if he writes a book. A journalist will track muddy shoeprints into his study and ask questions.

Is America capable of processing these long-term conflicts without using the word “victory”?

When do we know if it was wholly worth it?

Gates clears his throat.

“I’ve thought about it,” he says. “And I think that — I mean what I would say is that — is that we — I think we accomplished the main objective in Iraq, in the sense that we stabilized the country and we handed the Iraqis a golden opportunity. . . . I think in terms of why [troops] were sent to Afghanistan — that that not become a place from which we can be attacked again — is a worthwhile objective. And if there is a sacrifice in achieving that, that’s a worthwhile sacrifice.”

When you start a war, he writes in the book, you lose control. You commit to uncertainty.

“It’s like those who fought in [the Soviet war in] Afghanistan on the mujahideen side,” says Gates, who was a high-ranking CIA official when the agency armed the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. “Did they know they were going to give rise to the Taliban? Did we know we were going to help give rise to the Taliban? You cannot ever pretend to know the future and to know the long-term consequences of your actions.”

There is a feeling here in Robert Gates’s study, and it’s not something that can be framed or flattened into a scrapbook. It’s the specter of cause and effect. Of making choices, shuddering from their impact, then reacting down the road with another set of choices. We make the world we live in, era by era.

“I look around the world today and all I see is more trouble coming,” Gates says. “I see the Middle East getting worse, not better. I see problems in Asia getting worse, not better. And I don’t see where we need fewer aircraft or fewer ships or, for that matter, significantly fewer ground forces. Because we have no idea where we’ll use military force next. We will. But we have no idea where.”


The Gateses moved to their home in Washington state 20 years ago, after he retired from government the first time. Gates rows on the lake several times a week. (Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures For The Washington Post)

Gates will be on a book tour for the next six weeks. Then he will return to the lake. In May, he will begin a two-year term as head of the embattled, evolving Boy Scouts of America, who drafted him because of his reputation for building bridges and mending fences, having helped the U.S. military slough off “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He will continue his part-time consulting work with former Bush White House colleagues Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley.

He will row on the lake one day and run 2.5 miles the next.

He will have a glass of Jack Daniel’s on the rocks now and then.

He will continue to find joy in his two children, now 33 and 38, and Becky, with whom he celebrated 47 years of marriage this month over a dinner of shepherd’s pie, and in the edifying energy of young people he meets through the Boy Scouts. He will fulfill his publishing contract by writing a book about running large, complex organizations.

And he will pack lunches at the house and walk up to his study and write in peace, or at least quiet, knowing that Washington will come for him at least once more, when he dies, for Robert Gates has chosen to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 60, beside the service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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