I read the last half of “Duty” during and after the 2020 election. That was a good accidental occurrence. I’ll explain why here, shortly.
Bottom line up front: if you want to read this but only have a little time, read the “Reflections” chapter at the end. It has more impact after reading the entire book, but I feel his reflections are essential to Americans’ awareness and political participation.
In the book as a whole, but concentrated in the last chapter, Gates manages to convey his observations in a simultaneous measured yet urgent way. Because he has served prominently under 8 presidents in our government, he has a unique perspective on the progression of politics in this nation. For this reason, I believe his “Reflections” chapter should be required reading in social studies classes.
A Brag About Humility
The other reason to make this required reading: while there is no traffic on the humble highway in DC, I believe Gates would be one of its commuters. For example, when I buy a book with a person’s portrait and matching byline, I know what I am about to read: the writer’s purpose is to share their point of view and knows that this is their chance to have the last say and influence history.
by Robert M. Gates
New York, Alfred Knopf, 2014
And honestly, I expect this tenfold when reading an autobiography of a government official. Explanations, excuses, self-pats on the back.
Yet reading this book, several times I found myself saying out loud, “You don’t have to say that! This is YOUR book!” Gates does not hold back when a decision perplexed him or he made a mistake. This is significant because he could claim total success and we would not be the wiser, for example with the much-lauded raid on Osama bin Laden.
Gates’s book is like a high-profile Forrest Gump romp through major American events. In a relatable way, he details decisions on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for example, and the personnel decisions on Generals McChrystal and Petraeus. He talks about the key players, the conferences, and the gut-wrenching decisions he had to make.
Yet Gates is refreshingly ruthless in his self-evaluation. In other words, if you’d like to restore faith that humans can be both humble and successful, read this book.
What REALLY Happened in D.C.?
In addition, if you’d like a measured look at life behind the scenes as a policy maker, and an in-depth review of what this particular one did wrong and what he did right, this would be a good read. I had the impression that his take on the decisions of several government officials were scribe-like, rather than emotional.
Incidentally, his writing resulted in shifting my impressions of several government officials. That does not mean I’m an easy sell – it means that he explained their decisions, and how they reached them, without passing judgment on those people, and I gained new respect. It also made me wish for more policy makers like this: those who can evaluate and disagree or agree with decisions people make, rather than slandering their personhood.
The Last Half
Now I’ll be honest. This took me about a year to read in its entirety. Each chapter is packed with the ins and outs of decision making.
Accidentally, this meant that I didn’t get to the last half of the book until the election. That actually made the last half more exciting to read! Why is that important? The book was published in 2014, after all.
Why would the last half of the book matter particularly in 2020?
The last half of the book details his time serving under former President Obama. This meant that Gates had a front row seat to the opinions and decision-making of then-Vice President Joe Biden. In Gates’s role in this book as author-observer, the recordings he made of Biden’s input through years of history take on a particular importance this year. In fact, I believe they could be helpful to many, especially because the observations were noted without knowledge of a future campaign.
Again, if you only have a little time, read the last portion of the book. But I encourage you to read the entire tome, to gain insight on the past two decades. You’ll catch the poignant whiffs of emotion when he talks troops. You’ll gain new respect for the complicated process of running a government.
And don’t miss his strong words for Congress on page 580– they will resonate with many, and hopefully empower many more (Gates, 2014, p. 580).
by Robert M. Gates
New York, Alfred Knopf, 2014
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