‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ | Rich Elfers

In his memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” former secretary of defense under both Bush and Obama, Robert M. Gates, states that he fought four wars at the same time.  The U.S. military was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at the same time Gates had to “fight” two domestic wars: with Congress and with the Pentagon itself. These domestic wars required as much cunning, thought and planning as the overseas wars.

Gates’ priority

Gates’ primary priority as secretary was to protect the soldiers who served under him to the best of his ability. He wanted to get the best equipment and support that was possible.

One example of this was to get rid of Humvees, which were death traps to the soldiers who drove them over improvised explosive devices. There was no undercarriage protection.  Gates wanted vehicles that could withstand these blasts. Such vehicles were developed with heavier undercarriage armor and wedge-shaped bottoms to deflect the force of the blast. They were called mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles. The sooner combat soldiers could use these new vehicles in the field, the fewer deaths and injuries would be suffered. Congress’ priorities

Congress’ political concerns was to preserve defense jobs within their states. These priorities almost always trumped what was good for the combat soldiers fighting for us. To lose a government contract for a new Air Force tanker, for instance, would mean that Washington state would have fewer jobs for Boeing workers and their subcontractors. That would mean angry voters who might react by voting out the incumbent senators or representatives.

As a result, Congress fought to maintain programs for weapons systems that were no longer needed or requested by the Defense Department. Instead of being able to purchase what the combat soldiers needed, Defense procured weapons that were of no use to them and which were designed to fight wars, which no longer threatened the U.S.

Gates came up with a game plan to defeat these Congressional behaviors. He wrote up budget requests that would wipe out 32 unwanted weapons systems at the same time. That way Congressional representatives and senators couldn’t horse trade. They couldn’t make deals to save one defense contract in return for promises of future votes. As a result of this strategy Gates got all 32 defense contracts cancelled and saved the nation $400 billion.

Pentagon priorities

Gates found the common attitude of the Pentagon brass was to prepare for the next war, not to fight the current one. There was little sense of urgency in procurement. Needed equipment like MRAPs could be delayed for years, partly because of the mind-numbing bureaucracy and stupidity of military decision makers. There were simply too many rules and procedures to follow to get anything done.

To fight this tendency, Gates set up alternative approaches and then used his power and influence to push these needed programs through, cutting out a lot of the bureaucracy and red tape. It took a lot of his time and energy to do so, but without the constant pressure from a deeply involved secretary, the programs would not move to completion.

Outsiders may not understand this, but those who work in the Pentagon do not want wars. They prefer peace. They like the personal privileges that come from working in the Pentagon. Wars tend to disrupt the peaceful functioning of those who work there. They also may cause one to lose out on promotions in a very status-driven organization. Those who stir things up are viewed as enemies to advancement. They are punished for diligence and whistle blowing.

In order to combat these ingrown habits, Gates had to constantly ride herd on the bureaucracy that might find numerous ways to thwart a secretary of defense. In order to do this, he had to hire the right people to understand the bureaucratic games that were being played and end them with periodic firings to set an example for the rest.

After Gates ended his term as “secdef,” he wrote an excellent account of his time fighting four wars: one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, one in Congress and one in the Defense Department. His hardest wars seemed to be with Congress and the Pentagon, not against the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.