The Real Battlefield

At The Defense Department, It’s Money Versus Duty

On October 15, 2006, President George W. Bush asked Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Even though he was a member of the Washington establishment, a former head of the CIA, a moderate Republican who served four presidents—and a former Eagle Scout—Gates hesitated. The United States was in the midst of two faltering wars. Soldiers were serving multiple tours of duty. The military was suffering battle fatigue. The political tide was turning against the war in Iraq. Then president of Texas A&M, Gates saw students graduate and leave for war. He knew some who were killed in action and others who returned grievously wounded.

If the wars had been going better, Gates might have said no, but efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were floundering. Brent Scowcroft and George H. W. Bush probably lobbied him to take the job. He did his duty and said yes. And in 2009 he said yes again, this time to Barack Obama. In four-and-a-half years as Secretary of Defense, Gates discovered that America’s real wars don’t take place on far-flung battlefields, but in the interstices of the federal government.

Duty, Gates’s memoir, has been criticized for telling too much too soon, but just as he did his duty to his commanders-in-chief, he now does his duty to his...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.