Stanton, whose decisions meant life or death for soldiers, was found “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs. ‘God help me to do my duty. God help me to do my duty!’ he was repeating in a low wail of anguish.”
Gates kept a copy of Stanton’s prayer on his desk. With surprising candor, (causing considerable heartburn in Washington), Gates reveals he hated his job, sending men into harm’s way while fighting bureaucracy and a Congress “putting self (and re-election) before country.”
After reading reports on MRAPs — mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles — learning their strong underbellies would protect troops from IEDs, buried in roads in Iraq, Gates fought hard for their manufacture, though “no one at a senior level wanted to spend the money to buy them.” It took two years for the MRAPs to reach Iraq, but, over time, earlier casualties and deaths from explosions beneath Humvees were reduced by 75 percent.
Though Gates has written of Vice President Joe Biden as “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” it was then-Sen. Biden whose voice urged the Senate to authorize funds to buy thousands of MRAPs.
Gates admits Biden is “impossible not to like,” then writes of his own dust-ups with former White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, “a whirling dervish with attention-deficit disorder.”
Gates, who was secretary of defense under George W. Bush, staying on for over two years as a cabinet member in Barack Obama’s first administration, penned his memoirs as he ran his office. He does not suffer fools gladly.
His take on Congress: “I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department for being inefficient and wasteful but would fight tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district no matter how inefficient or wasteful.”
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, stung by the criticism, had an acid response. Gates was trying to “make a buck” from his tell-all book, Reid grumbled.
Gates then assured a reporter most of the book’s profits will go to charity.
Though “Duty” is riddled with detailed recollections of meetings and prickly personalities in the military, (David Petraeus, then commander of American forces in Iraq, once told Gates he could make his life miserable,) the heart of Gates’ time served as secretary of defense is bound to his devotion for and protection of American troops.
He was profoundly changed by his role as the man sending young men and women to war, into two wars, and as a witness to the loss of their lives or the maiming of their bodies. He was caught between budget responsibilities and the reality of sacrifice.
He wept most nights after reading the roster of the dead and wrote, by hand, letters of condolences to their families.
Gates was a powerful advocate for returning troops who found themselves mired in paperwork after applying for medical care, and he fired the top brass at Walter Reed Hospital once The Washington Post exposed deplorable conditions for patients there.
He was a familiar presence at Arlington National Cemetery, consoling families, and he went to Dover Air Force Base often, standing, respectfully, as caskets were carried off planes.
He and his wife built a house in the Pacific Northwest, but he will return one day to a place where power is silenced and service, revered.
Gates writes: “I have asked to be buried in Section 60 (at Arlington), where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest. The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.”
And honor is due.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning freelance writer in Marietta.