Digging Into 'Duty: Memoirs Of A Secretary At War'

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on January 27, 2014 11:48 am
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We'd like to turn now to a story getting a lot of buzz in Washington. "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," written by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, isn't scheduled to be released until next week, but some journalists have already gotten their copies and it's already making headlines.

According to news accounts, Gates was reportedly very critical of his old boss, President Obama, and plenty of other people in the administration as well. We wanted to know more about it, so we've called Greg Jaffe. He's a staff writer for the Washington Post and he covered Secretary Gates throughout his tenure in the Pentagon. He's on the line with us from the Washington Post newsroom. Greg, thanks so much for joining us.

GREG JAFFE: Sure, no problem.

MARTIN: Now, I do want to mention that a lot of people - well, most people haven't read the book, and myself included, because there aren't that many advanced copies. But the memoir is getting a lot of attention because of your newspaper's reporting on it. You've read the book. Is criticizing the president a major theme? Or are those critical passages just the ones getting all the attention?

JAFFE: You know, I think it is a major theme. I mean, he comes away from Washington, I think frustrated and angry and trying to figure out why he's so frustrated and angry. And so that consumes a lot of the book. And a lot of his frustration is with the president and also with the White House as a whole, which he describes as the most controlling on national security since the Nixon administration. So he's pretty critical.

MARTIN: And that's one of the bites that - the passages that's getting a lot of attention. Another one is this quote that - quote, I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission. Now, Secretary Gates has spoken with my colleague, NPR's Steve Inskeep, and he said - he told him that that comment is being taken out of context. So can you help us out with that?

JAFFE: You know, I mean, he is complementary of President Obama. So - but I don't see it as being completely taken out of context. I mean, his big criticism of Obama is not with the results in Afghanistan. It's not with the strategy that he settled on - Gates supports that wholeheartedly. Despite criticism from both hawks and the left on it, where he really faults Obama is his lack of passion for the war. It was almost like Obama didn't believe in it enough, didn't care enough.

MARTIN: Yeah, but, you know, the secretary also talks a lot about, first of all, internal disagreements within the military about some of these issues strategically, which we know exist. And he also says he didn't voice - he never really spoke up and expressed his disagreement or his concern or his outrage at key points. He says - and I don't understand that. Can you - you know the man. Can you help us with that?

JAFFE: Well, it's an interesting, where his outrage - I mean, I think he was struggling to figure out why he was so mad at times. And that's what struck me in this book, that he still hasn't quite nailed it. You know, 'cause he wasn't upset with the final policy outcome. You know, he gets upset that politics creep into the debates, but where they come out in terms of the number of troops they send, how they use those troops, how long they keep those troops in place - he's good on all of that with regard to Afghanistan.

So he doesn't have major policy disagreements with the president or the White House. Even he admits that his disagreements with Vice President Biden on Afghanistan, really at the end of the day, the substantive disagreements weren't that great. But he finds himself, kind of, very frustrated and angry. I'm not sure he really wrestles to the ground why he's so angry.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, he has some very harsh words for Vice President Joe Biden and the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even though he does say that he found her a very congenial colleague, but he says that he thought that Joe Biden was wrong on...

JAFFE: Four decades worth of foreign-policy.

MARTIN: Four decades worth of foreign policies and decisions, which is not small. You know, it isn't unusual. It has become customary, in a way, for former administration officials to write these kinds of books, but usually long after the fact. Long after the administration is over that they are serving in. But to have a former defense secretary criticizing a sitting president while the country is still at war - how is that being received in military circles?

JAFFE: You know, I think Gates is a beloved figure within much of the military, I mean, there are exceptions to that. The Air Force certainly didn't seem to care for him. But, you know, he's widely, or was widely seen within the military as one of our best post-World War II defense secretaries. So I think folks are still wrestling through that. I have heard some folks complaining that, you know, this was bad form and it sullies his legacy a little bit. I've heard others say that they're glad to see that he's surfacing these sorts of issues.

MARTIN: Any clue - and we only have about 50 seconds left - any clue why he felt so strongly about this that he needed to surface these now?

JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, like I said, you know, one of the things that struck me is he was really - he's really wrestling with his own feelings from the war. And I think he feels a tremendous connection to the troops, maybe a little bit of guilt about sending these folks off to war and signing these deployment orders that he knew would result in peoples' deaths. And it just struck me that he's emotionally working through a lot in this book. And that's what I found most compelling about it to be honest.

MARTIN: Greg Jaffe is a staff writer with the Washington Post with us from the newsroom. Greg, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JAFFE: Yeah, no problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.