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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  6,933 ratings  ·  741 reviews
From the former secretary of defense, a strikingly candid, vividly written account of his experience serving Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before Robert M. Gates received a call from the White House in 2006, he thought he’d left Washington politics behind: after working for six presidents in both the CIA and the Nationa
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published January 14th 2014 by Knopf
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Laurell Dowling There is no question that Secretary Gates had a tough job. I think staying through two administrations started to take its toll. His style of writing …moreThere is no question that Secretary Gates had a tough job. I think staying through two administrations started to take its toll. His style of writing made him seem very arrogant. I really don't see that as having a strong backbone. Being able to move Congress to support different programs: such as giving the troops better equipment and better medical treatment were some of his greatest achievements.(less)
Laurell Dowling There was a part in the book where Gates talked about the US having too high of expectations for Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to make both countries d…moreThere was a part in the book where Gates talked about the US having too high of expectations for Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to make both countries democracies may be unrealistic. Maybe we should say we have victory when we can achieve a save environment for its citizens to live. (less)

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Jan 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book started a bit slow for me and, at first, it seemed a bit self-serving and I had a hard time generating much empathy for a guy who paid $40 K for lawyers to do his financial statements after talking about coming from a family of modest means. To top it off, had just read Peter Baker’s great book “Days of Fire” about the Bush-Cheney White House. I did not like Robert Gates in the initial pages.

As I continued, I began to realize that it helped to remain aware that this was a memoir and a
Dec 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
I used to like Robert Gates. I realize that memoirs, (I have also read Robert McNamara’s mea culpa In Retrospect - which I highly recommend) by their very nature, tend to be self-adulatory, but there are passages that encouraged self-emetic tendencies in me. The idea that he left Texas A&M as president, where he describes himself as being overwhelmingly loved by students and faculty after only four years, to return to government as Secretary of Defense on ...more
Jan 21, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I picked up Robert Gates new book "Duty" , I expected a juicy expose` on the inner workings of the Obama White House because of quotes I had heard from TV commentators and from reading the Thomas E. Ricks review of the book in the N.Y. Times ( I can’t say the book let me down in any way, but the tone of the book ended up being different from the tone I expected from the media quotes. I had initially heard about "... Obama being detached and not beli ...more
Washington Post
Jan 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
In his new book, which has nearly 600 pages of text, Gates takes the reader inside the war-room deliberations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and delivers unsentimental assessments of each man’s temperament, intellect and management style.

This confusing, frustrating and sometimes fascinating book is best summed up by a pair of conflicting statements Gates uttered during his tenure.In a meeting with Obama’s national security team a few days before the president’s inauguration, Gate
Feb 04, 2014 rated it liked it
I was fully prepared to dislike “DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. The simple reason is that I wrote a biography of a senior Pentagon official that Gates fired in 2008 (see Circle of Service). My take on how and why the individual was fired contrasted pretty sharply with Gates’ take, but I ended up liking the book anyway. This story is a retelling of Gates’ five years as SECDEF, and is presented in a roughly topical fashion and then linear withi ...more
Filled with insights into the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and decision-making surrounding America's seemingly endless wars. It was a particularly interesting read at the moment since Gates worked very closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Those wondering how Clinton would handle U.S. foreign policy should read this book. ...more
Feb 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One of the better books I've read on contemporary government and politics. It was written by an actual personality, not one trying to secure a place in our hearts or Washington. Michèle Flournoy, Under Secretary to Gates at the Department of Defense, told Brian Lamb in an interview for C-SPAN that she felt Gates wrote this memoir for catharsis; the strong opinions, the letting down of the guard, didn't resemble the rational, thoughtful man she worked for. This surprised her, disappointing her sl ...more
Nov 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
In Duty, Bob Gates writes about his time as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush (2 years) and Obama (2 years). He replaced Donald Rumsfeld during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when the insurgency was in full swing.

I have read numerous articles about “who the best secretary of defense” has been (especially lately with the resignation of Chuck Hagel), and have seen Bob Gates mentioned in almost all of the articles. So even though I am burned out on Bush administration memoirs, I decided
“War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.”

This memoir is subtitled Memoirs of a Secretary at War and Gates brings home the fact that it was not only the American public who did not seem to think or act as though we were engaged in war (two wars!) in the years since 2003, but it was also the Pentagon, which went about its "business as usual." This should not be as shocking to me as it is, since I lived also during this time and knew well that we felt no impact unless we had someo
Oct 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An interesting and very candid memoir. I was looking forward to reading it, and even though a lot of people (generally conservatives) gleefully claimed it was some sort of anti-Obama expose, this isn’t true at all, and I doubt those commentators even finished this book. Gates is very fair in his assessments. He points out the flaws in his bosses but is never purely negative about any of the players.

Gates does a good job describing the challenge of confronting the Pentagon’s monstrous bureaucraci
11811 (Eleven)
Jan 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
3.5* --- Two administrations of opposing political parties through the prism of the same Secretary of Defense. Unprecedented, a little weird, somewhat awkward, and full of crap I hadn't previously been aware of.

Rumsfeld's autobio was more interesting to me but that naturally happens when you're operating from the Pentagon while the building is on fire. Working overtime; still on fire... I'll never get used to that.

This book lacked some of the urgency that was written by his predecessor if you a
Jan 14, 2014 is currently reading it
Updated: I started reading this last night and I am only partway through chapter two.

For the sake of disclosure, I am a fan of Robert Gates and I thought that he was an excellent Sec. of Defense.

Some takeaways so far:

#1 Fmr Sec. Gates could be running for President in 2016. He goes to some length in the first two chapters establishing his Republican and bi-partisan credentials. His age makes a bid questionable, but not impossible.

#2 He has stronger ties to Bush 41 than I knew, not unexpected
Feb 02, 2014 rated it did not like it
I really wanted to dig and and find this book interesting, but just couldn't. Unfortunately at least as far as I got, it was a nearly impossible to follow catalog of activities with no real thread, or analysis. Basically "first I caled this person and said X, then later some other person called me, then I told the president Y, then later another thing happened." Unfortunate, because it had the opportunity to really shed light on an important part of modern history. ...more
Nicole R
I apologize in advance for the long review....this was a long and complex book and there are many points I want to make. I wouldn't call any of it spoilers though....

Do not let the 3 star rating fool you, I found parts of this book interesting, compelling, and a unique insight to our government with regards to war and foreign affairs. However, it really was more half memoir, and half military report. And the military report part was mind-numbingly boring.

I did not know much about Former Defense
Nov 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
After finishing the Rumsfeld memoirs, I was curious to see how the man who took over the reins at Defence would handle the task. I knew little about Robert Gates going in, but that soon changed as I was pushed into his chaotic life from the opening paragraph. Gates is clear in his analysis and fills the pages with a strong argument for why the US belonged in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also stressing that he is no 'clean-up man' for the Bush Administration. Gates inherited a mess in both wars, f ...more
Dick Reynolds
Jan 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Robert Gates became Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush in 2006, replacing Donald Rumsfeld, after serving as President of Texas A&M University. No stranger to government service, Gates had once been Director of the CIA and member of the National Security Council staff. He had to “hit the ground running” on his arrival in Washington with two wars ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Department is the most complex organization on the planet with three million members, vast amounts o
Feb 10, 2014 rated it liked it
I was simultaneously fascinated and bored by this book. Robert Gates clearly is a very smart man who plainly tried to tell his story as honestly and openly as possible. It was very interesting to learn about his experiences in both the Bush and Obama administration and his opinions and decision making processes. However I also felt this book was excessively long winded and an unnecessarily slow read. While Gates provided a lot of information, he went far more in depth on details that did not con ...more
Feb 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting book from Gates who has served eight (8) presidents in various capacities. As Secretary of War he worked for both President(s) George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Gates described that in working with both presidents he saw similarities - both were aloof and not part of the Washington scene and loathed Congress and neither spent a great deal of time even with members of Congress from their own party. Barack was more cerebral and Gates likened him to Lincoln whereas Bush ruled
Jan 08, 2014 rated it liked it
After reading this book I can’t express how much I like and respect Robert Gates. In the first part of the book there are two sections called "Becoming the Soldiers’ Secretary" and "Walter Reed". I actually had to get a box of tissues because I was crying while I was reading. The caring and dedication that Gates has for all these young people, his Aggies (he was President of Texas A&M when George W Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense) and the soldiers who serve our ...more
This book was released to much fanfare and critical praise earlier this year and I had the privilege of getting a signed copy from him at a book signing at that time. And in spite of what you may have heard of some of his criticisms of Congress and Vice President Biden, this is one book you really shouldn't miss. In fact, this is one of the best memoirs of a person's time in government that I have ever read. Brought into the Defense Department by Pres. Bush in December 2006, Sec. Gates had alrea ...more
Jan 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Finally, a book written by a Washington-insider that isn't written by an individual looking for his/her next job, or a self-serving account at how enlightened the author is, or one that is full of pablum bromides that is devoid of reality. Gates actually comes across as a reflective, conflicted, and ultimately self-sacrificing individual. This book actually should be read by business managers as a primer on how to manage complex businesses. Gates isn't afraid of firing individuals, including hig ...more
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book came out while I was attending school in D.C. and I remember the stink it caused. I was in a class taught by Madeleine Albright at the time. She had some interesting comments. The excerpts online were pretty damning, but I only recently found the time to read the thing in full.

Duty is certainly unusual as far as political memoirs go. The first half – Robert Gates’ account of his time serving as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush – reads as the buttoned-up, innocuous fare you can
Betsy Ashton
May 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Robert Gates' book provides extraordinary insight into the behind-the-scenes working of two presidencies. The title alone is telling: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Not a Secretary of Defense, but a secretary at war.

Nowhere in this book does Gates forget to remind us he served in the Department of Defense when the U.S. was conducting two unpopular wars. Nowhere does he denounce the two presidents he served as SecDef, Bush 43 and Obama.

Gates details his support for his troops in nearly every inte
Note that this is a long book - nearly 600 pages. It also starts off really slow - but does pick up a bit in the middle and end. If it weren't so slow and tedious at times, I would have given it 4 stars.

I didn't know very much about Robert Gates before reading this, other than he served as Secretary of Defense at the end of Bush 43's presidency, and for part of the first term of Obama's presidency. After reading this, I'm highly impressed with commitment to troops, how he felt so strongly about
Jan 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Three (3) stars may be a bit generous here. While Robert Gates will go down in history as the finest Secretary of Defense/War this country has ever had, he isn't the greatest writer. This biography was a bit slow and confusing in parts and his opinions did not always appear to match his actions. No question he truly cared about and loved the men and women in uniform who serve our country so well. Secretary Gates assuredly was better than Donald Rumsfeld and was the man of the hour when our count ...more
Craig Fiebig
Feb 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The five stars are as much for importance as quality. This is a book anyone interested in politics, defense, foreign policy or history should read. Gates is one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Defense in US History. Uniquely he oversaw the conflict of two wars AND served two different presidents from both major political parties. The experiences he describes are rich lessons for all branches of our political spectrum. His book will likely surprise people predisposed to dislike or even (sad ...more
Adam Ashton
Feb 17, 2014 rated it liked it
I enjoyed Gates' Bush years in his memoirs, the ones where he's prodding the Pentagon and cracking heads over Walter Reed. I also liked the affection he clearly had for his counterparts in the Bush cabinet. His perspective on the Obama years was less compelling to me. I wouldn't call it score settling because he acknowledges when people had success going against his advice. He just does not seem to like the Obama cabinet. Very strange where he takes offense to Obama beginning a classified meetin ...more
Kaitlin Oujo
A really outstanding memoir. If you are interested in U.S. foreign policy and military affairs, you must read this book. It is aggressively open, rich in detail, and extremely introspective. Everything you would want in a SecDef memoir. Robert Gates is not happy.... he has a lot of feeling that are being worked out in this book, and his frankness is really refreshing. I enjoyed reading his personal stories and exchanges. I also really appreciate his in-depth coverage of the presidential and DOD ...more
Feb 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book (along with Rumsfeld's) is must read to get a good look behind the curtain of the national security bureaucracy. It shows even good men with the best intentions have little luck steering an organization with so much money and so many entrenched interests. ...more
Jun 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Enjoyed this book for it’s fair and even-handed treatment of the last two years of the Bush and the first two 1/2 years of the Obama administrations when Gates served as Secretary of State. It’s not an easy read in that it’s pretty dry and tedious at times, but being read in this current time against the current administration, this book is refreshing as we see people dedicated to serving this country and attempting to make decisions that will be good for the country (not self-serving). Gates vi ...more
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Robert Gates is a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and former Director of the CIA. Between those stints he was president of Texas A&M University, and he currently serves as chancellor of the College of William & Mary in addition to running a consultancy, Rice Hadley Gates LLC.

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