03 April 2014


by Andy Weddington
Thursday, 03 April 2014

"No duty the executive had to perform was so trying as to put the right man in the right place." Thomas Jefferson

There's a day most every young Marine envisions Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (HQMC), that revered place in Washington, D.C., to be something beyond wondrous. That is, a mysterious directorate staffed by all-knowing water-walking Marines - who do not make mistakes and work flows as if emitting from the gods.

After the first few days in Manpower into a three-year assignment, long ago, that dreamy mental mode was shattered for me. 

Reality is HQMC is like any other duty station; almost. That is, good, capable Marines work hard to do the right things for the right reasons to make a difference for the greater good. But efforts are a constant battle because right things and right reasons in one arena do not necessarily interlock with the right things and right reasons elsewhere. And frankly, more problematic, nor with some fiefdoms and agendas.

From that HQMC experience came the logical deduction there is no wondrous place of work - especially in Washington, D.C. And that is truth. Not in the White House, Pentagon, Supreme Court - not anywhere.

Robert M. Gates, our 22nd Secretary of Defense (2006-2011), just confirmed that deduction, yet again, in his book 'Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War'. The Pentagon is not (the perceived) Oz.  

A book review is not the order of business here but some focused comment warranted.

Foremost, Mr. Gates, a longtime public servant, presented his case for doing what he believed right for the right reasons for the greater good - regardless of the president. Though the scale slightly loftier, his challenges and frustrations (particularly battling entrenched fiefdoms and agendas) paralleled those of any HQMC action officer. 

To his credit, Secretary Gates won, rightfully, his share of bureaucratic battles - that mattered on battlefields. 

As to waging war, he said...

"We have learned through painful experience that the wars we fight are seldom the wars that we planned. As a result, the United States needs a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict."

No argument. But answer(s) not easy. For no one knows where the next battlefield. No one. Warfighting think tanks, no matter how experienced and brilliant the minds, are better viewed as guess tanks. They enjoy the accuracy of ball gazers and palm and tarot card readers.

What struck me while reading, and thinking about national defense (and protecting others), is that no other creature deliberately postures itself to be weak - survival demands otherwise. To cower means one thing - to become a meal. And inevitably extinction.

Humans are complex and peculiar creatures - the only creature to contemplate its own death. And plan, deliberately or not, death, too. For all the good our cortex it's likely our doom.

With that sunny thought still rumbling around in my mind, from Mr. Gates came...

"...secretaries of defense are expendable, but presidents are not."

He made that comment in regard to recommending against President Obama visiting a FOB  (Forward Operating Base), because of risk, during a trip to Afghanistan.

Is Mr. Gates correct? 

Are not presidents expendable?

Of course they are. They have to be, presidents are human. And that's why there is succession to the presidency.

Leadership entails risk.

It is countries, at least in some cases, that are not expendable - especially so the United States. Imagine the global chaos were America, even a gimpy Uncle Sam, not on celestial and salt water patrol.

Which led me to mulling over President Obama's propensity for drawing hasty red lines.

What is he thinking? 

The president, any president, need not draw red lines.

Already, there are seven red lines drawn (along with six white lines and an array of fifty white stars on a blue field) that matter - that make for one imposing red line. 

Our flag is the red line. Show it! Stow the metaphorical red marker and rhetoric, Mr. President, and simply point to your lapel pin. And make damn sure you have the means e.g., economic; military; etc., to back it up.

The Seven Red Lines That Matter
flag lapel pin (mine, not the president's)

Foretell friend and foe - America offers, with right hand, a firm handshake, face slap, karate chop, or a fist. Take your pick. But know one or the other assured.  

So back to Mr. Gates, Secretary at War...

He turned to Iraq at length but his comment in closing - that he, et al., had no idea as to the complexity of Afghanistan, the tribes and ethnic groups; power brokers; village and provincial rivalries - was stunning.

With broad experience in government service, including CIA, why did he not know? How could he not know? And, did he, nor anyone else (in either the Bush or Obama administrations), not read Peter Hopkirk's 'The Great Game' - a solid starting point for a comprehensive nonfiction history of that troubled part of the world? (Note: A book that should be read by all elected and appointed to office and by everyone in uniform.)

Strange. No mention of Hopkirk.

Anyway, I remembered another Robert (Fulghum) wrote a bestselling book some 28 years ago. Now, with the Gates book behind me and better understanding the public servant, I suspect he did read 'All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.' 

Because, 'play fair; don't hit people; put things back where you found them; clean up your own mess; say you're sorry when you hurt somebody; when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together' - among other basic lessons of civility, are a stream throughout his book and in line with his way of leading.

Fact is there is not too much that differs, between kindergarteners and politicians and appointees, as to the lessons for how to live. Mostly what comes to mind is the latter use the 'f word' with more frequency. And the elder drink more alcohol where they'd be better served following the lead of the youngsters enjoying warm cookies and cold milk and taking an afternoon nap.

Whatever anyone's disagreements about policy and personnel and criticisms thereof, Mr. Gates - who tirelessly served two presidents and fought two wars, and more, during his entire tenure - cared. He understood the seven red lines that matter. He was an effective secretary of defense.

His driving force?

Not politics.

Rather, allegiance to country and dogged commitment to the men and women (and their families) who volunteer(ed) and sacrifice(ed) to protect and defend country. 

Mr. Gates, priorities straight, is a patriot and merits our country's respect and gratitude.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Post Script

Recommend the Gates book. Easy to read. Hard to put down. And offers insight aplenty. Though he shared some fall-from-grace stories - gentlemanly, the salacious ones he did not. It's his book. 

Recommend Fulghum's by-no-means-outdated book - a breath of fresh air with application to daily living, and leadership; all levels, all arenas.



Anonymous said...

He was surprised about the civic/social structure in Afghanistan, yet spend his adult life in that very environment inside the US government. The description of Afghanistan in your post exactly mirrors the pol mil bureaucracy of the US... Things that make you go hmmmmm...

Thanks for the info on the book. May have to read soon.

Keith Smith said...

Col,your usually spot on with your assessment of our leadership.But in this case I disagree with your assessment of Bob Gates,how could you do the bidding of a President so unattached that he didn't believe in the mission or the commanders leading the mission,was it to protect the men on the battlefield that he stayed on as SECDEF? I don't think so,Bob Gates is a career politician who enjoyed the power and standing he had.Had I felt the way he did I would have given my resignation effective in 30 days.Then after Call condemning the administration and his advisors he went on every talk show and walked it back.Even praising the same man he condemned in his book.In the meantime his assessment was right,time after time this administration has proved to be COWARDS!

A Colonel of Truth said...

Mr. Smith,
First, read his book. Then read more to validate. I did not say Mr. Gates was the perfect SecDef. What I said was he cared about country, cared deeply for men and women in uniform and did all in his power to support them, and was (is) a patriot. Are there variables of his duty to question? Sure. And I did e.g., his understanding of Afghanistan. But your hasty comment comes across as driven by ill-informed emotion vice fact. Thanks for reading and opining. AFW

Keith Smith said...

Sir!,I read the book every page of it,by Bob Gates own words this administration was more interested in politics than taking advice on trying to save the troops,I happened to be one of those troops so I do have my opinion.I can't help but wonder how many casualties we suffered while the troop surge was debated.i'll skip my thoughts on rather Mr Gates should have left or stayed,but I would have let in known where I stood as he did at West Point in 2011.i still don't know,was this administration to political and incompetent or caring and engaged.