The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in late April 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War. After more than a decade of fighting that brutally snuffed out 58,000 American lives, who could forget the pathetic and pitiful scene on the morning of April 30. As the NVA ominously and murderously approached the capital of South Vietnam, the last U.S. Marines were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy by helicopter. As the helicopters whirled off into the great blue yonder, panicked Vietnamese poured into the grounds around the Embassy. Many of them had been employed by the Americans but were now left to their bitter fate.
It was not America’s finest hour. The war had been lost not by the military, which certainly made their share of blunders, but by Congress who felt beleaguered by the war’s political unpopularity at home. Depressed and devastated by our sojourn into Southeast Asia, many Americans had resolved never to enter a war they were not prepared or willing to win. War is a much too costly and tragic affair to take half-measures with.
In one sense, this is the context that Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under President Bush and President Obama writes about in his recently released memoirs about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is called “Duty” and many of the points he makes are informative, thought provoking and poignant. Despite my criticism of the Obama Administration’s war policies, I had reservations about the book’s release while Obama was in office. Certainly facts are important, so is history. We have an obligation to absorb, profitably I pray, the lessons of these two traumatic wars.
But then the idea of loyalty is also critical and one which I highly value. There is a time and place to tell one’s story. When one serves the Commander in Chief, etiquette and good manners would demand, at least to me, that one reserves comments until the president is out of office. I say this even while acknowledging that there is no gainsaying Robert Gates’ service to his country. A recipient of the “Presidential Medal of Freedom,” he was instrumental in turning around two wars that the U.S. was losing. After serving under George Bush he agreed to serve another year under President Obama. As it turned out, he spent 29 months fulfilling his role as Secretary of Defense.
In “Duty” we learn some unseemly things. Congress over-politicizing the war, President Obama having little or no faith in the Afghan strategy even though he sent 30,000 troops, Vice President Joe Biden’s appalling foreign policy positions and Hillary Clinton’s admission of opposing the Iraqi surge in 2007, even though she actually agreed with it for purely political reasons. She was running for president and had to appeal to the left wing of her party. On his book tour, however, Gates makes it a point, perhaps justifiably, from making partisans run too freely with some of these judgments.
While it’s true that on a visceral level, Gates informs us, President Bush wanted to win the war and President Obama wanted to find the nearest exit, Obama showed courage in resisting pressure from his own party, especially Vice President Biden’s staff who were zealously trying to convince the president the war was lost. While Obama didn’t send as many troops as Gates recommended, they both agreed to try to get more allied troops into the theatre of war, which they did successfully to supplement American forces. Gates also has positive things to say about Hillary Clinton despite his dismay over her political considerations during a presidential primary.
The release of Gates’ book is undoubtedly connected to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Iraq after so much blood and treasure has been lost. It’s almost impossible for those not directly involved in the decision making process how emotionally and mentally draining it is to fight a war. In Michael Shaara’s classic work of historical fiction Killer Angels, Robert E. Lee tells his top General James Longstreet that “to be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. No other profession requires this.”
Administrative policies from civil authorities and orders from generals are not merely words and directives. They often mean death sentences for young soldiers and terrible grief for their loved ones. That’s a difficult reality to live with and Gates has lived it very personally and directly. Writing letters to all the families of the loved and lost, visiting those terrible burn units and reading up on the personal
lives of all those who made the supreme sacrifice. He detested his job but nonetheless served out of a sense of duty. He does not want those losses and sacrifices to be in vain; but that for the dead and maimed of these wars to have made a difference.
So Gates’ memoir serves a higher cause than a tell-all sensational account. This cannot be any more doubted than Gates’ wish that he be buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where the remains of the soldiers, his soldiers, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan now peaceably rest from the trials of war.