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Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr.  Headshot

Doing Hard Duty In Washington

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Duty, the new memoir of former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, should be required reading for everyone in Washington, not because of supposed gossipy items about the Obama administration, but for what it says about a responsible government official trying to advocate sensible decisions in a dysfunctional system.

Over my long career in the U.S. Army, I worked with many cabinet officer and political leaders. In my considered opinion, Gates was the best Secretary of Defense in the post-war period. He was the only Secretary of Defense to serve two presidents of different parties. He came to the office with broad experience in national security -- he was head of the CIA -- and real world experience as president of Texas A&M University which is an incubator of many future military officers.

Gates had a well-earned reputation for being close-mouthed, a quality that served him well in his endless negotiations with White House brass, senior military officers, and powerful members of Congress. But beneath that calm exterior was a smoldering volcano of indignation about corruption, stupidity and incompetence in high places.

Perhaps Gates' most significant achievements in my book were his successful efforts to prune expensive, unnecessary programs from the Defense Department's budget. He killed many weapons programs that I know of, including the exorbitantly expensive F-22 stealth bomber. But he was for spending money where it was needed. Over the objections of all the service chiefs, Gates pushed through the mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) armored fighting vehicles that have saved the lives of thousands of our people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The news media predictably pounced on a few quotes in the book that seemed to be critical of President Obama. In the actual book, Gates said Obama inherited the worst mess of any president in modern times, that he was "quite pragmatic on national security," and also that Obama was "the most deliberative president I ever worked for." Gates worked for eight.

There is nothing malicious in this book. It is rather a powerful indictment of half-baked national security policies that put our people in harm's way on dubious missions with little chance of success, of legislators more interested in bringing home the bacon than promoting the nation's genuine interests, and to some extent White House political operatives with no military experience and little appreciation of the patriotic values that motivate our military personnel.

The distinguishing feature of Robert M. Gates, after all those years in the bureaucratic trenches, is his abiding love for the men and women in uniform who bear the brunt of the battle, and the wounds they carry. Would that more people in high places shared that love.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.