Sprinting Through the Tape

By Major General Thomas L. Wilkerson, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

" . . . diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are reliev'd,
Or not at all."

What are the diseases desperate grown that have so vexed this Defense Secretary? Are they new issues, or in fact old ones previous secretaries have chosen to ignore? Walk with me through a quick review of Secretary Gates' 18 months of service as he identifies through speeches these challenges and clearly indicates his willingness to not only identify them but also to employ strong medicine to cure them.

From the beginning Secretary Gates designated job one as winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 December 2006, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) asked Gates if he thought the United States was winning the war in Iraq. Gates responded: "No, sir," but vowed to fix that. At his swearing-in ceremony, he said, "Failure in Iraq . . . would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come." Further, Gates promised President Bush "candor and honest counsel" in pursuit of those goals.

Nothing if not consistent, the Secretary last month placed his imprimatur on a strategic blueprint that reaffirms that Iraq and Afghanistan remain atop his priority list. In signing the 2008 National Defense Strategy, he brushed aside reservations by all four service chiefs who argued for greater focus on preparing for major conventional wars.

Lessons of History

Less than eight weeks into his tenure Gates delivered a posture statement to the Armed Services Committee. In it he commented thus on defense spending:

Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

Five times over the past 90 years the United States has either slashed defense spending or disarmed outright in the mistaken belief that the nature of man or behavior of nations had somehow changed, or that we would no longer need capable, well-funded military forces on hand to confront threats to our nation's interests and security. Each time we have paid a price.

With clear aspirations and commitments, Secretary Gates settled into his new position and found, not the missionary motivation of a department at war, but an all-too-casual business-as-usual approach. Important elements of the Defense Department weren't at war, he concluded, but rather preoccupied elsewhere—with future capabilities and procurement programs, with the comfort of lumbering peacetime processes and procedures—all stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. He cited a "culture within all the services and within the Pentagon itself that did not encourage every employee to come to work each morning thinking about 'What can I do today to help those in combat?'" Most important, he found that some civilian and military leaders in DOD did not share his passion for "candor and honest counsel" nor did they seek it from their subordinates.

He has returned to this theme regularly. Speaking to business executives in Washington, D.C., in May of this year, he stated, "The reality is that we are in the midst of two wars and that what we can provide our soldiers and commanders three or four years hence isn't nearly as important as what we can provide them today or next month." More pointedly, he identified again what he views as key leadership shortcomings: specifically, a lack of vision or sense of urgency; an unwillingness or hesitancy to ignore the conventional wisdom; and, perhaps worst of all, an assumption that the war would soon be over and "therefore we shouldn't impinge on programs that produce the kinds of equipment and capabilities that probably would not be needed in today's combat."

In March 2007, less than three weeks after the Washington Post published a series of articles about problems at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center that evolved into the neglect scandal, Gates took action and further defined his focus with these comments: "I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership." Shortly thereafter, he drove the resignation of Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey, fired Major General George W. Weightman, the commander of Walter Reed, and later approved the removal of Army Surgeon General Kevin C. Kiley. He was even more direct on these actions in his comments to the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy one year later. "The situation was unacceptable—and so, too, was the response by some of the Army's senior leadership, particularly one individual who indicated that the problems lie with a couple of NCOs not doing their job. The Secretary of the Army soon found himself out of a job."

The Personal Touch

After the Walter Reed debacle, Secretary Gates began what has also become one of his personal approaches to leadership—direct communication to the rank and file. He quickly sent a message to all U.S. military forces concerning troops wounded in combat, declaring, "As we learn more about these issues, let me be clear: Any individual, regardless of rank—officer or enlisted, military or civilian—will be held accountable when servicemen and women are not treated as they should be."

He has focused with laser-like concentration on wartime aims for DOD:

My top management priorities as Secretary of Defense—areas where I've identified shortcomings and want to see fundamental institutional change before my time in office expires . . . [are] sending more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to Iraq and Afghanistan; providing troops the best possible protection on dangerous roads in Iraq and Afghanistan; and improving outpatient care and support for our wounded.

In June 2007 Gates announced he would not re-nominate Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace in order to avoid a "backward-looking instead of forward-looking and contentious" congressional confirmation hearing. "I concluded that because General Pace has served as the chairman and vice chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] for the last six years, the focus of his confirmation would have been on the past instead of the future." He meant, of course, the war in Iraq. Gates would sacrifice Pace and Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr. for the greater goal of pressing the war effort. Once again his actions tracked with his words.

But he has also given strong consideration to the longer-range strategic view of just how the nation should fight these wars of the 21st century. Addressing the Landon Lecture Series on Public Issues at Kansas State University in November 2007, he outlined the need for stronger defense and for using all national capabilities (including "soft power") to overcome our adversaries. He quoted Sir Winston Churchill: "The price of greatness is responsibility . . . The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility."

He has been on fire about the lack of candor and accountability within the officer corps. In remarks at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in April 2008, Gates lauded deceased Air Force Colonel John Boyd, creator of the OODA loop and the principles of maneuver warfare. He was a "brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character—[who] had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility." He quoted Boyd as saying, "One day you will take a fork in the road, and you're going to have to make a decision . . . If you go [one] way, you can be somebody . . . or you can go [the other] way and you can do something—something for your country and your [service] and for yourself . . . In life there is often a roll call. That's when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?" 

Duty and Accountability

Days later at West Point in a lecture to the Corps of Cadets he said:

We will still need men and women in uniform to call things as they see them and tell their subordinates and their superiors alike what they need to hear, not what they want to hear . . . More broadly, if as an officer you don't tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you've done yourself and the institution a disservice.

The time will come when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision, or when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can't get the job done with the time and the resources available . . . There will be moments when your entire career is at risk.

He has been equally charged about officers not understanding their duty. Again at West Point, Secretary Gates cited an officer's key duties: "to provide blunt and candid advice always, to keep disagreements private, and to implement faithfully decisions that go against you." Only a month earlier, he accepted the resignation of Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of Central Command, over perceived public disagreements with administration war policy.

With his focus on accountability and officer duty, Gates has been just as straightforward about his own obligations. In his May address to business executives, he closed by saying:

As Secretary of Defense, I am responsible for the war strategy and for signing the deployment orders to carry it out. Every day, my signature on a piece of paper sends our brave men and women in harm's way. At the end of the day, I must be able to look them in the eye . . . and tell them, truthfully, that this country has done everything possible for them.

Not surprisingly, following his relief of the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, Gates immediately embarked on a whirlwind visit to three Air Force commands. In his words, "When you make a tough or controversial decision, . . . it is critically important and a gesture of respect that you go out and explain what lay behind that decision to the people most affected by it."

So here is no matinee idol, fencing with the media, and playing to the crowd. Here is a man on a mission, a "Secretary in Full" seeking no public acclaim, only progress and performance in defense of the nation. He has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that he will drive himself as hard as he drives the military and civilian leaders of the Defense Department. And, drive he has. In 18 months this Secretary has dispatched one CJCS, one VCJCS, two combatant commanders, two service secretaries, one service chief, and one surgeon general—all for not heeding his call for operational focus on Job One.

"There is simply no room for error in this mission," he told Airmen at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, just hours after he announced in Washington his choices to succeed Wynne and Moseley. "Nor is there, unfortunately, any room for second chances."

He might also have said, "Nor is their unlimited time to accomplish the mission." In fact, he has barely 200 days. 

Major General Wilkerson is CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute.



Major General Wilkerson is CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership