Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M. Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 618 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, U.S. Army (Retired)
There is a longstanding tradition that retired Cabinet officers do not publish their memoirs during the tenure of the President they served. This is a tradition worth maintaining; it helps Presidents trust the members of their inner circle and increases the likelihood that they will be open and honest in their deliberations with those who serve them.
Robert Gates violated this precept by publishing Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War while President Obama, the second President he had served in that role, was still very much in office. The publication of these memoirs inspired a firestorm of criticism of the President’s decisions by his political opponents, just the result the custom is designed to prevent, making it harder for Obama to govern and further politicizing foreign policy, an outcome this reviewer abhors. And yet Gates receives a hall pass on this minor dereliction of duty for two reasons: because his overall performance as Secretary of Defense was so exceptional, and more importantly, because Gates had to write this book, right away, for his own well-being.
First, his duty performance. Gates took office at the close of 2006 during the darkest days of the Iraq War, just after the American public had soundly repudiated the performance of the Bush administration in both domestic and foreign policy. Donald Rumsfeld, his predecessor as Secretary of Defense, had run the largest organization in the world in such a way that it had inspired an unprecedented revolt against his leadership by retired flag officers. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Gates replied “No, Sir” when asked if we were winning the Iraq war, and flew there on his first day in office.
His appointment, and that of General David Petraeus to command the war effort in Iraq, soon changed that assessment in one of the more remarkable turnaround efforts in the history of warfare. Gates drove change in a Pentagon more focused on procuring weapon systems for possible future wars than in giving the troops what they needed to win the wars in which they were then fighting and dying. He made several critical decisions whose necessity had been ignored by his predecessor, including driving the rapid acquisition of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to preserve the lives and limbs of soldiers and Marines then suffering horribly from improvised explosive device (IED) strikes in vehicles that had been designed for the linear battlefield of state versus state conflict rather than the counterinsurgency campaign in which they were actually fighting. Secretary Rumsfeld, when asked by a young soldier why he (the soldier) was risking his life daily in a vehicle designed for another kind of war, told him “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might like to have.” Rather than complain about the cards he had been dealt, Gates drew new cards and built the Army he needed, adding not just MRAPs but also 50,000 soldiers when the force appeared it might break under the strain of repeated deployments to combat in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
Gates should forever be known as the soldiers’ Secretary; he not only kept alive and sane a large number who would have otherwise succumbed to the dangers of IEDs and PTSD, he also fired those who stood in the way of his twin responsibilities of mission accomplishment and taking care of the troops. The toll includes the Walter Reed Army Hospital Commander and the Secretary of the Army, who defended him when allegations of mismanagement of wounded soldier care came to light. It also includes both the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who failed to properly oversee the security of America’s nuclear arsenal and also failed to properly prioritize the acquisition and employment of unmanned aerial vehicles to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates cared so much about the troops because he got to know them personally, especially the 1,266 who fell in combat on his watch. He handwrote long personal letters to the next of kin of each of them, in the process acquiring his own personal case of post traumatic stress disorder. This book is a long, anguished, primal scream from a man who felt deeply every loss of an American who was killed in two wars that had been badly managed before his arrival but whose sacrifices he managed, through the alchemy of leadership, to turn into reasonable chances for the success and survival of the nascent Iraqi and Afghan governments birthed as a result of America’s wars of the 21st century.
That those chances have been squandered by subsequent decisions of both the Iraqi and U.S. governments does not lessen the nobility of the sacrifices of the soldiers who fell in both wars of Gates’ tenure. He will share their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery when he departs this earth, having done his full duty, and then some.
Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir
Robert Timberg. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. 384 pp. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by Colonel John McKay, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
When the tracked vehicle on which Robert Timberg was riding struck a land mine, he was “lifted from the top of the Amtrac [amphibian tractor], as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in the place of wind and rain [he] was being carried aloft by flames.” That he was a Naval Academy graduate and a Marine combat leader in the prime of life counted for naught on that January 1967 day in Vietnam. Timberg suffered third-degree burns to his face and right forearm: “That means the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, and the inner layer, the dermis, had, along with the sweat glands and hair follicles, been destroyed. What remained look like steak before you throw it on the grill.”
Memoirs candidly treating calamitous physical disfigurement, its aftermath, and fraught recovery are rare and certainly most difficult to deliver successfully. Blue-Eyed Boy unflinchingly describes the author’s inner and outer journey “through thirty-five operations under general anesthesia, several others under local, and one with no anesthesia at all—possibly the most painful half hour of my life. For many years I endured shocked stares, and not just from children, until I figured how to cope.” Frankness and adherence to sincerity of expression can all too facilely be trumped by self-pity, maudlin sentimentality, or worse. Blue-Eyed Boy succumbs to none of these afflictions, frankly revealing how Timberg comes to cope and triumph against overwhelming odds. And, he carries it all off with a sense of animated humor.
Moreover, the book makes clear what naysayers have decried for too long: The heritage of Vietnam haunts us still. Might not Timberg be writing about the ongoing 12 plus years of conflict when he observes, “I’m writing a book about a generation of well-meaning but ill-starred warriors and a nation deeply scarred by a war that some of its young men fought and some didn’t”? The Nightingale’s Song, Timberg’s previous scintillating chronicle of how the faultline of Vietnam affected five men, prominent and not so prominent, presciently foretold of the hangover that will continue to plague us well into this century. The past decade of misbegotten conflict and recklessness has agonizingly scraped the scab off the suppurating legacy of Vietnam. Blue-Eyed Boy is a poignant and limpidly written reminder of that tragic legacy. Fittingly, Timberg is John McCain’s biographer.
At the outset of Blue-Eyed Boy, Timberg asks, “. . . who would care?” about his story. “Maybe no one.” He’s probably right; sadly, least among those who are morally obligated to care. But everybody should care. Blue-Eyed Boy is a welcoming tonic, an elixir for those willing to seriously ponder life’s underlying themes, and dare it be said, meaning. A daunting challenge, to be sure, in a society incessantly awash in self-absorption, obsessed with the fleeting meaninglessness of nondescript celebrity status and hollow vanity wherein victim-hood and self-pity are extolled while perseverance and tenacity in the face of almost unimaginable adversity are given short shift. Timberg educes hard-hitting flesh-and-blood reality as opposed to feel-good-about “me,” service to, sacrifice for, a greater good—seemingly mere ghosts of the past. He has every reason to feel good about himself in ways that few others can justifiably claim. His memoir is refreshingly honest, readily admitting to behavior that most memoirs circumscribe or assiduously avoid. The arduously difficult and tortuously slow road to mental, psychological, and physical recovery is straightforwardly traversed, never once evincing self-pity or insincere pathos.
During the early stages of excruciating facial reconstruction Timberg makes the decision to become a journalist. He would go on to receive a Harvard University Nieman Fellowship, a prestige not far removed from the Pulitzer Prize. To be sure, there were low points, but Timberg has thrived in spite of a horrific and disfiguring wound, in spite of a good number of setbacks and indignities in the struggle to cope and “come back.” One finishes the book pondering whether the struggle and the fact he has prevailed so successfully might not have made Timberg the man he is today.
Battle of Dogger Bank: The First Dreadnought Engagement, January 1915
Tobias Philbin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. Index, Biblio. Notes. Illus. Maps. 187 pp. $32.
Reviewed by Colonel John J. Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
The Dogger Bank is a 6,800 square- mile sandbank and shallow area in the southern North Sea. It provided the setting for the first-ever naval engagement between dreadnoughts, a running fight between British and German battlecruisers on 24 January 1915. Tobias Philbin’s new work is a useful addition to the literature on how this battle fit into the context of World War I at sea.
Dreadnoughts served as the embodiment of naval power during the Great War. The namesake of the design, HMS Dreadnought of 1906, combined steam-turbine engines, big guns, and heavy armor in one hull, revolutionizing ship design in a single stroke and forcing the world’s major naval powers to follow suit. A related class of supercruisers, called dreadnought battlecruisers, likewise combined turbine-driven high speed, large size, and heavy armament but lacked the defensive armor of the dreadnought battleships.
At the Battle of Dogger Bank, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty’s First and Second Battlecruiser Squadrons, totaling five of these British battlecruisers, faced off against Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper’s First Scouting Group of three battlecruisers with SMS Blücher, a conventional armored cruiser, attached to provide additional firepower to the formation. Dogger Bank was a continuation of the game of cat and mouse in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. The Germans sought to ambush part of Admiral John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet in a campaign of attrition, hoping to wear away the Royal Navy’s superiority in numbers of dreadnoughts enough to allow a final decisive naval battle. The British, on the other hand, needed only to contain the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea using a distant blockade to accomplish their strategy.
The battle began as a misguided German attempt to chase British intelligence-gathering fishing trawlers and isolated warships away from the approaches to their fleet anchorages. Hipper left his base on the Jade River the evening of 23 January 1915. Only part of the High Seas Fleet battleship force was available to come to Hipper’s aid, if needed; a squadron of the newest German battleships were conducting training in the Baltic. As Philbin states, Hipper’s force was “being sent out as bait, but without a trap attached.”
Sailing from his base at Rosyth after a tip-off from Admiralty signals intelligence, Beatty steamed to the east with his own light cruisers and destroyers searching for Hipper. Jellicoe, with the bulk of the Grand Fleet of dreadnought battleships and escorts, followed about two hours behind Beatty as insurance against a potential German trap. Just after daylight on 24 January, the opposing light cruisers spotted each other. After some skirmishing between the light forces, Beatty’s five battlecruisers came into Hipper’s view, forcing the outnumbered Germans to retreat to the southeast.
A three-hour exchange of long-range gunnery ensued, as Beatty pushed his ships at maximum speed to close the distance. German gunfire focused on HMS Lion, Beatty’s flagship, which was forced out of the battle due to heavy damage. German battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz was likewise severely damaged, and SMS Blücher, the armored cruiser at the rear of the German line, bore the brunt of British firepower, sinking after multiple direct hits. Hipper successfully limped back to the Jade while Beatty, fearing German U-boats and mines, gave up the chase and returned to Rosyth. While British casualties were minimal, the Germans suffered over 1,000 casualties, mostly due to the loss of SMS Blücher.
Philbin, a University of Maryland Information Assurance professor, no doubt built on his previous biography of Hipper to produce this new work. The strengths of Battle of Dogger Bank include an extensive discussion of strategic considerations, ship design, leadership, and geographical realities. The author correctly states that prewar design decisions and the quality of leaders were—and are—important factors shaping the outcome of battles. His extensive use of both German and British primary sources is admirable.
The author’s review of lessons learned from both sides is particularly useful and helps the reader understand why Dogger Bank was an important prelude to the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Though viewed as a clear victory in Britain, both sides witnessed the difficulties of firing at ranges up to 20,000 yards, ranges at which they had never practiced before. Signaling procedures needed revision; British signaling errors, signals misinterpretation, and poor visibility combined to allow the Germans to escape annihilation. The Germans learned how to better handle their ammunition between magazines and turrets, a lesson the British failed to see until suffering their own losses at Jutland.
Though the original nautical charts of the engagement are difficult to follow, and photos of the leaders and ships are disappointingly absent, Proceedings readers will appreciate this book for its historical context and the author’s assertion that naval warfare is a human endeavor, subject to human decisions about designing weapon systems and then employing them to win battles.
A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families
Mike Magner. Boston, MA: Da Capo, 2014. 320 pp. Notes. Illus. Index. $27.50.
Reviewed by First Lieutenant Katrina Lamsa, U.S. Marine Corps
For decades, Camp Lejeune’s base housing was a dangerous place to raise a family: Children played in a day-care center that had formerly been a pesticide dumping ground, and babies born on base failed to survive long enough for their families to receive life insurance. From the base’s construction in the 1940s through the Vietnam era and beyond, sites on the installation became deposits for hazardous waste. Chemicals ranging from fuel and cleaning detergents to drums of mustard gas were dumped with full disregard to both the environment and the families’ drinking water pulled from infected wells. Mike Magner’s A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families recounts the horrific water contamination at the North Carolina Marine Corps base and its devastating effects on those stationed there.
Much of the contamination occurred before adverse health effects could be scientifically proven, but the heart of A Trust Betrayed is what occurred once officials knew that Marines and their families had been drinking poisoned water. Years after the 1970s Love Canal incident forced the government to regulate drinking water more stringently and identify problem sites, the Marine Corps and base officials resisted or lagged in testing their water. Once wells with alarmingly high levels of known and probable carcinogens such as trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene were identified, the Marine Corps downplayed their presence and reopened contaminated wells when necessary to meet water demands without alerting residents. In the years since finally acknowledging that residents of base housing may have suffered adverse health effects from contaminated water, the Marine Corps has been slow to identify and contact victims.
Magner tells the story through a combination of heartbreaking anecdotes—a wives’ club meeting where multiple women have suffered miscarriages, a stretch of cemetery with so many deceased children it became known as “baby heaven”—and solid, painstakingly researched evidence displaying how egregiously the Marine Corps wronged residents of Lejeune. The book’s main heroes, Jerry Ensminger and Tom Townsend, are both committed prior Marines who suffered the loss of their children from diseases caused by contamination at Lejeune, and Magner relays their lengthy quest for justice with compassion. These two men, driven by grief and completely of their own initiative, did the lion’s share of work of identifying victims and the subsequent cover up. Magner is clearly grateful for their efforts and the pair makes compelling and sympathetic leads.
Unfortunately, as A Trust Betrayed changes focus to the investigations into Camp Lejeune’s problems, the cast of characters begins to become swollen with base officials, politicians, and activists. Similarly, the book begins to drag in the sections describing the bureaucratic and legislative hurdles victims encountered and continue to face in receiving recognition and treatment for their ailments. Once it becomes demonstrably clear that people were poisoned by Camp Lejeune’s water, the book stalls slightly. There is so much evidence of willful inaction it becomes repetitive, and at times Magner struggles to string the stories together with a cohesive narrative.
Magner does not absolve the Marine Corps of its responsibility to Marines and their families, rightfully accusing the institution of breaking the faith with those it is obligated to protect. As managing editor of the National Journal and the author of Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost to BP’s Rise to Power (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), Magner has tackled this subject matter before. He provides sufficient historical and scientific context for the scale of contamination at Lejeune without becoming overly bogged down in chemical minutiae.
As the subject both of Washington Post feature articles and a 2011 documentary, Semper Fi, water contamination at Lejeune and the Marine Corps’ lackluster response is hardly an untold story. A Trust Betrayed, however, serves as an efficient and sobering summary of the ongoing suffering of Marines and their families poisoned by Camp Lejeune’s water and a cautionary tale of the limits of institutional loyalty. As the victims continue to struggle to have the government compensate them for their related health issues, one hopes that A Trust Betrayed will continue to bring attention to their plight and help prevent such shameful incidents from occurring in the future.