Robert M. Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 453 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Paul Becker, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Robert Gates is an elite author. Thousands of writers since the end of the Cold War have written books on how the United States applied power in the past and should apply it in the future. Select few actually held power and executed it: Gates is one. He also is one of the most respected nonpartisan, senior civil servants in recent history. This is why national security practitioners, foreign policy professionals, and historians should pay attention to his perspective.
Many remember Gates as the Secretary of Defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His bona fides run much deeper. In his latest work, Gates also employs decades of experience serving eight presidents during senior assignments in the CIA and on the National Security Council (NSC).
Understanding the United States’ position in the world today requires an appreciation for the multiple forms of power that contributed to post–Cold War U.S. successes and failures. Gates educates by focusing on how and why Presidents and their senior advisors made the decisions they did, what influenced them, and the style of each. He shares 15 case studies from the past six administrations: Iran, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, Russia, Georgia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, and China. He both praises and critiques decisions made in each case, highlighting alternative courses of action that decision makers—including himself—could have chosen.
To ensure U.S. political leaders are able to effectively protect vital national security interests in the 21st century, he employs a new phrase, which goes well beyond pithy war college acronyms such as DIME and PMESII. A “Symphony of Power” is what Gates describes as a requirement to achieve success. It includes the military, diplomacy, economics, cyber, development assistance, communications, intelligence, alliances, science and technology, culture, ideology, the private sector, religion, nationalism, and wise and courageous leadership (the latter, Gates admits, “is not strictly an instrument of power, but essential to the effective exercise of all forms of power”). He shares unique insights regarding the performance of each of the past six U.S. presidents; however, in a spirit of nonpartisanship this election year, I will let readers discover those on their own.
Gates emphasizes that a strong military underpins every other instrument of power and is the ultimate protector of the nation. However, to effectively counter China and Russia and face other challenges in the years ahead, he lays out pragmatic recommendations to dramatically restructure the national security apparatus. Employing an image to underscore this point, he refers to a 19th-century tricycle with a giant front wheel (defense) and tiny back wheels (everyone else) as the current structure. A better image of how comprehensive national power should be employed today would be a hybrid mountain-road bicycle.
The United States’ overall track record in exercising power in the global arena since 1993, Gates opines, is “negative.” That does not mean he believes the nation is a declining or defeated power. Rather, he believes the national security and foreign policy process of any administration can be restructured and revitalized. A closing chapter of “Lessons Learned” devotes attention to measures such as avoiding overreliance on the military, empowering the State Department, moving the “interagency” process out of the NSC, Congress retaking accountability for foreign policy from the executive branch, reorganizing House and Senate committee structures, reformatting the intelligence community, improving strategic messaging, and more. All are adoptable, nonpartisan, and achievable, provided “wise and courageous leadership” conducts the “Symphony of Power.”
Rear Admiral Becker was the Director of Intelligence (J2) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2013 to 2015. He is now the president of The Becker T3 Group and co-teaches “Moral Reasoning for Naval Officers” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Defense Management Reform: How to Make the Pentagon Work Better and Cost Less
Peter Levine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 337 pp. Notes. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Dustin League
“Because there were so many problems to address, a failure to prioritize has been fatal.”
In Defense Management Reform: How to Make the Pentagon Work Better and Cost Less, author Peter Levine conducts a series of postmortems on the many failed efforts to revamp the Department of Defense (DoD). He delves into the history of the Pentagon to explain the rationale for several major reforms and seeks to provide insight into why so many well-intentioned, motivated reformers have failed to resolve the problems plaguing the department.
Levine has an impressive résumé, with experience in both the legislative and executive branches, serving on Senator Carl Levin’s staff (House Armed Services Committee) and as DoD’s Deputy Chief Management Officer. His personal involvement in many reform efforts allows him to speak with the authority of an insider. Moreover, the research and documentation in this book showcase his diligence and passion for the subject. His extensive notes and citations take up more than a quarter of the pages in the slim volume. It is difficult to imagine anyone who could better provide insight into DoD’s management ills and attempted cures.
The mismanagement of the Pentagon Levine describes is almost proverbial, with tales of hundred-dollar toilet seats and hammers well-known to the point of cliché. He spends little time attempting to argue for the necessity of reform, saving the bulk of his text for explaining the various efforts to correct deficiencies rather than indulging in potshots at the department’s failings. One of the book’s great features is Levine’s consistent treatment of DoD personnel and would-be reformers alike. Though his political leanings can be gleaned from his career experience, he never lowers to partisanship or makes personal attacks and always assumes that efforts to reform the Pentagon are made with the intent of improving the department and, ultimately, strengthening U.S. security.
Subjects in Defense Management Reform are divided into three categories, and though the details differ from chapter to chapter, Levine’s autopsies continue to reveal the same underlying causes for failure. Whether the issue is civilian personnel reform, acquisition reform, or auditability (Levine’s chosen taxonomy), the failures tend to be remarkably similar. He describes each effort’s salient features without becoming bogged down with “inside baseball” details. This is a remarkable achievement for a book focused largely on the inner workings of the world’s most complex bureaucracy. When Levine does delve into details, he takes care to explain why some detail is important, ensuring the reader does not miss the forest for the trees.
The casual reader may see this book as a niche subject. It is not. DoD is one the largest, most complex organizations on the planet. As Levine repeatedly explains, it is more akin to an economy than an agency. DoD consumes a significant portion of the U.S. federal budget and is responsible for the security of the nation. U.S. taxpayers have a right to expect the money entrusted to DoD is being well spent and the personnel, both military and civilian, working within the organization are being treated fairly. Peter Levine exposes the efforts that have been undertaken over the past decades in attempts to ensure the department is run efficiently. He provides concise, simple guidance for future efforts while stressing that simple and easy rarely are the same.
Mr. League is a military operations analyst and former U.S. Navy submarine officer. He studies submarine warfare issues for the U.S. and Australian Navies.
Joseph L. Galloway and Marvin J. Wolf. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Books, 2020. 416 pp. Notes. $34.99.
Reviewed by Master Chief David Mattingly, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Vietnam War has played out differently among the hearts and minds of those who lived through the U.S. military’s entanglement in the fight between the Viet Cong and the Army of North Vietnam. Whether American soldiers volunteered to serve or were drafted into the military, when they came home, they frequently faced challenges reintegrating into a society that often ignored or, worse, defamed their service. No other author has earned the trust of the soldiers and combat leaders as has Joseph Galloway, award-winning journalist and author of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young (Presidio Press, 2004). He is telling their story again.
In They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans, Galloway and Vietnam veteran Marvin J. Wolf were entrusted to tell the story of 49 veterans and workers who served in a variety of roles during the war and came home to contribute to their communities and the nation. So often, Vietnam veterans have been linked with drug use, mental illness, and other social challenges that even their families do not realize many veterans returned intending to do good things. Today, we see fewer and fewer “Vietnam Veteran” license tags, and it is important that Galloway and Watkins are telling these stories.
U.S. soldiers who go off to war and are captured by the enemy endure a special kind of hell. The story of two prisoners of war are memorialized in the book: Army flight surgeon Hal Kushner and Army intelligence officer Ted Gostas. Both Gostas and Kushner were captured in South Vietnam and suffered years of torture. Their lives after Vietnam were quite different.
Gostas entered the Army as an engineering officer; however, wanting a different career path, he applied to become an army intelligence officer and was first posted with the Third Armored Division in West Germany. In 1967, he found his name listed in a newspaper identifying him as an Army intelligence officer with orders to Vietnam. Once there, he served in Hue in a clandestine role, reporting on the local Vietnamese while maintaining his cover as a German architect. During the Battle of Hue, he was captured and then spent four and a half years in solitary confinement. He was released from the “Hanoi Hilton” in 1973 with other prisoners of war. He was declared clinically insane but turned to art, saying, “I started painting to save myself from going into a loony bin.” The art he sold was not to support himself but to raise money for indigent veterans—a true sign of the strength of the human spirit.
By contrast, Kushner returned first to active duty and then left to pursue his private practice as an ophthalmologist while continuing to serve in the Army Reserve. He used his medical skills to treat needy patients around the world and remarked, “I’ve tried to give back to my community, I think it is my responsibility.”
I would be remiss if I did not mention that one of the stories is of Galloway’s wife, Gracie, who became a nurse and worked in Vietnam treating civilians who had nowhere else to turn. She journeyed to the United States, where she obtained two master’s degrees and a doctorate in public health. She had a diverse career, from founding a battered women’s shelter to performing as a trapeze performer. She said, “My wartime experience in Vietnam taught me that peace is always the answer.”
With each story, Galloway and Wolf expose the tragedy of war, the struggle of returning to civilian life, and the contribution each person has made to humankind. They Were Soldiers is a must-read and is highly recommended regardless of the reader’s interest in the Vietnam War, because it is a story of the human spirit.
Master Chief Mattingly served as a Navy intelligence specialist and is a Vietnam veteran. He continues to serve as a senior analyst in the U.S. intelligence community.
Pauline Shanks Kaurin. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020. Notes. Biblio. Index. $37.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Dillon A. Fishman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted friction and turnover in the Navy’s highest echelons. In a fortuitously timed work, Naval War College Professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin turns a keen philosophical mind to the related subject of obedience.
The book’s thesis is that a more nuanced moral treatment of obedience would better equip individuals to address the range of complexity involving obedience and disobedience in both political and military contexts. Ultimately, Shanks Kaurin challenges readers to clarify their own thinking about how obedience can and should look in various settings.
The first half of the book sets the stage by introducing key concepts and context, which Shanks Kaurin applies in the latter half of the book. To that end, she uses case studies such as the French 5th Infantry Division during World War I and My Lai in Vietnam, as well as hypothetical scenarios. But the book is not only about the military—it also probes obedience in the political arena. Shanks Kaurin explores obedience as it relates to citizenship, raising provocative questions about social obligations, loyalty, and civil-military relations.
The issue of refusing orders stands out as a key consideration. Shanks Kaurin argues that obedience must include desire, deliberation, and decision. Critically, some amount of deliberation is necessary for both moral and legal responsibility. Absent the ability to refuse an order, the defenses of both Nuremberg and My Lai seem inevitable. Such serious cases serve as stark reminders that obedience must be defined to allow for legal and moral responsibility.
Three of the book’s strengths further illuminate its contents. First, the book raises excellent questions. How does good order differ from discipline? Should obedience be viewed along a continuum from outright disobedience to obedience? If someone slow-rolls the response to an order, is that something between obedience and disobedience? As readers wrestle with such terms and concepts, they will be challenged to sharpen their own thinking, unearth implicit assumptions, and identify the broader social implications of obedience and disobedience.
Second, reading the book feels like a cross-training workout. It is sure to stretch the reader intellectually because of the abstract questions and subjects it confronts. Readers who stick with it will feel as if they are mentally and morally stronger and better equipped to reason through life’s complexities.
A third strength is the book’s breadth. With 224 endnotes, the text includes nearly one reference for every page. From political science to philosophy to international relations, it covers substantial intellectual ground. Readers encounter Aristotle, Aquinas, Walzer, Kant, Huntington, and Hume, among many other academic heavy hitters. Hence, it is a hearty read.
However, some could view these same strengths as drawbacks. This is a book that will delight scholars and confound skimmers. While it claims to be for a broad audience, it seems best suited for those with an affinity for theory and some grounding in its central philosophical concepts.
Military commanders and judge advocates may appreciate the book’s treatment of ethics, both in garrison and operationally, as they prepare to lead in an era of increasing moral ambiguity. Accordingly, it is recommended for use in professional military education, especially at more advanced levels.
To the repertoire of physical training, close-order drill, and military exercises, Shanks Kaurin offers an increased focus on building skills of judgment, moral agency, and discretion. The military’s mental imperative—exemplified in the recent Education for Seapower Strategy and Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 7, Learning—suggests that On Obedience is the type of work needed to enhance the ethical thinking of today’s military leaders and fortify U.S. moral might.
Lieutenant Colonel Fishman, a Marine Corps judge advocate, is completing a Ph.D. in leadership studies. He deployed twice to Afghanistan and once on board the USS Tortuga (LSD-46).