Any future SECDEF who advises POTUS to again send a big American land army to XYZ should “have his head examined”

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gives a g...Image via Wikipedia

Did not make that up. Defense Secretary Robert Gates actually said:  “[In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Well, Bob Gates … he was always a quotable one and I can’t help but like the guy.


During Secretary Rice’s tenure at the State Department, the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. launched its Dean Acheson Lecture in 2008.  It’s first ever lecture speaker was no other than — Secretary Gates. I probably was not the only one who thought it weird that a  Secretary of Defense delivered the first lecture named after a Secretary of State. In 2009, Secretary Clinton was invited to deliver the second lecture, I don’t remember it as an exceptionally memorable speech, tell you the truth. But a sitting secretary of the State Department did deliver that lecture.

Last week, Secretary Gates delivered a speech at the US Military Academy at West Point.  As we have come to expect, it was down to earth, straight-shooting and always touching and inspiring. He says, “We have never once gotten it right” on predicting the next military engagements from the Mayaguez to Iraq.  I’m struck at how his speeches often looks inward, backward, and to the future and the next generation of soldiers.  He talks of entrepreneurial leaders who are “full-spectrum in their thinking.” He says, “The military will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as you might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.” He asks how to keep experienced soldiers in the Army after troop deployments end in 2014, and how it terrifies him that junior leaders and men and women in the prime of their professional lives may get stuck in cubicles. (I wished he talked about how to bring troops home from Asia and Europe but one can’t have everything).  

Anyway, you don’t hear that kind of talk in the State Department, which has never been particularly good about talking about its past or future, only of what is now.  Not enough money is often the excuse. Not in its institutional DNA is more like it.    

Here is Secretary Gates, still my favorite ultimate insider/outsider bureaucrat in all of DC:  

[W]hen it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect.  We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.
[..]
The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.  And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars.  Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.  The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions.  But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.
[…]
I hope you take some instruction and inspiration from the career of Russell Volckmann, Class of 1934.  At the outbreak of World War II Volckmann was serving as a full-time embed in the Philippine army.  After the Japanese invasion, Volckmann fought alongside his Philippine unit, and rather than surrender, he disappeared into the jungles and raised a guerrilla army of more than 22,000 men that fought the Japanese for the next three years.  When the Japanese commander finally decided to surrender, he made the initial overtures not to General MacArthur, but to Volckmann, who went on after the war to help create the Green Berets.  My point: if you chart a different path, there’s no telling the impact you could have – on the Army, and on history.

Indeed, the Army has always needed entrepreneurial leaders with a broad perspective and a diverse range of skills.  As President Kennedy put it, speaking on these grounds half a century ago, “your military responsibilities will require a versatility and an adaptability never before required in war or in peace.”  And for an era of full spectrum conflict, when we confront security dilemmas that Kennedy called “new in intensity, ancient in origin,” America can succeed only with leaders who are themselves full-spectrum in their thinking.  The military will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as you might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.
[…]
Which brings me to the third and greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry.  How can the Army can break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future?  After the major Afghan troop deployments end in 2014, how do we keep you and those 5 or 10 years older than you in our Army?
[…]
Consider that, in theater, junior leaders are given extraordinary opportunities to be innovative, take risks, and be responsible and recognized for the consequences.  The opposite is too often true in the rear-echelon headquarters and stateside bureaucracies in which so many of our mid-level officers are warehoused.  Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging in reconciling warring tribes, they may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting power point slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever expanding array of clerical duties.  The consequences of this terrify me.
[…]
One thing I have learned from decades of leading large public organizations is that it is important to really focus on the top 20 percent of your people and, though it may be politically incorrect to say so, the bottom 20 percent as well.  The former to elevate and give more responsibility and opportunity, the latter to transition out, albeit with consideration and respect for the service they have rendered.  Failure to do this risks frustrating, demoralizing and ultimately losing the leaders we will most need for the future.

Read his entire speech here.