Old Secretaries of Defense Never Die, They Just Write Bestselling Memoirs
By Tom Engelhardt
Talking about secretaries of defense...
Oh, we weren't?
Well, let's. After all, they're in the news.
Take former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who, on leaving government service -- and I hope you don't mind if I mangle a quote from General Douglas MacArthur here -- refused to die, or even fade away. Instead, he penned Known and Unknown, a memoir almost as big as his ego and almost as long -- 832 pages -- as the occupation of Iraq, which promptly hit the bestseller lists (making the American reader a Known Unknown).
Now, Mr. Known Knowns, etc., is duking it out on Facebook, Sarah-Palin-style, with "the chief gossip-monger of the governing class," the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Amusingly enough, Woodward has just savaged Rumsfeld for pulling a Woodward in his memoir by playing fast and loose with reality. He posted his review at the Best Defense (as in, you know, a good offense), the war fightin' blog of former Washington Post reporter and bestselling author Tom Ricks. Small world down there in Washington!
It's enough to make you nostalgic for... well, I have no idea what.
Meanwhile, present Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, officially preparing to fade away later this year, hit the news as well. His much-hinted-at retirement now seems like the Titanic looming on the military-industrial horizon. (Take note, New York publishers and literary agents: Gates wrote a memoir the last time he faded away as CIA Director. That was back in the Neolithic Age of the elder Bush. It came out in 1996 and was titled From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. Still, chalk that effort up to another century and start preparing the contracts for Into the Shadows, The Ultimate Insider's Story of Two More Presidents and How They Didn't Win Much of Anything.)
To be exact, Gates made news by going to West Point to speak to the cadets in what was plugged as the first of a number of "farewell" addresses. (The second came a week later at the Air Force Academy.) In the process, he made the headlines for quoting -- somewhat oddly -- General Douglas (the original fader) MacArthur.
Now, give Gates credit. The man has superb speechwriters who channel both his obvious intelligence and his sometimes-mordant sense of humor. (Hint for Hillary: When he leaves the scene, you should grab any wordsmiths he lets loose. It would help if you laced some self-deprecating humor, however borrowed, into those statements of yours that -blank [fill in the country, tyrant, or protest movement] must do what you say and then that you just repeat when whoever or whatever predictably doesn't...)
...Oh sorry, I dozed off. What was I saying?
Something about old soldiers?
Anyway, here was the eye-popping quote that everyone picked up and highlighted from Gates's address: "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."
"Have his head examined": strong words indeed, not to say strong advice for his successor! As quoted, it did sound like a late-in-term awakening on America's wars. After all, the Secretary of Defense had to know that it would be the money paragraph, the one reporters would carry off, in a speech significantly about other matters.
Quoted by itself, it also had to seem like a mix of a mea culpa, a j'accuse aimed at his former boss, President George W. Bush, and his predecessor Rumsfeld, and a never-again statement about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he's been overseeing since 2006 and, in the case of Afghanistan, expanding since 2008.