Posted by Adam @ 8:18 am on July 31st 2007

Bob Gates: a breath of fresh, smart air

Via one of our readers (who knows much about the topics in question), a transcript of Bob Gates addressing the Marine Corps Association. It’s a good read for several reasons; he starts off with some genuinely funny stories (this one is about LBJ at a White House dinner):

Or the time he [LBJ] gave a stag dinner in the White House and Bill Moyers was there and Moyers was a White House staffer seated below the salt, where White House staffers belong. And Johnson asked Moyers to ask the blessing and Moyers started to pray and a few seconds into the prayer, Johnson lifted his said, looked down at Moyers and said, “Bill, I can’t hear you.” And Moyers, without lifting his head, looked and said to the president, “That’s cause I’m not speaking to you.”

He also doesn’t go wildly overboard on claims of being the best in the world, yadda, yadda:

Thus we should never lose sight of the ethos that has made the Marine Corps – where “every Marine is a rifleman” – one of America’s cherished institutions and one of the world’s most feared and respected fighting forces.

A lot of stuff I’ve seen about or to the marines seems to require telling them they’re the best and it’s nice to see the SecDef sticking to a realistic assessment of worth (and, to be fair, I don’t think that anyone would complain at his description of the reputation of the marine corps, which is justifiably strong; persistant claims of being ‘the best’ make me retch, though, given that it’s generally a narrow but unexplained assessment made for encouraging emotional satisfaction through jingoistic assurance).

What’s really interesting and important, however, is Gates’ characterisation of the war effort and what has to be done to win wars like this:

Today, the “three block war” that Commandant Chuck Krulak predicted in the 1990s – where small units would simultaneously conduct combat, stability, and humanitarian operations in urban landscapes – has become a daily reality for American servicemen and women. In these situations, America’s traditional edge in technology, firepower, and logistics provides important tactical advantages, but not the necessary strategic success.

Direct force will no doubt need to be used against our adversaries – ruthlessly and without mercy or apology. But it is also clear that in these kinds of operations, we are not going to kill or capture our way to victory.

Gates also understands the need to pull together with other elements of the US government, where those elements command necessary expertise:

Looking forward, tasks such as standing up and mentoring indigenous armies and police – once the province of Special Forces – are now a key mission for the military as a whole. The same is true for mastering foreign language and civil affairs tasks such as reviving public services and promoting good governance. They have moved from the margins to the mainstream of military thinking, planning, and personnel policies, where they must stay. But as much as the armed forces must be prepared to take on these tasks, the fact remains that much of the necessary expertise belongs in other parts of our government.

So yeah, redefining the way the US conducts war whilst crossing inter-agency boundaries, that’s no easy task let alone when, as he points out, some of the useful capabilities of other agencies has themselves been degraded since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, the first 6 years of the administration have, in distressingly large part, been characterised by a failure to even recognise what needs be done (instead picking directions from amongst the subset of solutions that remain visible after donning intellectual and ideological blinkers*).

Gates has a big task ahead and, unless he is kept on in the next administration, not that much time to do it. My take, though, is that he’s pointed in the right direction and that is fundamentally important. Anyhow, read the transcript.

*I believe that you Americans call them ‘blinders’.


  1. We call them ‘blinders’ because it makes sense. Blinkers are what cars use as directional signals, you silly Limey.

    Comment by James — 7/31/2007 @ 12:28 pm

  2. We call those ‘indicators’.

    They don’t actually ‘blind’ the horse. Blind horses aren’t much use. They restrict their field of view.

    Comment by Adam — 7/31/2007 @ 12:29 pm

  3. Yes, but do they blink? You don’t have to be fully blinded by blinders. You Brits really have a poor command of the English language, you know that?

    Comment by James — 7/31/2007 @ 12:32 pm

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