‘Duty’: Controversial memoir of one man’s rise to public service

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BYU Reserve Officers Training Corps candidates retrieve the American flag. In his new book, Robert Gates named the troop's safety and proper equipment as his top priorities while serving as Defense Secretary. (Photo by Elliott Miller.)
BYU Reserve Officers Training Corps candidates retrieve the American flag. In his new book, Robert Gates named the troop’s safety and proper equipment as his top priorities while serving as Defense Secretary. (Photo by Elliott Miller.)

A book about the only man to serve in both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s presidential administrations has generated significant controversy following its January release.

“Duty,” the autobiography of Robert Gates, provides a critical view on the dynamics and inner-culture of the White House and the Department of Defense. Gates, who served as U.S. secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, has come under fire for his assessment of key members of the Obama administration.

“One thing that I deeply disagree with was his characterization of Vice President Joe Biden,” said Ian Hansen, 25, a leader with the BYU College Democrats, “that he feels like the vice president has been on the wrong side of all the pressing military issues.”

Hansen, a senior from Salt Lake City studying music and pre-medicine, believes criticism is sometimes appropriate but should be constructive and honest.

Jeremy Pope, associate professor in BYU’s political science department, cautions that quotes pulled from political memoirs should be examined within their overall context.

“The media pull out the juiciest quotes and make it the story,” Pope said.

Critics of the autobiography need to consider the book’s entire message, Pope said, along with Gates’ record of service while in office.

“Gates is a great public servant (who) cares about his country and doing the right thing,” Pope said.

As the sole Republican to retain his cabinet position following President Obama’s inauguration, Gates navigated a significant shift in priorities and ideology. Experienced and politically savvy, he engineered the transition to his new commander in chief’s objectives: a surge in Afghanistan followed by withdrawal from both the Iraq and Afghan theaters.

The former director of the CIA, president of Texas A&M University and secretary for both a Democratic and a Republican presidency is respected on both sides of the aisle.

While academics and historians will dissect the administration’s legacy more objectively in the future, Pope said the book provides a unique glimpse on the culture and personalities in the federal government.

Wyatt Warnick, 23, the president of the BYU College Republicans, values the personal perspective such a book provides.

“I have a friend that was just killed in Afghanistan, so it’s important to have good insights into how the decisions in Washington are enforced,” Warnick said.

Having recently graduated from the Air Force Academy, Warnick knows firsthand the sacrifices made by the armed forces. The junior from Delta appreciates having the troops’ efforts remembered at the highest levels of government.

During his four-and-a-half-year tenure, Gates made U.S. military personnel his top priority, supporting the individuals and families making  the nation’s greatest sacrifices. He opposed taking military action in Iran or Syria, focusing the Department of Defense on existing conflicts while reigning in ballooning military deficits from a decade of war.

Since resigning from the Department of Defense, Gates has continued providing distinguished service. He currently serves as the president of the College of William and Mary and will become the next national president of the Boy Scouts of America in May 2014.

Reading the memoir gives students an opportunity to learn about a public figure who has navigated complex challenges and transitions in a quickly evolving world.

Gates’ legacy is succinctly embodied by his autobiography’s title, “Duty.”

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