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Posted on Oct 3, 2008 in War College

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ Speech, September 29, 2008

By Armchair General

Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do. The Taliban dispatched within three months, Saddam’s regime toppled in three weeks. Where a button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. Where a bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one on the left.

But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain. Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. Look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared. Where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” Or, as General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell said, “No matter how a war starts, it ends in mud. It has to be slugged out – there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.”


Now, on the heels of that sunny and upbeat assessment, I’d like to finish with an anecdote told by an old boss of mine, President Ronald Reagan. A businessman once sent flowers to the grand opening of a friend’s new branch office. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with the delivery and the flowers arrived with a card that read, “Rest in Peace.” The businessman was none too pleased and contacted the florist to demand an explanation. The florist replied, “Just think of it this way. Today someone was buried in this city beneath a flower arrangement with the inscription, ‘Good luck in your new location.’”

As you each go up to your new duties and new responsibilities, good luck in your new location, and pass along my personal thanks to your troops and their families for the sacrifices they make every day. Without your and their dedication and courage, without the support of your and their families, nothing would be possible. The security of our beloved country is in your and their hands. And we are tremendously grateful to you.

Thank you.

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  1. Spot on speech and would have greater impact if Gates would be around much longer than January. Very possible that by November he will know that he will be replaced. The tasks and challenges he has outlined may be just as formidible as those faced by General Abrams in Vietnam and there is no guarentee that he will succeed in changing those institutionalized systems. His comments on insurgency echo those found in the new book “Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare”. Good luck to him.

  2. Armchair General staff cannot respond here. Please read
    disclaimer just above this text box before posting.

    Secretary Gates’ speech is the best articulation of the necessary
    changes that must be made within the military to meet current
    and future challenges. It squares with my own reading and the
    stories told by my son when he returned from Afghanistan.

    I am not optimistic that whomever wins the next election will
    find a new Secretary of Defense with a similar vision.

  3. Excellent comments by Mr. Gates and I hope the next
    Adminstration and Congress take it’s message to heart. Playing
    political football with defense procurement is one of the ills of the
    system that Secretary Gates cannot easily comment on but I can
    and I urge ACG readers to help make sure that their legislators in
    the next Congress get and understand Gates message.

  4. Has Obama approach any nominees for Secretary of defense? I’m
    Doing this a project for my english class. Thanks