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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

In the end, the military capabilities we need cannot be separated from the cultural traits and reward structure of the institutions we have: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how we train.

Thirty-six years ago, my old CIA colleague Bob Komer, who led the pacification campaign in Vietnam, published his classic study of organizational behavior called Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. Looking at the performance of the U.S. national security apparatus during that conflict – military and civilian – he identified a number of tendencies that prevented institutions from adapting long after problems had been identified and solutions were proposed:

The reluctance to change preferred ways of functioning, and when faced with lack of results, to do more of the same;
  • Trying to run a war with peacetime management structure and practices; 

  • A belief that the current set of problems were either an aberration or would soon be over;
  • Where because a certain problem – in that case, counterinsurgency – did not fit the inherited structure and preferences of organizations – it simultaneously became everybody’s business and no one’s business.

I cite that study not to re-litigate that war, or suggest that the institutional military hasn’t made enormous strides in recent years. It is, however, a cautionary reminder that these tendencies are always present in any large, hierarchical organization, and we must consistently strive to overcome them.


As you look forward to your next assignments, be they in the services, the theater, command or staff, I would also ask that you take away my remarks this morning, the national defense strategy that informed them, and personal lessons I have learned from service in this arena that began 42 years ago, two things: a sense of humility and an appreciation of limits.

First, limits about what the United States – still the strongest and greatest nation on earth – can do. The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace – and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such.

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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