Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is Robert Gates America's Xenophon?

Gates visiting the troops

Cruising the blogs today I came across two posts, one by Thomas Barnett, The SECDEF we need and Tom Ricks Gates vs. the services. Both introduce a profile of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has assumed a strong leadership role in guiding the conduct of the two current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as shaping the 2008 National Defense Strategy by focusing on being prepared to fight a full-out war, irregular war and humanitarian missions.

The profile by Greg Jaffee appeared in the Washington Post May 15, 2009 and begins.

On a rainy night in March, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the military's ritual for welcoming home its war dead.
In a small building next to the tarmac, an officer briefed the defense secretary on the four deceased troops arriving that evening. They had been driving along a rutted road near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when their Humvee hit a powerful roadside bomb.

Gates flashed with anger, according to people with him that day. He had spent most of his tenure in the Pentagon pushing to replace Humvees in Afghanistan and Iraq with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to withstand such blasts. "Find out why they hadn't gotten their goddamn MRAPs yet," he snapped at his staff.

Clad in the black suit he had worn to work that morning in the Pentagon, Gates climbed into the cargo hold of the white 747 bearing the remains. From the ground, troops could see the defense secretary as he knelt, alone, by the flag-draped transfer cases. Five minutes passed.

Then Gates, a small man with white hair neatly combed across his head, appeared in the plane's door and summoned the chaplain and the honor guard to begin the 17-minute welcome-home ritual.

A few days later, he was asked at a Pentagon news conference if he would talk about his visit. He started to answer the question but stopped. "Actually, no," he said. "I will tell you it was very difficult."

This opening passage reveals a deeply committed person who has taken the reins of leadership and moved it beyond what Gates himself decries as "The natural propensity of a bureaucracy is not to decide," he has often said. "It will just chew the cud until there is no taste at all."

One example of Gates determination is illustrated when he formed a task force to increase the number of unmanned predators in the sky's over Afghanistan and Iraq. A few months after forming a task force and personally guiding it, the number of of predators increased to 31 from the previous 12.

Now one might ask what does Robert Gates have in common with the ancient Greek writer and soldier Xenophon?

In preparation for an upcoming roundtable Early Announcement: Xenophon’s Anabasis Roundtable where several of my fellow blog friends will be discussing The Anabasis of Cyrus, I have been reading this ancient account and was struck by some of the similarities in both men's leadership styles.

First, both are what you could be termed outsiders to the chain of military command. Xenophon, stepped into a leadership role when the generals who had led the expedition were tricked into being captured and slain. The force was mostly leaderless until Xenophon began to consul and convince those still in a leadership role that they needed to follow his plan. The result of following what at that time was a radical departure from previous strategy and tactics was the salvation of most of the force that came to be known to history as the "Ten Thousand." Gates returned to head the Department of Defense after serving in the CIA and other government posts for 26 years and most recently as the President of A and M University. Both men come from highly educated backgrounds. Xenophon, a student of Socrates, Gates a PhD in history.

Both men demonstrate a knack for innovation. When faced with attacks in mountainous terrain, Xenophon re-configured the phalanx formation into a more streamlined fighting force able to adjust to the changing battle space. Gates, shows the same willingness and insight to demand changes in innovation by increasing the use of MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored trucks and increasing the use of predators and helicopters in theatre.

The history of the successful conduct of war has several examples of leadership coming forward from the civilian side to demand accountability of the services to the overall strategy of war. Our own history gave us Lincoln who fired dozens of generals until he found Grant. England's Churchill stepped on his generals and admirals toes in order to keep the inter-service rivalry herded towards the defeat of the enemy. Today, Robert Gates has been doing what can only be compared to herding cats as he masterfully guides our military forces in two theatres and plans for the future as well as dispatch aid in the form of humanitarian missions, USNS COMFORT: Mission Accomplished in Antigua and Barbuda.

Anyway, just a few thoughts as I compared these two personalities separated by 2500 years. War and the preparation for the unexpected and unintended consequences requires a special dedicated sense of responsibility, that leads with the survival of the nation as their sole mission.
The lessons of Xenophan's account deserve study. I encourage all to take the time to read or re-read the Anabasis of Cyrus and reflect on the need to keep an open mind to innovate and be prepared for the unexpected.

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