Robert Gates' Wise Words on the Cost of War

The former secretary of defense said going to war has become too easy.

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates listens to a question during a media availability at the Pentagon Thursday, June 16, 2011 in Washington.

Next week, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' memoir " Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" will be released. While the book isn't available to the public yet, reviews are starting to roll in. Most of these reviews focus on politics and on Gates' portrayal of President Obama as commander in chief, the role of his staff in executing policy and on the Congress – see, for instance, Greg Jaffe writing in the Washington Post, Thomas Shanker in the New York Times, Bob Woodward, also in the Post, and William O'Connor at The Daily Beast. This is to be expected.

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While the rest of us await the full text, however, the Wall Street Journal has provided an excerpt on its website. I will allow others to debate the political scorekeeping of the revelations. What interested me most in the excerpt were these three paragraphs:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike – as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran's nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the "responsibility to protect" civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do – and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

This is particularly worth remembering as technology changes the face of war. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right and leaves the one on the left intact. For too many people – including defense "experts," members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens – war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless. But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain.

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The genuine weight he feels for those that made the ultimate sacrifice when he was in charge of the Pentagon seems to motivate these views for him. While nothing said above is entirely original or novel, they are wise words to ponder and reflect upon.

That having been said, while such prudence should be strived for, it will, unfortunately, not always be possible. While we can recognize the tragedy, inefficiency and uncertainty of war, it won't be eliminated any time soon. For all of the marvels of modern communication and technology, decisions of war and peace are still as complex as ever. Bad decisions will continue to be made, even if sometimes they are not seen as bad without the benefit of time and perspective. Aside from the other costs of war, this is also a tragedy.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.