STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear a little more from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. We've been talking about his critique of the Obama administration that he once served. His memoir "Duty" also offers a personal glimpse of Gates' growing distress while doing his job. He writes that during four-and-a-half years at the Pentagon, under two presidents, he became deeply, emotionally attached to the troops. He identified with them so strongly that he now wants to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates says, in the end, he was too attached, which is why he retired.
ROBERT GATES: I was focused on the strain on our troops and on their families. They'd been at war for 10 years. And I came to realize, in the early spring of 2011, that my preoccupation, my priority had become protecting them from further sacrifice, perhaps at the expense of hard-headed objectivity in terms of the use of our military.
INSKEEP: You are talking about something that is difficult to say outright. But you're essentially saying that if you're going to be a national official in a position of authority, you have to be prepared to get some of your troops killed, maybe many of them, if you feel that serves the national interest.
GATES: Well, and I was prepared to do that. If there were an outright threat to the United States or to our interests or our allies, I would be the first in line to argue for the use of military force. It just seemed to me that some of the areas where we were looking at potential conflict were more in the category of wars of choice. And it was those that I was trying to protect the troops from.
INSKEEP: What happened when you, as any secretary of defense would have to, began sending notes to the families of service members killed in action?
GATES: Well, I was determined that these young people would not just become statistics for me. And so I started out by handwriting parts of the condolence letters, and even then that wasn't enough, I felt. And so then I started asking every time one of these packets came to me, that it have a picture of the soldier or sailor, airman or Marine who'd been killed, along with the hometown news, so that I knew, you know, what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and sisters and teachers were saying about them, so I felt like I had some personal knowledge about each one of them. And I would write those condolence letters every evening.
INSKEEP: And that became difficult after a while?
GATES: Well, it didn't take too long. I think that, quite honestly, in those evening sessions, writing the condolence letters, there probably wasn't a single evening in nearly four-and-a-half years when I didn't weep.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about that broader question of the cost of war. You write about one decision you were involved in that you felt - although it's hard to prove - that it had life and death consequences for people. What was the decision you faced?
GATES: Well, it was really, when the surge was launched, there were two choices. We didn't have enough troops, so the question was whether you shortened their tours at home, or whether you lengthened their tours in the combat zone. And in one of the toughest decisions I made as secretary, I made the decision to lengthen the combat tours to 15 months. And I knew what the costs of that would be for the troops and their families.
INSKEEP: And let's be explicit about the costs. You linked this, in your mind, to the increase in suicides, of the problem with suicides in the military.
GATES: Well, I have no statistics to prove it, but I believe that those 15-month tours had to have aggravated the post-traumatic stress problem and probably the suicide problem.
INSKEEP: Previously, it had been a year or 13 months or six months, depending on the branch of service. And it was just a little longer, and you think that made a difference in wearing people down.
GATES: I think, as one of my junior military assistants put it, 15 months brought into play the law of twos: you miss two Christmases, two birthdays, two anniversaries and so on. And I think that had a consequence.
INSKEEP: What is the lesson, then, of decisions like that that you had to make that future decision-makers should take away from your experience?
GATES: I think it goes back to the very beginning of our discussion, and that is: You do have to be prepared to make the hard decisions, knowing what the consequences will be for the troops, whether it's sending them into battle or extending their tours. Part of the job of being secretary of defense in war is having to be strong enough to make the decisions that are important in terms of achieving our national security objectives and protecting us.
INSKEEP: Is there any decision you'd take back from those four-and-a-half years?
GATES: Well, I'm as critical of myself in the book as I am of anybody else. I also point out that I think we all did a disservice to President Obama, because the debate on Afghanistan became so divisive, that the opportunities to reach across those differences, I think, were missed. And I fault myself for not reaching more to the vice president to see where we could find common ground. Because at the end of the day, in a number of important respects, I don't think our positions were that far apart. But because of the environment, because of the suspicion, because of just the flavor of the debate and the difficulty between the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff, I think that those edges were sharper than they needed to be, and that's partly my responsibility.
INSKEEP: Secretary Gates, thanks very much.
GATES: Thank you.
INSKEEP: His new book is called "Duty." And you can find a transcript of our interview with Gates and NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.