Speaking to a crowd of over 700 people on Saturday, William & Mary Chancellor Robert Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 discussed his experience serving as secretary of defense during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He began his talk, which centered on his new memoir Duty, joking about his recent neck injury.
“I have accomplished at long last a long standing goal of mine in Washington which is to bring bi-partisanship, to bring Republicans and Democrats in the White House and Congress all together in a common cause…breaking my neck,” he joked.
Part of the College’s Charter Day weekend activities, the talk was sponsored by the university’s Swem Library. Carrie Cooper, dean of University Libraries, moderated the talk and Chase Koontz ’14, president of the Student Assembly, introduced the Chancellor.
During his talk, Gates spoke of the political war with Congress, the White House and the president as well as a bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense “aimed at transforming a department organized to plan for war into one that could wage war.”
But most of all, he spoke of the troops he came to know, love and felt a duty to protect.
“As I look back, there is a parallel theme to my four and a half years at war: love. And by that I mean the love – and there is no other word for it – I came to feel for the troops and the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility I developed for them, so much so that it would shape some of my most significant decisions and positions,” he said.
He told of a woman who congratulated him on becoming secretary of defense and then tearfully asked him to bring her sons in Iraq home alive.
“A war suddenly became very real to me along with the responsibility that I was taking on for all those in the fight,” Gates said. “It only took a few visits to the front-line troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before I began to feel a deep emotional attachment to them, a growing feeling that I was personally responsible for each and every one of them.”
He said that emotional involvement began to interfere with his usefulness as secretary, leading him to step down.
“Early in my fifth year I came to believe that my determination to protect them in the wars we were already in and from new wars was clouding my judgment and diminishing my usefulness to the president and that’s played a part in my decision to retire,” he said.
After his remarks, Gates answered audience questions, with the first being what advice he would give students planning to go into public service.
“First is patience,” Gates said. “If it’s your passion, then you have to do it, and when you do it, you have to be fearless.”
Asked what advice he would give to the 2016 presidential candidates, Gates answered in one word.
“Don’t,” he said.
The talk was followed by book signings and a reception at Swem Library.