During his tenure as Secretary of Defense under two administrations, Robert Gates has distinguished himself by overseeing the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, the transition to a larger U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, and the trimming of wasteful programs from the Pentagon budget. But when Gates took the stage at Duke’s Page Auditorium, he didn’t dwell on the past, instead opting to speak about what he sees as the future of the armed forces and their relationship to the general public.
Gates said the military is drawing from a “tiny sliver of America” rather than from the population as a whole. Military recruitment is increasingly concentrated in the South and the Rocky Mountain West, as well as in rural areas and among military families. “For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction.”
The situation has evolved since the country moved to a volunteer army after the Vietnam War. Returning to a tradition of compulsory service is “politically impossible,” Gates said, and impractical in an era when warfare requires extensive training and experience. Yet the resulting “void of relationships and understanding” between the military and many citizens poses a risk, he said. And the toll on service members and their families can be enormous during wartime. “How long can these brave and broad young shoulders bear the burden that we as a military, a government, and a society continue to place on them?”
While on campus, Gates met with a Duke class and with ROTC students from Duke, North Carolina Central University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. The visit was organized by Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer Professor of political science and public policy, who was formerly special adviser for the National Security Council.
Gates commended Duke for maintaining ROTC programs and other connections with the military in contrast with many Ivy League and other elite universities. “If America’s best and brightest people will not step forward, who then will step forward?” Gates asked the capacity crowd. Talented young people who serve in the military are “given extraordinary responsibility at a young age,” Gates said, leading troops “at an age when their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies.”
Gates also paid tribute to Matthew Lynch ’01 and James Regan ’02, who were killed in Iraq. The two were recently honored, along with other Duke alumni killed while on active duty since World War II, on the memorial wall between Duke Chapel and the divinity school.