After describing the many sacrifices soldiers have made in the last 12 years and declaring: "Protecting this country is a sacred duty," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ voice broke as he said, "George Marshall would have been proud" of what they accomplished.
Gates was speaking at the Association of the United States Army’s George Catlett Marshall Dinner as he accepted the Association’s highest award, named for Marshall.
He said during his four years as secretary, first under President George W. Bush and then under President Barack Obama, he had been strong advocate of "soft power" – diplomacy, finance, cultural exchanges, etc., but he "never forgot that the ultimate guarantee [of freedom] is hard power – the strength and reach of the United States military."
Adding, "There will always be evil in the world" that will not be swayed or countered by any other means.
Having served earlier as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gates, who kept a picture of Marshall in his Pentagon office, noted that the former Army chief of staff, as soon as he took off his uniform at the end of World War II, was asked by President Harry Truman to take on a special mission to China.
He later became secretary of state because he understood "that America has special responsibilities in the world."
In short, "arms were stacked, but a soldier’s duty was not."
Gates said in his own case, when he was called by Bush in 2006 to leave the presidency of Texas A&M and take the defense post, "I thought about the troops under fire" and "because they were doing their duty, I had no choice."
He earlier had turned down a request to become director of National Intelligence.
When he returned to Washington, Gates said he put in motion the "surge" of forces to Iraq to stabilize that country, but had to lengthen tours of duty there from 12 to 15 months.
This was done to keep enough boots on the ground allowing a counterinsurgency campaign to move ahead and to increase the size of the active Army and Marine Corps, thus relieving the strain on the force.
Gates said he was very concerned about the size and scope of the cuts facing the Defense Department and, especially, the Army, exacerbated by political dysfunction on Capitol Hill and the executive branch.
He also touched on sequestration and its immediate across-the-board cuts.
"There may be a more stupid way to cut the budget, but I can’t think of it" that could "potentially lead to a huge loss of experienced officers and noncommissioned officers," Gates said.
He added, "We never know where the next fight was going to be," and war is never "bloodless" or like some "arcade video game."
Instead of "shock and awe," it is tracking down an enemy "block by bloody block."
Adding, "We need more humility … more familiarity with the vagaries of history" before predicting the next fight.