A War Within

Article excerpt

Byline: John Barry and Evan Thomas

Robert Gates has one last, crucial mission before he leaves office, and it's not in Afghanistan or Iraq. It's in Washington--within the hallowed halls of the Pentagon.

Last May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to the Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kans., and praised the 34th president for keeping the lid on defense spending during the 1950s. Eisenhower himself, Gates noted, "was a low-maintenance leader of simple tastes, modest demands, and small entourages--in stark contrast to what often happens at the upper levels of power in Washington and in other elite settings."

Abilene is a long way from America's centers of power, and Gates's speeches shun headline-grabbing rhetoric, so what the defense secretary said did not get a lot of notice. But back in Washington, and at military commands around the world, four-star generals and admirals should have been paying attention. The word going around the Pentagon was that Gates was targeting the pampered lifestyles of the top brass. Asked about this by NEWSWEEK, Gates laughed. "As an old Soviet analyst, I read the speeches of their leaders very, very carefully," he said. "And people should read my speeches very carefully." He pointed to another speech, delivered in early August. "There is something in there about examining the rank structure and the phrase 'and the accouterments that go with it.' "

Gates himself is an unflashy, unremarkable-looking man. He lives in one of three houses in a military enclave in Washington, residing there mostly alone because Becky, his wife of 43 years, prefers to stay at their house on the west coast of Washington state. (She has had her fill of the nation's capital and knows she'd never see her husband anyway.) The secretary of defense does his own laundry, shopping, and cooking, and waters the flowers outside his house. Most evenings, he writes letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The other two houses in the compound are occupied by four-star officers, and Gates has been known to raise an eyebrow at their platoons of personal staff rushing about.

Gates grumbles about perks and posh quarters--generally defended by senior officers as a reward for decades of stressful family moves every couple of years--but those are not his real targets. The defense secretary's deeper complaint is about what he calls "brass creep." Roughly translated, it means having generals do what colonels are perfectly capable of doing. Generals require huge staffs and command structures: three-star generals serving four-stars, two-stars serving three, each tended by squadrons of colonels and majors. This sort of elaborate hierarchy may have been called for in Napoleon's day, but in an era of instant communication, Gates thinks the military could benefit from a much flatter, leaner management structure.

These entourages are symbolic of a military leadership that, in the view of its civilian leader, is suffering from an inflated sense of entitlement and a distorted sense of priorities. If Gates has his way, the top brass will have to shed old habits and adjust to leaner times. Some of them will become civilians. The number of generals and admirals has increased by more than a hundred since 9/11, to 969 (and counting Reserves, roughly 1,300). Gates plans a first cut of at least 50. He intends to disband an entire headquarters, the Joint Forces Command, created after the Cold War with the noble aim of making the different armed forces work better together, but which has grown into a $250 million-a-year, 6,000-strong operation of questionable usefulness.

Gates does not have the bluster or panache of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. His two heroes are Eisenhower, the Allied commander at D-Day, and Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff in World War II, a stern and reticent figure who once said, "I have no feelings, except those I reserve for Mrs. …