The Pentagon chief met with troops at Camp Ramadi just a few hours after President Barack Obama declared an official end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq and told Americans it was time to "turn the page."
Asked whether he believes combat is over, Gates answered succinctly, "I believe it is."
He was less direct when asked whether the war was worth it, saying that will depend in part on whether Iraq emerges as a democratic anchor in the Middle East.
That judgment "will really require a historian's perspective," Gates said.
Ramadi, home of one of the U.S. military's new advisory brigades, is in the heart of Anbar province, the cradle of the Sunni insurgency against the initial U.S. occupation.
Gates said Anbar holds "a special and haunting significance" for the U.S. military. Several members of his staff were wounded or saw their comrades killed in the province during the worst years of the fighting.
The difference between that time and now was illustrated by the questions soldiers asked the secretary. Some of their top concerns included health care, retirement and the state of combat pay now that the combat mission is officially over.
One soldier asked whether the U.S. might maintain a military presence in Iraq after 2012, when all U.S. forces are due to leave by agreement with the Iraqi leadership.
"Any such proposal would have to be at the initiative of the new Iraqi government," Gates replied. "We would obviously be willing to look at that."
He emphasized that the U.S. is still waiting for the formation of that new government before that idea can even be broached.
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from more than 165,000 at the height of the fighting. The remaining forces' primary role is to help train and equip Iraqi forces over the next year.
Lt. Col. Buddy Houston, deputy brigadier commander of the 4/3 Advise and Assist Brigade, said there have been no incidents in the last 14 months where Iraqis asked for direct combat help.
"I can't imagine a violent situation where we would have to go back in and re-engage," Houston said.
He added that he didn't anticipate, "even under the worst-case scenario," that a civil war could break out in Iraq as U.S. troops leave.