The Double Tragedy of Eric Shinseki
For the first time since the shocking revelations of secret VA patient waiting lists came to light, President Obama on Wednesday seemed to equivocate on his support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. "I know that Rick's attitude is if he doesn't think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down," the President explained, "then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve." While high-profile veterans including World War II hero Bob Dole and retired Colonel M. Thomas Davis came to his defense, a chorus of Republican leaders have called for his head.
Should General Shinseki be forced out over the shameful treatment of patients at some Veterans Health Administration facilities, his personal tragedy will be double. After all, it was top Army General Shinseki who warned Congress and the Bush administration in February 2003 that the American occupation of Iraq would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers." And for that honesty and prescience, General Shinseki was mocked and ridiculed.
As you may recall, the Bush administration's reaction to Shinseki's February 25, 2003 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee was immediate and vicious. Less than a month before the invasion to topple Saddam was to begin, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blasted Shinseki's warnings that a massive American occupation force would be needed in "a piece of geography that's fairly significant" like Iraq with a history of "ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems." As CNN reported on February 27, 2003:
Rumsfeld said the post-war troop commitment would be less than the number of troops required to win the war. He also said "the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces, I think, is far from the mark."
Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's number two man at the Pentagon, echoed that point. Wolfowitz, who just days after the invasion claimed "we're dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon," lambasted Shinseki at a hearing of the House Budget Committee:
"Some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark."
Behind the scenes, the slander of General Shinseki was even worse. As The Guardian detailed:
In semi-private, the Pentagon's civilian leadership was far more scathing. A "senior administration official" told the Village Voice newspaper that Gen Shinseki's remark was "bullshit from a Clintonite enamoured of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars".
In June 2003, General Eric Shinseki, wounded Vietnam War hero, quietly retired from military service. But it would take another three and a half years until his vindication was complete.
As President George W. Bush prepared to announce the Iraq "surge" in January 2007, his top commander there General John Abizaid acknowledged, "General Shinseki was right." As the New York Times reported on the night Bush address the nation, "New Strategy Vindicates Ex-Army Chief Shinseki":
First vilified, then marginalized by the Bush administration after those comments, General Shinseki retired and faded away, even as lawmakers, pundits and politicians increasingly cited his prescience.
"We never had enough troops to begin with," Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said just before the president's televised address. "A month or two ago we found out the Army is broken, and they agreed that General Shinseki was right."
Being right probably came as no comfort to General Shinseki. Almost 4,500 Americans were killed in Iraq and over the 30,000 wounded there. All told, 2.5 million servicemen and servicewomen were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan; 270,000 would later be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now responsible for their care and the care of all of the nation's 22 million veterans, Eric Shinseki is once again being vilified by Republican leaders. Republican leaders, that is, who voted to reduce veterans spending in the Paul Ryan budget and just filibustered an increase for those who wore the uniform.