Every presidential scandal needs a scapegoat. So when news broke that the VA falsified records and kept secret waiting lists, Eric Shinseki’s days in government were numbered.
As the general in charge of the veterans’ health care bureaucracy, Shinseki’s biggest strength, his soft-spoken equilibrium, suddenly looked like weakness in the face of such outrageous conduct. He resigned last Friday.
Time will tell how much responsibility Shinseki bears for the scandal. It may have been that he let the VA’s problems, which began during the Bush administration, fester under his nose. It may be that he made things worse. Or perhaps he was overwhelmed by a statist health care system—an “island of socialism,” as Rich Lowry put it—that was structurally doomed no matter what he did.
But however history judges Shinseki, its ruling should take into account his entire career: that of a man who dedicated his life to the Army and lost his foot to a land mine in Vietnam—and that of a general who told the truth about the Iraq war at great risk to himself.
Before the invasion of Iraq, Shinseki, then chief of staff for the Army, was asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee how many American troops would be needed to secure a post-war peace. He responded that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers.”
His quiet words reverberated across Washington like a bitterly tolling bell.
At the time, the Department of Defense, under the headstrong leadership of Donald Rumsfeld, was declaring that Iraq could be occupied with fewer than 100,000 troops. Shinseki’s estimate was a direct challenge to his complacent bosses.
The complacent bosses fired back. Two days later, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz rebutted Shinseki: “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.” Donald Rumsfeld later echoed Wolfowitz.
Asked about Shinseki’s projection, which was based on his experience with the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, Wolfowitz said, “There has been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another that produced so much bloodshed and permanent scars in Bosnia, along with a continuing requirement for large peacekeeping forces to separate those militias.”
That quote, perhaps more than any other, illustrates with haunting clarity just how impenetrably ignorant the Iraq planners were.
Despite the pressure, Shinseki didn’t back down, repeating his assessment to another congressional committee. The Pentagon, perhaps worried that its army chief had gone rogue, began tossing brickbats. One unnamed senior official told the Village Voice that Shinseki’s remarks were “bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars.”
Of course, Iraq eventually came apart at the seams, cutting stark divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, and creating a vacuum that was filled by jihadists. The Iraq war would ultimately kill half a million people and the final bill could run as high as $6 trillion. After four years of violence, the Bush administration was forced to “surge” the number of troops in Iraq by more than 20,000.
Shinseki was vindicated, and had been for years. In June 2003, Thomas White, the former Army secretary who was pushed out of his job after quarreling with Rumsfeld, said that Shinseki’s troop predictions had been correct. In 2006, General John Abizaid, then the commander of American forces in Iraq, told Congress the same thing.
There was no gloating on Shinseki’s part, no MSNBC appearances bashing Rumsfeld or vindictive press releases from a newfound consulting firm. Instead the general quietly dabbled in corporate work. He told friends, “I do not want to criticize while my soldiers are still bleeding and dying in Iraq.”
President Obama later called Shinseki back to public service, naming the general his secretary of Veterans Affairs even before he’d been inaugurated president. The Senate voted unanimously for confirmation. It was at the VA that, after a lifetime of honorable service, Shinseki’s final assignment would end in disgrace.
Lives lost thanks to the VA’s incompetence are no trivial matter; the agency needs to be held accountable, and Shinseki’s ouster was a necessary step. But let’s also remember that, at a time when Colin Powell was presenting evidence to the UN that he almost certainly knew to be flawed, and George Tenet was lying to the president that the intelligence case for Iraq was a “slam dunk,” Shinseki boldly told the truth.
Had we listened, many more veterans might be alive today.