Despite a military career spanned 40 years, General Eric Shinseki will be remembered for two things: his decision as Army Chief of Staff to award black berets to all soldiers--a uniform item previously reserved for Rangers--and most famously, his 2003 observation that the occupation of Iraq would require a force of "several hundred thousand" men.
According to urban legend, Shinseki's remarks on Iraq earned him the lasting ire of the Bush Administration, which forced him into retirement. It was a charge repeated by John Kerry in the first presidential debate of 2004, a charge that, regrettably, went unanswered by the commander-in-chief.
Flash-forward four years and General Shinseki now Barack Obama's nominee to head the Veteran's Administration. Based on his qualifications, few would argue with that choice. Not only does Shinseki offer decades of executive experience, he also knows something about the obstacles facing wounded and disabled veterans. As a young Army officer in Vietnam, Shinseki stepped on a land mine and suffered a mangled left foot. He underwent multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation before returning to active duty.
As VA Administrator, General Shinseki will be preoccupied with treatment programs, facilities and trying to contain rising costs. In that capacity, he won't be called upon for advice on troop levels and force structure, matters that defined his tenure as the Army's senior uniformed officer.
And that's unfortunate, for a couple of reasons. First, if what liberals claim is true--Shinseki's appointment is vindication of his views on Iraq (and those of Congressional Democrats), then the general still owes us an explanation of how he arrived at those numbers, and how they square against the events that followed. Secondly, he should clarify what actions he took (or didn't take) to prepare the Army for the challenges of Iraq. On both counts, the reality of Shinseki's record is less impressive than the carefully-cultivated legend.
In fairness, the general's comments on required troop levels for Iraq were offered reluctantly, in response to questions by Michigan Senator Carl Levin. Never one to miss an opportunity for political theater, Mr. Levin was aware of previous disagreements between the Chief of Staff an then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.
So, when Shinseki was called before Congress in February 2003 (one month before the Iraq invasion), Levin seized the opportunity. After repeated questions from the Senator, Shinseki finally offered his assessment on the number of troops required to stabilize Iraq after the invasion. That gave Mr. Levin and other war critics the soundbite they were looking for.
But, as National Review's Mackubin Thomas Rubin observes, the general's estimate was less of an operational projections and more of a wild guess. Owens, a retired Marine officer and a professor at the Naval War College, reminds us that Shinseki's numbers were "a straight-line extrapolation from very different environments," an analysis by Army historians based on experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo. Tom Ricks of the Washington Post--hardly a fan of the Bush Administration--reported that the study was criticized as "naive" and "unrealistic," more of a "war college exercise" than serious planning.
Rubin also reminds us that Shinseki's numbers were based on flawed operational assumptions. His belief that Iraq would need more troops was rooted in a belief that humanitarian operations, rather than an insurgency, would drive force levels in post-war Iraq. Accordingly, Rubin says that Shinseki was "right for the wrong reasons."
But even if General Shinseki deserves some credit on the occupation force issue, then he also bears some responsibility for an Army that was (initially) ill-prepared for Iraqi insurgency. Rubin quotes Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, who wrote a savage critique of Army leadership in the April 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal; reading between the lines, it's apparent that Shinseki is among those targeted:
For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.
These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq
It's also worth remebering that General Shinseki was in a position to affect the Army that went to war in the spring of 2003. While it's barely mentioned in his biography, Shinseki spent more than two years (in the late 1990s) as the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations. In that post, General Shinseki is best remembered as an advocate for programs (and training) that still reflected a Cold War mindset.
Four years later, as the service's Chief of Staff, he was still fighting the same battles. One of his first showdowns with Don Rumsfeld was over the Crusader artillery system, an out sized, costly weapons system that was envisioned for the Fulda Gap, not the mountains of Afghanistan. And, we can't find any evidence of Shinseki fighting hard against the force cutbacks that hollowed our ground forces in the 1990s.
In other words, General Shinseki bears more than a little responsibility for our early failures in Iraq. But, because his force estimates put him squarely opposite the Bush Administration, his contributions to those problems are quietly forgotten.
No wonder Barack Obama nominated him for the VA. Whatever his faults, the president-elect is savvy enough to avoid unnecessary battles; sending Shinseki back to the Pentagon would have raised embarrassing (though valid) questions about his role in preparing the Army for Afghanistan and Iraq.