Monday, December 08, 2008

Shinseki's Other Legacy

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.


Ed Rasimus said...

Certainly Shinseki's military legacy should be considered (although National Review commented that he was neither fired as C-of-S nor did he really comment as characterized in the media.) His Chinese-sourced beret stunt should disqualify him for any future job. (This from a former black beret wearer as an AF tactical air control party member.)

More critical is the distinction of how exactly Obama will use the VA. It already is a tool to distribute welfare to "means tested" veterans (as a 23-year service, combat disability, retired officer, I don't qualify for even registration in the VA medical system let along services!)

The VA does a fine job with rehab for active duty wounded, but it has a long history of bureaucratic self-justification through soliciting cases of PTSD, Agent Orange or Gulf War Syndrome with strictly emotional and little medical basis. The details of much have this malfeasance were laid out in Burkett & Whitley's excellent work, "Stolen Valor."

My bet is that the VA will accelerate their role as a welfare conduit while simultaneously degrading the veteran as a drug-addicted, alcoholic, psychologically unfit to succeed in civilized society after service to his country.

Anonymous said...


When General Zinni was head of centcom his OPLAN called for 400,000 troops for an invasion and phase IV operations. When Franks took over, the plan got reduced a bit to 385,000. While I agree on the beret issue, on Iraq Shinseki was more right than anyone in the administration and he did get fired for it. It's amazing to me that people still try to get what digs they can on that point.

The Shinseki nomination is important as a message to the officer corps. It indicates that this administration is probably not going to fire officers who give unwanted advice.


Your information on the VA is completely wrong.

1. If you served and were not dishonorably discharged, you can register with the VA.

2. If you have a service-connected disability, then they only thing you MIGHT be means-tested on are prescriptions. Vets with greater than 50% service-related disability have no means testing for anything. Means-testing for services only applies to those with no service-related disability.

3. VA "bureaucratic justification," as you call it, is required by Congress. Benefits provided by the VA are determined by Congress, not the VA, so if you have a problem with PTSD, Agent Orange, etc., then you're barking up the wrong tree. Regardless, PTSD has a strong medical basis and Gulf War syndrome has been epidemiologically proven. I don't know about Agent Orange.

4. WTF are you talking about "welfare conduit?" Since when is medical care provided primarily for disabled vets "welfare?" Government assistance to disabled veterans predates the founding of our republic. This accusation seems particularly disingenuous coming from a retired officer who is presumably collecting retired pay.

TOF said...

Without knowing what went on in the inner circle I would hazard a guess that Shinseki is there because of who he is. You should see the shrine dedicated to Shinseki at the Hawaii Army Museum at Fort Derussy in Honolulu.

However, he's not in a position to compete with Gates. The positions of Gates and Shinseki are diametrically opposed when it comes to force structure.

Ed Rasimus said...

You might want to check on your assertions, Andy. I accompanied a friend to a VA facility (Bonham TX) and decided while there to register. In order to register (not to receive any services, but simply to get on the VA registry), I was asked for a full and complete financial disclosure including statements of all sources of income, all debts and obligations, all investments and property owned, types of vehicles and value for both me and my spouse.

If that ain't "means testing" I don't know what is. Why wouldn't a valid DOD ID card showing retired status as a field grade officer handle that?

I tried again by direct paper filing to the Waco VA Center, pointing out my qualification as priority 3 (not priority 7) in the VA handbook, but was rejected and told I still must supply full financial disclosure to be eligible.

As for the bureaucratic self-justification, I'd recommend you read Burkett's excellent work, "Stolen Valor" which spends as much time on the VA fiasco as it does on impostors and wannabes.

kitanis said...

I recently had my medical records examined by the VA.. and finally got a condition that was found in there as disability.. so far the VA has not requested any financial information from me at all.

In fact.. further examination of my records caused them to request I go through examination for something that happened to me in 2000 and was treated.. but the doctor seem's to think that they should do further tests.

I will say this.. while going through the VA process when they required me to go through a couple examinations.. reminded me of the medical care that was once available to active duty personnel before Tri-Care was implemented. Straitforward.. Proffessional and Carring without all the stigma of getting statements and bills from treatment facilities when Tri-Care dose not pay the total ammount what those facilities charge.

I am not praising the VA.. I am only stating what I have experienced in the last few weeks. I have talked to many people in the waiting rooms.. most state that the VA dose a good job.. but there is always someone who dose not like it.

As far as using the VA as a model for nationalized heath care.. I don't think thats a good idea.. Imagine the ammount of people to be treated.. and set up the system like the VA.. it would have to have at least seven times the personnel to handle the load.

Ed Rasimus said...

A quick (and minor) rebuttal to kitanis:

Your disability claim is totally independent of registration on the VA medical eligibility roster. You can file, and receive a disability without being registered.

Anonymous said...


Requiring financial disclosure is not "means testing." VA collects that information from all registrants but, as I said before, only some priorities are actually means-tested for benefits. As a priority 3 the only thing you might be means-test on are for non service-connected medications. You would be covered for everything else.

So by refusing to register all you're doing is denying yourself medical care you're legitimately entitled to.

Ed Rasimus said...

No, Andy, by refusing to divulge my personal financial details to a mindless VA bureaucrat who has never been in the cross-hairs I am preserving my dignity, freedom and rights.

Anonymous said...


We probably agree that the universal financial disclosure requirement for registration is a bad one. But here's what you said originally and what I responded to:

It already is a tool to distribute welfare to "means tested" veterans (as a 23-year service, combat disability, retired officer, I don't qualify for even registration in the VA medical system let along services!)

The point is that you DO qualify, you just don't want to provide the information necessary to register. And as a priority group 3, you wouldn't be means-tested except in the limited instance I already discussed. The point is, it's one thing to argue the registration requirements are unreasonable and it's quite another to falsely claim the VA won't let a combat disabled veteran register or receive benefits.

fmfnavydoc said...

I have no beef with the medical side of the house at the VA - I had five medical appointments for my disability evaluation after I retired this year, and the staf was great. I also was able to register for care through them at that problem with them has been how they have handled my request for Vocational Rehab counseling...the local rep in the area is a bonafide jerk, insisting that I came in on his time, when I was out of town taking care of family matters out of state. Things got so bad, that I had to write my Congressman to get him involved in having someone else help me with getting this done.
Good luck to Shinseki...he'll need it...