December 8, 2008 – Almost from the day he took office, George W. Bush has sold himself as a tough commander in chief, resolute in the war on terrorism.
“Dead or alive,” he responded when asked about capturing Osama bin Laden.
Then, shortly after U.S. troops toppled the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, he stood, in a pilot’s coveralls, under the sign Mission Accomplished on the deck of an aircraft carrier off the California coast.
That turned out to be an enormous miscalculation that this war leader and his advisers made.
Six years later, American troops are still in Iraq and that country’s future is still in doubt.
Eric Shinseki never even got to Iraq before he became one of that war’s first casualties. The four-star general was eased out of his job as secretary of the army, the force’s strategic planner, by Bush and his war cabinet — Vice-President Dick Cheney, then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then assistant-secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz.
More troops please
Born in Hawaii, Shinseki was the first Japanese-American to reach the rank of four-star general. He also knew what a battlefield was: he had been wounded twice in Vietnam, once very seriously as the result of a mine explosion.
The cause of his demise: Shinseki sent a report to his bosses saying that their Iraq war plan needed more troops.
He argued that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
When his concerns became public as the result of congressional hearings, Rumsfeld said Shinseki’s estimate “will prove to be too high,” while Wolfowitz argued it was “way off the mark.”
A few months later, in the midst of an otherwise stellar career, Shinseki retired, just as the Iraq war was getting underway.
All of this is old news, or at least it was until Sunday when president-elect Barack Obama announced Shinseki would be his new secretary of veteran’s affairs.
When asked about the very public controversy between Shinseki and the Bush administration over Iraq, Obama replied simply, “Gen. Shinseki was right.”
Keeping the faith
Also wading in to an old battle, former Republican secretary of state (and retired general) Colin Powell called the Shinseki appointment “a superb choice,” adding that Shinseki “knows soldiers and knows what it takes to keep faith with the men and women who went forth to serve the nation.”
At the University of Michigan, Iraq expert Juan Cole called the appointment sadly ironic. “If Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had listened to Shinseki there wouldn’t be so many wounded veterans to take care of.”
Cole added what many in Washington are saying about the Obama appointment: “This is a way of saying ‘here was a career officer who had valuable insights, who was shunted aside by arrogant civilians, and we’re not going to make the same kind of mistakes.'”
But there is more to this appointment than the opportunity for a poke in the eye at the Bush legacy.
Shinseki’s return draws additional attention to one of the biggest failures of the Bush administration: the unwritten covenant between the White House and GI Joe that is considered sacred. It has been shredded.
What went wrong
For an indication of what has gone wrong, consider that the suicide rate among returning veterans is high and increasing.
Consider, too, that the medical capability of the VA has been swamped, partly by the numbers of injured but also because of an under-performing bureaucracy.
The infrastructure of veteran’s affairs, its hospitals and clinics, needs modernization. The department has become the second largest in the government, only behind the Pentagon. But its modernization has not kept pace.
Last year, for example, an investigative series by the Washington Post uncovered horrible treatment of returning, wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
Walter Reed is considered the jewel of the VA system. But Post reporters discovered wounded vets being housed in temporary shelters near the hospital, shelters the newspaper found were rat-infested and cockroach-ridden.
Then there is the fact that the sprawling VA bureaucracy throughout the country is ridden with, well, bureaucracy.
According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, it takes, on average, 99 days at the department of veterans affairs office in Salt Lake City, Utah, to process a disability claim of a soldier who has returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.
That’s the good side.
At the Honolulu office, it takes 237 days for the claim to be processed.
There is also the alarming issue of post-traumatic syndrome disorder, (PTSD).
Of the 83,436 veterans who have been independently diagnosed with PTSD, only 38, 448 received benefits from the VA, according to figures supplied to a congressional committee by Veterans for Common Sense.
Committee Chairman Bob Filner says the VA, “is on the verge of completely losing the trust and confidence of the people it is supposed to represent. The very same people it has been entrusted to care for. These (benefit claims) are matters of life and death for some of these veterans.”
A recent Rand Corporation study says that as many as 300,000 soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are suffering from “major depression or PTSD.” The multiple deployment of troops is increasing this number considerably.
Many veterans’ groups and families of returning soldiers say that diagnosing exactly what is wrong with VA is very difficult. But during his announcement of the Shinseki appointment, Obama was more optimistic.
“When I reflect on the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and I think about how so many veterans around the country are struggling even more than those who have not served,” Obama said, “it breaks my heart.
“I think that Gen. Shinseki is exactly the right person to make sure that we honour our troops when they come home.”
Shinseki has not spoken about his plans, but when he was forced to retire in 2003 he wrote a letter to defence secretary Rumsfeld that said, among other things, “platforms and organizations don’t defend the nation, people do.”