Before we expunge Eric Shinseki from our collective consciousness – he fell on his sword Friday and resigned as VA chief – let’s pause for a moment to praise his courageous prescience.
Lest we forget, this is the same guy who stood up to George W. Bush’s neoconservative warriors in early 2003. As a four-star general and the Army’s chief of staff, he publicly warned that the Bush team’s sunny forecast of an Iraq cakewalk was a fantasy, that a lot of American soldiers would be needlessly killed and wounded. And that’s exactly what happened. Bush and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld rewarded Shinseki by speeding up his retirement and boycotting his retirement ceremony.
I bring this up not to traipse down memory lane, but to highlight a cruel contemporary irony. Bush’s reckless invasion of Iraq – and the needless resultant casualties – seriously swelled the VA caseload and exacerbated the problems that landed in Gen. Shinseki’s lap. Given his foresight in 2003, that was the last thing he deserved.
According to the most recent official count, roughly 33,000 soldiers were wounded in Iraq – although that tally doesn’t include the estimated hundreds of thousands who came home with mental issues. A huge share of the wounded (officially or otherwise) have since sought help from the VA. All told, more than a million soldiers served in Iraq (fighting for the phony reasons ginned up by the Bush team), and studies show that roughly 50 percent have peppered the overwhelmed VA with disability claims.
In fact, VA began struggling with its Iraq-inflated caseload in the early war years. The VA’s inspector general reported, in 2005, that the wait lists were way too long (sound familiar?) and that some administrators were using paper lists in place of the electronic lists to conceal the problem (sound familiar?). As it said on the report cover page, “Outpatient scheduling procedures need to be improved.” Another Bush-era report, in 2007, found that the procedures had not been improved.
How unfair it was that Shinseki inherited these woes in 2009 – considering how courageous he had been in 2003.
In a February ’03 hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee – one month before Bush launched his war – Shinseki was asked how many soldiers it would take to defeat and peacefully occupy Iraq. At the time, the Bush warriors were preparing to send roughly 145,000 troops. But Shinseki testified that the number should be much higher – perhaps twice as high. Clearly he wasn’t buying the argument, floated by the Bush warriors, that shocked and awed Iraqis would throw flowers at our feet.
Remember, this was a guy who’d lost half his right foot after stepping on a mine in Vietnam; he knew that sunny rhetoric bore no resemblance to battlefield reality. In his Senate testimony about Iraq, he explained: “We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so, it takes significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment.”
Ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems…yeah, like Sunnis and Shiites fighting for years in the streets, with American soldiers in the crossfire, getting killed and maimed and mentally twisted.
Two days later, the Bush warriors rebuked Shinseki. In House testimony, Pentagon neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz (natch) declared that “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….There has been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another….I am reasonably certain that they will greet us liberators, and that will help us to keep (troop) requirements down.”
Heckuva job, Wolfie.
And kudos to Shinseki for being vindicated on Iraq – for what it’s worth today. He wound up holding the VA mop, trying to clean up much of the mess that he had warned against. Then he played the fall guy, a time-honored Washington ritual (as if changing VA chiefs will remedy the VA’s woes). Sadly, Shinseki’s story confirms the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
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