The forcing out of retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs Friday was probably necessary but was nonetheless a tragedy in terms of U.S. public service.
I need to acknowledge up front that he and his wife Patty were neighbors and friends in the late 1990s when I was vice president of the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. My knowledge of Gen. Shinseki and of his approach to his work, to what he considered his duty, along with his record of service, are part of the basis of what I am about to say.
His biography is almost unbelievable. He was born of Japanese-American parents on Hawaii in 1942, not long after Pearl Harbor, a time when Japanese-Americans were being put into internment camps. He graduated from West Point. He served two combat tours in Vietnam, losing part of a foot to a land mine but returning to duty. He rose steadily in the Army, finally to chief of staff in 1999. His service included a difficult tour in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and deputy secretary of defense, Paul D. Wolfowitz, were cooking up the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gen. Shinseki was asked his professional estimate of how many U.S. forces would be needed to occupy Iraq successfully. He responded, “several hundred thousand.”
That number was higher than what Mr. Rumsfeld was saying, so he turned against Gen. Shinseki. When the general left the Army in 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld did not attend his retirement ceremony, a visible, public insult not only to Mr. Shinseki, but to the office of Army chief of staff. The peak number of U.S. forces in Iraq rose to 170,000. The Iraq war would be hard to consider a U.S. success.
When President Barack Obama named Gen. Shinseki secretary of veterans affairs in 2009, there was general rejoicing among active-duty and retired service members, based on his reputation not only as a general who cared about his troops but also as one who had suffered a severe wound himself, much like those endured by other returned and returning forces.
The job was probably impossible, one that would grind down even someone as dedicated as Gen. Shinseki.
The VA performs at least three basically incompatible functions: burying U.S. troops who die at home or abroad, in their beds or in combat; administering and delivering the benefits to which U.S. veterans are entitled; and running a huge nationwide hospital system.
The first is appropriate to a large network of funeral homes and cemeteries. The second comprises the full range of human-services administration. The third involves running one of the largest health-care systems anywhere.
The first point a sensible management consultant would make is that the three functions should be disaggregated. They are not compatible. Success in the three require different skills. They should not be competing for funds within a single department.
The VA has 300,000 employees, serving 9 million veterans. The piece that ended up bringing down Gen. Shinseki was health care. The department includes 950 medical centers and outpatient clinics. The Phoenix, Arizona, facility was the one that caught the attention of the public and of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who himself probably couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.
The veterans’ health-care nightmare has turned really bad in the past few years as, first, America’s Vietnam veterans come to the VA in great numbers with the problems of old age. These include diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and dementia.
Then there are the veterans flowing back from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Many have difficult mental health problems. Many also require extensive surgery and therapy for wounds that in previous wars would have killed them. No one would deny these wounded warriors whatever medical care it takes to help them recover from the damage wreaked on them by these wars.
The Obama administration is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to caring for America’s veterans. It is not in a position to cite the financial costs of dealing with the damage done to our soldiers by the wars without raising the obvious question of why it keeps our troops on different battlefields if it is so concerned about the cost, in lives as well as in dollars. Mr. Obama just extended the length of the Afghanistan war by two years, from 2014 to 2016, to end after the elections in which his successor will be chosen. He is also letting the Africa Command run wild in taking on responsibilities in unstable African countries, picking up problems in Mali, Nigeria and Somalia, as examples.
Does Mr. Obama or anyone else imagine that the United States can play militarily in the East and South China Seas, Libya, Ukraine or Yemen without eventually incurring U.S. casualties, casualties that the VA then will have to minister to?
As for Gen. Shinseki, for five years he attacked these problems with his deeply ingrained sense of duty and attachment to hard work. At 71, he can return to Hawaii, if he wants to, knowing that he did his best, which is all that can be expected of anyone.
As for the lesser men and women who would like to hang the VA’s shortcomings around his neck, let any of them who think they can take on its burdens step forward. Mr. McCain?
The end of career that Gen. Shinseki’s critics handed him last week goes some distance in explaining why America finds serious, conscientious leaders hard to come by and ends up instead with ambitious, greedy careerists.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1976).