Shinseki to Head Veterans Affairs

UPDATE: See post here for additional info and commentary.
General(Retired) Eric Shinseki Will Serve in the Obama Administration
General(Retired) Eric Shinseki Will Serve in the Obama Administration

According to Politico:

Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki will be named as Barack Obama’s Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Sunday afternoon in Chicago, according to a Democratic official. The surprise pick represents the addition of yet another heavyweight to the Obama cabinet, as well as a subtle slap at President Bush’s original national security team. Shinseki served as Chief of Staff of the Army and retired a four-star general in 2003.

Like other uniformed Pentagon personnel, he clashed with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz personally and professionally, especially on the Iraq war.  Shortly before the end of his term as Chief of Staff in 2003, Shinseki told a congressional committee that post-war Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. Both Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz scoffed at the estimate. When Shinseki retired, no senior civilians from the Pentagon showed at his ceremony.

Since his retirement, Shinseki has been lauded for being “on the mark” and speaking truth to power; President-Elect Obama reportedly told Tom Brokaw “Shinseki was absolutely right” on the Iraq War in a Meet the Press interview taped today. His resistance to the dictums of Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and by extension the Bush Administration may afford General (R) Shinseki a cabinet level position this January, but before anyone lauds Generasl Shinseki for his remarkable prescience, it would be worthwhile to scrutinize his record as Army Chief of Staff, beyond that one day of testimony at the Capitol.

As the Chief of Staff of the Army, Shinseki was responsible for “Army matters and assisted in the secretary’s external affairs functions including: presenting and enforcing Army policies, plans, programs.” His office was therefore largely responsible for overseeing the manning, equipping, and training of the Army.

During his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army, General Shinseki fought tooth and nail to save the Army’s Comanche helicopter and Crusader self propelled artillery piece.  These two weapon systems, made largely obsolete by other technologies and the nature of modern combat itself,  were subsequently canceled (although not before taxpayers paid tens of billions of dollars for fruitless development and testing). Meanwhile, the Army found itself in harrowing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with body armor in short supply for many of the units deploying there, and with shortages in critical equipment like radios. Many questioned where the Army’s priorities were at the time.

And while General Shinseki possessed vast experience in stability operations and counterinsurgency, he certainly did not make training and education for these types of missions a priority for the Army during his Chief of Staff tenure. Amazingly, the Army had no counterinsurgency doctrine to guide training, planning, or operations until 2004, when it released a draft counterinsurgency field manual (the final manual was not actually released until 2006!).  Students in the Army command and general staff college (where mid grade officers go prior to being assigned as operations officers and planners throughout the Army) at the time of Shinseki’s tenure received absolutely no counterinsurgency training whatsoever as part of the 10 month core curriculum.

So, while General Shinseki’s testimony about troop requirements before the Armed Services Committee may have been validated in hindsight, many of the other critical decisions he made and priorities set during his tenure as the Army Chief of Staff were not so accurate, and required major course corrections by his successors.

General(R) Shinseki will no doubt do an exemplary job as the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs; he is a patriot, a wounded combat veteran who spent his entire adult life in the service of his country, and will likely fight hard to take care of Soldiers and their families. But his record as Chief of Staff of the Army is much more complicated than the typical whitewashed narrative suggests.

Post Script:

1. Some of this material is derivative of a post written earlier by this author and published here.

2. There is an interesting storyline on General Shinseki’s decision to change the headgear of the Army and the resulting imbroglio that was not detailed in this post. Read about it here, or ask any member of the Army with more than a decade of service about the “black beret thing” if you have a little time to spare.

Update: Here is a pretty good pic illustrating the state of Army headgear today:

"What Kind of Chefs are Each of You, Anyway?"

Black, green, tan, maroon, and none of them keep the left ear warm during the winter!

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6 thoughts on “Shinseki to Head Veterans Affairs

  1. Your contriarian comments on the General are interesting. During his tenure as Army COS, overseeing the large army bureauracy, he was not able to significantly change course and he could be faulted for defending the status quo. That could be said about the Generals who occupied the position before and after him. He will be challenged in his new job and I believe also he will perform exemplary.

  2. Lee C.

    Thanks for the comment.

    General Schoomaker, Shinseki’s successor, largely reacted to the situation he found himself in, and a great deal of time during the early days of his tenure were spent operationalizing the Army for the wars it was fighting (procuring better body armor and putting armor on Humvees); the Army’s rapid fielding of equipment (bypassing many of the traditional channels of acquisition) during that period is commendable.

    The Army should not have had to react the way it did after the war started, though. The fact that it was found short on personal protective gear, armored vehicles, and radios (for starters) are a testament to lack of vision by successive chiefs of staff beginning in the 1990s. Shinseki continued the trend, unfortunately. The Army doubled down on the lessons of Desert Storm, and downplayed or ignored its recent experiences in Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, and the like.

    I would personally vote for Shinseki for the job he will be nominated for (today, I believe); I do not doubt his love for the military, country, or the high level of competence he will bring to the job.

    I just hold traditional media narratives that supposedly drive discussions and understanding with great contempt, and think that blogs like this help get more information out there for everyone to chew on.

    Cheers.

  3. I was an Active Duty Army Lt when the decision to go to the black berets was made. At the time I was angered by the decision because it seemed like blasphemy to allow every soldier to wear something that was reserved for the “elite.” However, Gen Shinseki, himself an Army Ranger, understood as well as anybody the strong tradition behind the black beret. He earned his through enduring Ranger school, just like every other Ranger. This is what makes his decision to adopt the black beret as the standard Army uniform so remarkable.
    The almost-obsolete Army way of doing things was why the Army needed transformation beginning in 2001. The Army needed to become a more agile, adaptive and lethal fighting force-all the things the black beret represented. In the face of challenging a strong Army tradition, Gen. Shinseki made the difficult decision to allow every soldier to wear the black beret.
    He is a SOLID leader who always tries to do the right thing and is an excellent pick for VA Secretary.

  4. Clint,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I concur Gen S. will be a solid VA Secretary, and wrote as much in my post.

    I almost fear to tread into Beret territory, but since you ventured first, I will follow.

    General Shinseki chose as a symbol of the Army’s transformation something that already symbolized something else, in this case the 75th Infantry Regiment. It was largely a public relations disaster, within the Army and with the general public, and his office spent months defending his decision.

    At one point there was also going to be a test administered in Basic entry courses for enlisted and officers, after which people would earn the coveted beret. It was quickly dropped.

    At another point, people discovered that the Berets were going to be manufactured in China, right about when the Chinese had forced one of our P3s to land in their territory, I believe.

    The Rangers quickly adopted a tan beret to distance themselves from everyone else, and now the Army has a black, green, maroon, and tan berets.

    A date passed, people started wearing the beret, and everyone became indifferent about the it. These days it is hard to find anyone who truly believes that the black beret is symbolic of a dramatic transformational change in the U.S. Army. You are one of the rare exceptions, Clint, and it sounds like you departed the green machine a while back.

    In 2008, when you see some giant heavy-drop sized person sporting one of the black berets and looking like a pastry chef, transformation is the last thing on your mind.

    Cheers.

    Oh yes, General Shinseki never served in the 75th Infantry Regiment, by the way, Clint; he apparently wore won at some point as part of an armored cavalry tradition that died out early on, but going to Ranger School did not qualify a Soldier to wear a Black beret unless he/she was assigned to the 75th Infantry Regt.

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