Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect coverage of Eric Shinseki's May 15 testimony.
If you’re a veteran and you follow the news, it’s hard to miss the Eric-Shinseki-is-the-devil angle that’s been making rounds in the media. Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff tapped in 2009 to serve as veterans affairs secretary, has become a repository of blame for a laundry list of VA failures. Most recently, a CNN investigation brought to light the grotesque revelation that 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment in recent years. Calls for Shinseki’s resignation started more than a year ago, and in the wake of the latest controversy, the head of the American Legion and several Republican congressmen have now joined in that refrain. The public outcry has reached a boiling point, and Shinseki was called to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on the state of VA health care.
By many media accounts, his testimony went terribly. Here are Josh Hicks and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post:
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki stared, at times impassively, at a panel of senators who repeatedly hammered him Thursday over long waits for veterans seeking care and reports of coverups at VA medical centers.
As a veteran who relies exclusively on the VA for my healthcare needs, I’m troubled by the possibility that the organization Shinseki leads could become the latest political lightning rod for the ideologues in Congress. One need only contrast the VA’s failures with its mission statement and core values to conclude that the VA is failing in its own charter, and while Shinseki should certainly be held accountable, Americans should also consider the possibility that an anemic VA is just another symptom of our toxic political culture.
The one thing most Americans seem to agree on today is that this nation has a leadership deficit. How unfortunate that our strongest bridge to common ground is our anger toward the abstract them or they in the halls of power. The question Americans ought to be focused on at this moment is not simply whose heads should roll in the name of collective catharsis but instead, how can we actually traverse the vast chasm between our “support the troops” rhetoric and our actions?
I wonder if Americans have forgotten (or if most are even aware) that Shinseki is the guy who once scored a bundle of leadership points for refusing to endorse the misguided strategy of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and their plan to invade Iraq in a blitzkrieg-style assault on Baghdad with something like 57 American troops, six tanks and no reconstruction plan (hyperbolic exaggeration mine).
One has to wonder how the Iraq War might have gone if Shinseki’s contemporaries had emulated his display of moral courage while testifying before Congress in 2003. Shinseki was the lone dissenting voice among the service chiefs when he said in order to stabilize Iraq after an invasion, “Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.” Perhaps the character assassination that Rumsfeld and his partner in neoconservative crime perpetrated via the media the following day wouldn’t have served as such efficient camouflage for their hubris. It’s important to ask ourselves now how much American “blood and treasure” was thrown away because so many in the American military bureaucracy were asleep at the wheel while a handful of ideologues were leading us off a cliff.
The cruel irony in Eric Shinseki’s narrative is that he now serves in the undesirable position of having to lead the very institution charged with caring for the generation of veterans he tried to save from the catastrophe that Rumsfeld’s strategy proved to be. In 2003, Shinseki’s prophetic leadership failed to ignite a flame of critical inquiry in the American collective conscious. If anything good can come from the VA’s deplorable failures today, I hope it is the manifestation of that flame we failed to ignite 11 years ago.
I hope that Americans will refuse to settle for a changing of the guard at the VA — as if that will solve the organization’s systemic deficiencies in the healthcare it provides for those who sacrifice so much to preserve our way of life. I hope more Americans will start being honest with themselves about the fact that fighting long, protracted wars, and even small dirty wars, is a costly business, not just fiscally, but physically and spiritually. I hope America will begin to understand that advocating an aggressive foreign policy while demanding fiscal austerity in the domestic sphere is a contradictory position and one that heightens our economic instability. Most of all, I hope that if you count yourself among the support-the-troops crowd in America, you start thinking a bit more deeply about what that really means in practice. The burden of leadership at this moment in our history lies with you, America.
Ethan E. Rocke is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in the New York Times online, USA Today and Business Insider. He is a veteran of both the Army and Marine Corps.