The Ghost of Shinseki

Close to three years have passed since he last roamed the corridors of the Pentagon’s inner ring, but remnants of his leadership style and philosophy–standing up for what you believe in–can still be found in the military culture. Arguably, this trait should be present in all military leaders; however, as of late it appears to be in short supply.

In 2003, he bucked the trend of ‘yes-men’ and offered his own candid assessment of what was needed in Iraq. His prophetic predictions about Iraq were unfortunately ignored and now haunt those responsible for planning and executing the war.

If not for his disagreement with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he probably would have been relegated to a mere footnote in history, not that his career was unremarkable. Quite the contrary, anyone who rises to the rank of Army Chief of Staff has been truly a remarkable soldier, especially if you are the first Japanese-American to achieve this feat and have overcome a serious physical injury (while serving in Vietnam he lost a foot stepping on a land mine).

However, his dust-up with Rumsfeld is what most remember. While lacking the cinematic flair and drama associated with the Truman-McArthur firing, it rested on the same basic premise–civilian control of the military. Where McArthur was relieved for aggressively pushing the expansion of the Korean War, Shinseki was eased out early for not pushing the Iraq War aggressively enough.

As most will recall, Shinseki was one of the few, if not the only high ranking active duty military leader in 2003 to challenge the Department of Defense’s assessment of Iraq. Knowing that the Army would be responsible for the brunt of any warfighting or peacekeeping, he questioned the proposed troop levels. In testimony before Congress, he stated that the Iraq operation would require “several hundred thousand troops.”

Despite incurring the wrath of the civilian neocons, Shinseki never withdrew his statement and instead replied that “he responded with his best military judgment.” Presumably, one based on 38 years of Active Military service to include a stint as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans. In Bosnia, where Shinseki served as Commander of the Stabilization Force, NATO used 50,000 service members to police a population of 5 million people. Iraq’s population in 2003 was over 26 million people.

Never one to willingly accept criticism, Rumsfeld responded to Shinseki’s congressional testimony by saying that “the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces . . . is far off the mark.” Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz went on to say that those numbers are “wildly off the mark,” and offered the following reasons why:

(1) no history of ethnic strife in Iraq;

(2) Americans would be welcomed as liberators; and

(3) countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction.

Wolfowitz, wrong on all three points, was eventually promoted to the World Bank. Meanwhile, Shinseki was sent out to pasture early with the premature announcement of his replacement.

Had the President’s May 1, 2003 mission accomplished statement been accurate, the falling out between Shinseki and his civilian bosses would have pretty much gone unnoticed. However, the mission wasn’t accomplished. Iraq is worse off and continues along a path to Civil War. More and more questions are being raised about the war’s execution and planning both inside and outside of the military.

Recently, several senior military officers have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. General Anthony Zinni, who previously led the Central Command, said that Rumsfeld and others should step down for their mistakes in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold expressed concern about Rumsfeld’s influence on war planning, in particular his emphasis on assigning fewer troops to the invasion–echoing the 2003 sentiments of Shinseki. Maj. Gen. Batiste believes that by placing too few forces in the war zone, Rumsfeld helped create the Abu Grahib abuse scandal–putting too much responsibility on incompetent officers and undertrained troops.

While maybe not the panacea for this ill conceived modern-day Madison’s War, it is now painfully obvious that more initial troops would have at the minimum: (1) increased stability in the fledgling government; (2) decreased looting; (3) diminished destruction of valuable infrastructure; and (4) lessoned the likelihood that militant clerics would fill the power vacuum left by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Clearly, all of Shinseki’s ideas and decisions as Chief of Staff were not as prescient or on point as his prediction about Iraq. The jury is still out on the berets and the Crusader artillery system was not worth saving, despite his claims to the contrary. Nor is it accurate to say that Rumsfeld has failed in his duties as Secretary of Defense, few can argue with his skill in transforming and modernizing the military. However, on the biggest issue facing the military and the country Shinseki, not Rumsfeld, was right on the money.

THADDEUS HOFFMEISTER was an Active Duty Captain in the Army when General Shinseki was the Army Chief of Staff.



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