I received a number of e-mails in response to my piece about Gen. Eric Shinseki earlier this week. The article focused on how the announcement of his nomination to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs had become the occasion for the media to trot out old falsehoods about the Bush administration and the Iraq War. As a result, I left out some important things about Shinseki.
First of all, I believe that General Shinseki is a good and honorable man. I think that his nomination to head the Department of Veterans Affairs is a good thing. He was badly wounded during the Vietnam War and was one of only a handful of veterans of that war to remain on active duty after losing part of a limb.
Second, given the tenor of the times, General Shinseki is to be commended for not taking his disagreements with Donald Rumsfeld (which predated the Iraq War) public, in violation of the tradition of American civil-military relations, as so many other general officers have done. Unlike Gen. Rick Sanchez, he has not written a CYA book, nor has he given his story to Bob Woodward, as Gen. George Casey did.
Upon his retirement from the Army in June 2003, Shinseki did write Secretary Rumsfeld a private letter in which he stated:
I feel duty bound to provide you with some of my closing thoughts . . . . While our disagreements have been well-chronicled, and sometimes exaggerated, these professional disagreements were never personal, never disrespectful, and never challenged the foundational principle of civilian control of the military in our form of government. . . .
Nonetheless, he gave it to the secretary with both barrels:
I am greatly concerned that OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] processes have often become ad hoc and long established conventional processes are atrophying. Specifically, there are areas that need your attention as the ad hoc processes often do not adequately consider professional military judgment and advice. . . . Second, there is a lack of strategic review to frame our day-to-day issues . . . . Third, there has been a lack of explicit discussion on risk in most decisions. . . . Finally, I find it unhelpful to participate in senior level decision-making meetings without structured agendas, objectives, pending decisions and other traditional means of time management.
In keeping his disagreements with Secretary Rumsfeld private, General Shinseki followed in the steps of Rear Adm. James O. Richardson, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1940. When President Franklin Roosevelt decided to attempt to deter Japanese expansionism by moving the U.S. Pacific Fleet from California to Pearl Harbor during the summer of that year, Richardson objected, arguing that basing the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii was provocative and could precipitate a war with Japan. The president fired him and replaced him with Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel. As Adm. Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, wrote to Kimmel after the affair, "This, of course, is White House prerogative and responsibility, and believe me, it is used these days." To his credit Richardson kept his objections to FDR’s decision private and went quietly into retirement.