The Operative: You know, in certain older civilized cultures, when men failed as entirely as you have, they would throw themselves on their swords.
Dr. Mathias: Well, unfortunately, I forgot to bring a sword.
The Operative (producing a sword): Would you be killed in your sleep, like an ailing pet?
— Serenity, 2005
Christian civilization recoils from suicide, but a sneaking admiration for it creeps in for the Romans, the virtuous deaths of Cato and Seneca, and for the ancient Japanese practice, not because the act itself is necessarily admirable, but because the motive is. There are worse maxims than “Death Before Dishonor.”
I do not think that General Eric Shinseki should fall on a literal sword, but he already is overdue for the metaphorical one. There is recent precedent: In the Czech Republic, the entire government stepped down over a relatively picayune corruption scandal in which politicians bought off potential opponents with government jobs; in Turkey, senior ministers resigned after a similar scandal, though the prime minister resisted calls for his resignation; the prime minister of Luxembourg, Europe’s longest-serving leader, announced his resignation when it was revealed that his spy agencies were misbehaving; the governor of Tokyo stepped down over a dodgy loan from a hospital operator; etc. These are premiers and heads of parliamentary governments and senior leaders; what’s an obscure cabinet secretary by comparison?
The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius once observed that if a man knew for certain that he would die the next day, or the day after that, he would care very much about which day it was to be, the difference being so slight, only if were among the most abject and degraded of souls. General Shinseki has nothing in front of him but degradation; a less abject man would already have resigned in acknowledgement of his own failure to meet his responsibilities and as a gesture of atonement to the nation he failed. Clinging to his position at this point can be a source of nothing other than shame. He is on his way out — why not leave with some honor?
I wrote in passing yesterday that if President Obama or the people of this country had any self-respect, he’d resign over the scandal of the Veterans Affairs hospitals, which needlessly sentenced an unknown number of American veterans to death through their combination of managerial incompetence, medical malpractice, and monstrously cruel indifference to their clients. Other heads of government have resigned for less. President Obama presented himself to the public as an authority in the field of health-care management and as an executive who not only would insist upon but also would in fact achieve the highest standards in transparent, honest, competent government. He has failed, comprehensively. An honest man acknowledges his failures.
Perhaps it is the case that he did not know how bad things were in the VA system. Set aside the question of whether he should have known, for instance by finding the time to take the occasional meeting with General Shinseki, a task the president had not undertaken in more than two years. Sitting behind the Resolute desk means taking responsibility for the totality of the executive branch of the U.S. government, which includes a great many things that are outside of one’s immediate knowledge or control.