The General Choice
Shinseki returns.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

The report that President-Elect Barack Obama will name retired Army general and former Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs has led to the recycling of a popular falsehood — that, in the words of the New York Times, General Shinseki had been “vilified by the Bush administration on the eve of the Iraq war for his warning that far more troops would be needed than the Pentagon had committed.”

In fact, Shinseki’s February 2003 statement before Congress suggesting that “several hundred thousand” troops might be necessary in postwar Iraq was far from the example of prescience that Bush’s critics have claimed. As my Naval War College colleague John Garofano wrote in an article for the spring 2008 issue of Orbis, “no extensive analysis has surfaced as supporting Shinseki’s figures, which were dragged out of him by Senator Carl Levin only after repeated questioning.”

Shinseki’s claim was based on a “straight-line extrapolation from very different environments” — an analysis by the Army’s Center for Military History that based its figure of 470,000 troops for Iraq on the service’s experience in Bosnia and Kosovo. But as Tom Ricks pointed out in an article for the Washington Post, this effort was criticized as naïve, unrealistic, and “like a war college exercise” rather than serious planning.


The best that can be claimed on Shinseki’s behalf is that he was right for the wrong reasons. His claim that more troops would be needed in Iraq was based on his incorrect assumption that humanitarian operations rather than counterinsurgency would be the main driver of U.S. force requirements.


But misleading claims about Shinseki do not stop there. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw identified Shinseki as “the man who lost his job in the Bush administration because he said we [would] need more troops in Iraq than Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld thought . . . at that time.” But this oft-made charge is simply false. Service chiefs are appointed for a maximum of two two-year terms. It is true that Rumsfeld named Shinseki’s successor a year before the end of his second term, but Shinseki finished that term before leaving — he served for the entire time permitted by law. Shinseki was never “forced into early retirement.”


The fact that most politicians have accepted the need for a larger Army and Marine Corps seems to vindicate Shinseki’s broader — and correct — warning about the danger of trying to implement a “12 division strategy” with a “10 division army.” But numbers aside, the Army’s experience in Iraq indicate a more serious failing of that service’s leadership — including Gen. Shinseki: a failure of vision.


In a blistering critique of U.S. Army leadership in the April 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote:

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.

The fact is that Gen. Shinseki failed to prepare his service for the kind of war that emerged in Iraq in 2003: an insurgency. The “surge” implemented in 2007 by Gen. David Petraeus was successful not only because of an increase troop strength. It was successful because of the application of a new counterinsurgency doctrine that Gen. Shinseki and most other Army generals had rejected. As Garofano observes, the situation in Iraq “comes down, as it did in Vietnam, to analysis, getting it right, and providing clear alternatives that address or confront policy goals.” In the final instance, this Shinseki failed to do.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He served 30 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve, including service in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander in 1968-69. He is the editor of Orbis.