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December 9, 2008

Eric Shinseki as Prophet

Roy Meachum

You might not remember Eric Shinseki's name. Among Army troops he's mildly infamous for ordering all ranks to wear berets. He's now been named by the incoming administration as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. That could never happen while Richard Cheney exercised power in the vice president's office.


Four-star General Shinseki was valued among Iraq war critics for telling the Senate (and the world) the United States' troop estimates were too low for the Iraq invasion and the occupation to follow. He was right, of course. The specific reason, however, for president-designate Barack Obama's naming him to the VA post, I suspect, was the massive wounds he received in Vietnam. His top level of experience in government helps.


Readers may recall my only appearance on a Kennedy Center stage (in the Opera House), after years of reviewing and reporting its productions. My old outfit, the United States Army Band, invited me as the organization's first announcer/narrator to handle a part of the concert that marked the retirement of the band's commanding officer and principal conductor. Bryan Shelburne appeared in Frederick several times, at Bettie Delaplaine's invitation. After I left, the outfit had been put directly under the Army's top general. That's why the chief of staff (and his wife) mingled backstage before the opening overture.


Mrs. Shinseki couldn't have been more gracious and comforting to this gray-beard ex-staff sergeant. She told me how her husband spent months and months in hospitals when his foot and leg were shattered by a Vietnamese mine. General Shinseki welcomed me when my on-stage stint was over; his eyes said his compliments were sincere. I drove back to Frederick that night, liking both.


The most famous brouhaha in his long military career landed on the nation's front pages a few years later. He told a Senate committee the administration's estimate of an Iraq invasion force was way too low; he asserted several hundred thousand troops would be needed for the build-up already underway. The Army chief of staff was eased out of the Army shortly after the invasion began. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz scoffed at the general's higher projected figures; he denigrated Erik Shinseki, whose prophecies proved on the button.


Before the department's head was upped to cabinet level, Administrator Max Cleland suffered wounds in Vietnam greater than Secretary-designate Shinseki's. Ironically, his tenure as a U.S. Senator from Georgia, his native state, was abruptly ended when his challenger questioned Mr. Cleland's patriotism.


In a way, says a survivor of both, the Bush-Cheney witch hunts, e.g. Mr. Cleland's, were worse than that period after World War II known as McCarthyism. Although the House Un-American Activities Committee's trample of constitutional rights lasted longer and was more of a disgrace for anyone who treasured individual rights, the post-war hunts were conducted when this nation was supreme. These come at a time when America's role in the international community stands, at least, rocky.


By coincidence, within hours of the unofficial reports of the designated VA secretary's naming surfaced, the Pentagon announced new American forces assigned to Afghanistan would chiefly be posted to the capital of Kabul and its supporting provinces. In other words, the U.S. military establishment accepts what England's Tommy Atkins knew over 100 years ago, and Russian Ivans learned more recently (1989). The countryside can never be conquered.


The Taliban's initial flight in the face of vastly superior American firepower was only the opening engagement in a long, long war. Fortunately for Washington, Iraqi agreement on when our troops must depart has brought lessening of Baghdad's tension and removed the cause many imams and their people, Shia and Sunni, fought the foreigners. This means more of the U.S.'s overspread armed forces can concentrate on Afghanistan.


To what point? The coalition forces, like the Brits and Soviets before them, simply cannot win. To take and hold cities does not mean victory in the mountainous country.


Since his quiet retirement as the Army's chief, Eric Shinseki muffled personal questioning of the war and the administration that started it. He explained his criticism was not proper when "soldiers and their families" are under dismayingly great pressure. But the essence of his charge about too few troops was justified again by the announcement last week. Except for a battalion, more or less, sent to guard Afghanistan's western border, the United States would shoulder responsibility for the national government in Kabul. The rest of the country was plopped down on coalition troops' plate. The Brit Tommy Atkins and the Soviet Ivan would understand.


In any event, I feel better about Erick Shinseki taking over the care and comfort of veterans, the widows and their children. Both his experience and his natural empathy will accompany him into the office of Veterans Affairs secretary.


So will his terrific wife!


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