Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Obaminet: Veterans Affairs

This, by the way, is an appointment I'm personally interested in, because this semester, my class put together a proposal as to how to overhaul the Veterans system so that returning combat veterans will be better reintegrated into civilian society. I won't take up your time or eyespace with reprinting our proposal here, but it has been submitted through channels that will take it to the Obama Administration--or so I have been assured.

The Veterans Affairs Administration will be led by General Eric Shinseki; he was the Army Chief of Staff under Clinton. But the reason I have faith in his integrity is because of his service under the Bush Administration. He's being called a "Rumsfeld Critic" by AFP, which makes me upset. What he was was the only member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who held representing the best interests of his men over loyalty to the President.

When we started looking at entering Iraq, he upheld his duty to protect his men by insisting that it would take more than 150,000 troops to occupy Iraq. He held that we needed "several hundred thousand", and he held to that number in Congressional Hearings. As Tom Brokaw pointed out on Meet the Press, he lost his job for that. And as Barack Obama replied, he was right. Even General Abizaid, who is not most well-known for his capacity for regret, admitted that Shinseki had been right with hindsight.

If we had listened to the counsel of General Eric Shinseki, it's not a guarantee that things would have necessarily happened differently. But Shinseki was the only one brave enough to tell the President that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were wrong, and he made his dissent public. It was nothing personal; General Shinseki simply upheld his duty to support the troops.

When he left, he warned us to beware of arrogance in leadership; he told us to beware a "12-division strategy for a 10-division army." History proved that Shinseki was absolutely correct; what's more, his fellow officers in the Joint Chiefs should have known and should have stood by his side.

I want to hit this point again: Shinseki stood up for the men under his command to the point of losing his job. And that's why he needs to lead the VA. When the Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal broke, it became clear that army brass and the Bush Administration had little to no regard for the health and safety of the men they command. The Veterans' Affairs Administration has become a broken system, causing as much harm as it helps. The very first step to fixing that is putting someone who cares about the troops--supports the troops--at the top of the totem pole.

Also, there's a historic symbolism in Shinseki's appointment; he's a Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii. There is no record that I can find about whether his family was put into an internment camps; in 1942 in Hawaii, I find it difficult to believe that it wasn't at least a fear. But a generation later, their son (who served honorably in Vietnam, losing part of his foot to a land mine; and later in the command of the military) will remain in the highest ranks of government, even after his distinguished service.

It plays to my sense of justice.