Eric Shinseki, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Politics, and War


Last Friday, Charles P. Pierce posted a column at Esquire’s Politics Blog about the resignation of General Eric Shinseki and the “unfolding scandal” at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Pierce wrote:

And thus ends the honorable career of a soldier who was correct about the lies behind the greatest policy disaster of our times, about the essential criminality of the people who launched the invasion of Iraq, but whose primary failures as an administrator were his inability to oversee the people in his department who were directly trying to cope with the flood of casualties that resulted from all of those soldiers that most of official Washington told Eric Shinseki they would never need to create a democratic paradise in Iraq. Irony is the rail on which Shinseki now has been ridden out of town.

Eric Shinseki

Eric Shinseki

In his Esquire article titled The Problem Isn’t the VA or Eric Shinseki, Pierce tells about one of his first jobs in his profession. He said it “was covering the Vietnam veterans movement as they tried to get the various veterans organizations, including the VA, to pay attention to things like PTSD and the longterm effects of Agent Orange.” He said the Vietnam vets “spoke with contempt of the World War II veterans who staffed those organizations, scoffing at what they called ‘the Class of ’45’ for the way those veterans looked down on them because they had ‘lost’ their war.” He added that the people who were “most willing to help were the scattered remnants of the antiwar movement — like the people who ran the GI coffeehouses and, I guess, people like us in the alternative press.” Pierce said that he recalled “vivdly” the Vietnam vets’ “anger at the Reagan Administration when it proposed to close down the psychiatric outreach centers that they had fought so hard to include under the VA system.” Pierce claims that that was his introduction “to the vast gap between the political rhetoric about America’s veterans and how they actually are treated.” Pierce’s best source in the Vietnam vet community told him one day, “I got a hundred stories. Which one do you want?” Pierce said that two years later his source “took his M-1 into a closet and only the rifle came out.”

Pierce provides his view on the main cause for the problems that the VA is experiencing today:

The problem with the VA system right now is that, for an entire decade, we sent people into the meat grinder of a war the architects of which conducted completely off the books. They kept it off the books used to keep the federal budget, and they did all they could to keep it off the books of the nation’s moral conscience as well. They lied and they cooked their estimates on everything far worse than did the likely criminals who fudged the documentation at the hospital in Phoenix. The whole country was awash in the moral equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, all glistening and shiny and bedecked in bunting. Meanwhile, the physical, financial, and moral cost of it all built up and built up until the scheme got bigger and more complicated and, ultimately, it became untenable. And now, the people who launched it in the first place are tut-tutting about what happened when the whole thing finally collapsed. The one thing to remember about a Ponzi scheme is that the people who get in first get paid off. They got their war. They profited from the double-entry bookkeeping they kept on the national conscience and, now, there’s a Democratic president, and a whole lot of injured veterans, who end up holding the bag.


The Problem Isn’t The VA Or Eric Shinseki by Charles P. Pierce (Esquire)


Senate Republicans Kill a Bill to Expand Veterans’ Benefits by Charles P. Pierce (Esquire)

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8 Responses to Eric Shinseki, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Politics, and War

  1. Mike Spindell says:


    This is an excellent piece on the VA issue and it is made more powerful by Pierce’s righteous anger. The difference between “support the troops” and “thank you for your service” on one hand and the way our veterans are treated on the other, represents hypocrisy of the rankest sort. The most outspoken supporters of our troops are the same hypocrites that vote to cut back VA funding. Despite those who would try to slant history to their narrative, the greatest supporters of the Viet Nam Vets were tose of us that protested the war that threw so many lives away.

  2. bigfatmike says:

    I think the article is perceptive and accurate. I just do not agree that it explains the problem at the VA.

    There ought to be a platitude you can’t drive the car if you can’t see the road. In a large organization, the numbers are how management knows whether the agency is on the road or off.

    I heard a news report that made much of the fact that as a general, Shinseki sometimes had to take the word of privates to launch attacks. The implication was that we should be understanding that Shinseki took the word of subordinates. It was not really his fault that he was mislead.

    But doesn’t that story really demonstrate that Shinseki was out of his element at the VA, that in fact, he failed as a manager.

    Shinseki failed to secure what was most essential for the success of his mission – the numbers that would tell him the performance of his organization. It is as though a general failed to set a perimeter to assure force protection.

    I admire Shinseki for the truth he told about the number of troops necessary for war.

    But he could have made a difference at the VA. Possibly he could have secured funding for better performance. Failing that he could have again spoken truth to power as he did earlier. Instead, so far as we know, Shinseki didn’t even know the agency was long off the tracks and careening into the ditch.

    Most everything in that article is true. Except the conclusion. Shinseki could have made a difference. But he did not.

    • Mike Spindell says:

      I agree with BFM. As the person in charge he was responsible to get the true picture. That is a
      Administration 101.

  3. Elaine M. says:

    I’d say that Shinseki is not the only one at fault here. I believe there is plenty of blame to go around. Finding out what is at the root of problems like those at the VA is always complicated–especially when you have politicians who are trying to make points with voters. I’d ask what members of Congress did when they received complaints about the VA from veterans who live in the states that they represent.

    In VA Scandal, Accountability for All — Including Congress
    By Joe Conason
    May 24, 2014–_including_congress_122738.html

    A substantial portion of the estimated $ 3 trillion price of that war is represented by the cost of decent care for veterans. But even as the war raged on, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress repeatedly refused to appropriate sufficient funding for veterans’ health care. This financial stinginess toward vets was consistent with Bush’s refusal to take any steps to pay for his expensive war (and decision to protect his skewed tax cuts instead).

    As Alec MacGillis pointed out this week in the New Republic, legislators who voted for war while opposing expansion of the VA are hypocrites, particularly when they claim to care about veterans. So are the Republican governors who refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which keeps hundreds of thousands of impoverished vets from getting health care.

    Breaking down the voting record, year after year, the pattern along party lines is clear: Republicans regularly propose cuts in VA funding and oppose increases sponsored by Democrats — a pattern that extends back to the first years of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and continues to this day. As recently as last February, Senate Republicans filibustered a Democratic bill that would have added $20 billion in VA funding over the next decade and would have built at least 26 new VA health care facilities. The Republicans killed that bill because Democratic leaders refused to add an amendment on Iran sanctions — designed to scuttle the ongoing nuclear negotiations — and because they just don’t want to spend more money on vets.

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, noted that the costs of the expansion bill could be covered by savings from the end of troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with cruel irony, according to the Washington Post, “Republicans indicated that they prefer to dedicate the savings (of redeployment) toward deficit reduction” rather than improved services.

    What those who have served should get is the kind of care that has made the VA among the most successful health systems in the world (for those who can access its services). Instead they will get political swaggering, as members of Congress seek to score points against Obama by attacking Shinseki, and dogmatic opportunism, as right-wing ideologues insist the VA is just another big-government program to cut or even abolish. The Republicans who are susceptible to such proposals should be very careful, lest they arouse the anger of the normally conservative American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose leaders react with anger and outrage to the idea of privatization.

    As American Legion commander Dan Dellinger said in congressional testimony last week, his organization overwhelmingly “finds that veterans are extremely satisfied with their health care team and medical providers.”

    Let’s not be distracted by the usual spurious assaults on “government health care.” And let’s not be misled by Washington’s loudmouths and poseurs — the warmongers who never face up to the price of their bloody enthusiasm in lives and treasure. When politicians demand accountability from their betters, including a war hero like Shinseki, let’s remember that they should be held accountable, too.

  4. Tony C. says:

    I also disagree with the conclusion that Shinseki is blameless. I’ve managed a division of a public company, as a consultant I have sat beside many men with power over hundreds of employees. Shinseki had the power to task any number of people with as much work as it would take, granting them as much authority as it would take, to develop information and cross-check it to understand his problem and the machinery of the operation. Shinseki could have easily pulled the Jesse Ventura trick: As Governor of Minnesota, Jesse’s first task was to visit every single government office he supposedly ran in the state, talk with the employees, and arrange private one-on-one meetings with employees he selected, big and small, that he guaranteed would be kept private. He said he asked them what was going wrong and what could be done better, and he took notes. At the majority of offices, he says he was told he was the only governor that had ever visited the office for any reason, much less to talk to people.

    Shinseki could have done something similar. Put in charge of anything, the first rule is that if things were going well before you got there, change almost nothing. If things were going badly, study for a month or two and then change almost everything. Ventura understood that, intuitively. Shinseki apparently did not; because he should have been pushing that system with whatever power he had until he was making so much noise he was truly pissing some people off. If you are going to be fired, better to take a few of the sociopaths down with you — And if the only way to avoid being fired is to become one of them, better to be fired.

    • Mike Spindell says:

      “Shinseki had the power to task any number of people with as much work as it would take, granting them as much authority as it would take, to develop information and cross-check it to understand his problem and the machinery of the operation”


      This is exactly so. I’ve also managed divisions and done consults with large entities in public service and non-profits. When coming into any new operation the administrator who blindly trusts those managers below on the org chart is a fool. Until you are aware of your entire operation, from the ground up,you are not really doing your job. I learned this through hard lessons of dealing with people whose facade looked competent, but were all show in actual performance..

  5. Blouise says:

    This is extremely disappointing as I really thought the Veterans had a champion in this guy.

    Looking at the names and resumes of those the media are speculating over as Shinseki’s replacement, I rather like Reed and or Gibson.

  6. Elaine M. says:

    The Department of Veterans Affairs deals with millions of veterans–many of whom were severely wounded in war and/or who suffer from PTSD. The system is straining under the weight of all those who are now entering a system that–unfortunately–isn’t prepared for the huge number of veterans who now are in need of medical attention and mental health services. Shinseki is the fall guy. he most assuredly is not the only one responsible for the problem.

    Behind Eric Shinseki’s Downfall
    The VA secretary who was looking for a second chance after Iraq was undone by an overwhelmed health system and Washington’s hyper-partisan health care politics.
    By James Kitfield
    May 30, 2014

    Eric Shinseki’s staff was practically on a death watch Thursday, the prognosis darkening as the day wore on.

    The early release of an interim report by the Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general had come as a surprise, and its finding that possibly fraudulent record keeping to hide extraordinary wait times at VA health facilities was a “systemic problem nationwide” prompted dozens of House Democrats and a fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus to join a Republican chorus calling on Shinseki to resign. An impassioned meeting between the VA secretary and veterans groups yielded only tepid support.

    Then late in the day a thunderclap: a former mentor and key supporter, retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, told The Wall Street Journal it was time for Shinseki to step down.

    “Ric Shinseki is right out of central casting as the kind of person who should be leading the VA, but my reasoning was that Congress is deep into a political theater and hypocrisy right now on this issue and will be right up until the November elections, and Ric lacked the political instinct to go for the jugular and not be used as a convenient punching bag on Capitol Hill,” McCaffrey told National Journal in explaining his decision. “So at 72 years old, Ric has served his country his entire life with quiet professionalism, and I think he’s earned the right to hand over the reins now and let someone else try and solve these problems.”

    With support crumbling among Democrats and the White House eyeing a mid-term election that could hand the Senate to Republicans and threaten the president’s legacy, Shinseki’s public apology this morning, followed quickly by President Obama’s acceptance of his resignation, were all but preordained. “He doesn’t want to be distracting. That was Ric’s judgement,” Obama said in the White House briefing room. “I agree. We don’t have time for distractions.”

    In the end Shinseki was undone by his attempts to scale twin peaks of American dysfunction: a VA health system overwhelmed by veterans wounded and damaged by more than a decade of war, and Washington’s hyper-partisan politics on the issue of health care. As a retired four-star general and former soldier, he also knew that responsibility ultimately rests with the commander at the top, and Shinseki had no ready answer to the question posed by the scandal: Given problems associated with long waiting times and inappropriate scheduling schemes to mask them that trace back many years, why didn’t he know that a systemic problem existed?

    When Obama made Shinseki one of his first Cabinet picks in 2008, the officer seemed to check all the boxes. He was a disabled veteran who lost half his foot to a landmine and received Purple Heart medals on both tours in Vietnam. As Army chief of staff, Shinseki had clashed publicly with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testifying that the postwar occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, far more than what the Pentagon was estimating. History proved Shinseki right—and Rumsfeld disastrously wrong—a point not lost on a new president who made opposition to the Iraq War a focal point of his campaign.

    Ironically, Shinseki saw the job of VA Secretary as a second chance to end his career on a less controversial note (Rumsfeld famously made him a lame duck as Army chief by naming his successor more than a year before Shinseki’s retirement). “I took this job because you don’t often get ‘do-overs’ in life,” Shinseki told National Journal in a 2011 interview. “For me, this job is a big do-over, because I get to take care of people I served with in Vietnam, as well as people whom I sent to war as Army chief of staff.”

    A change agent in the Army who worked to make the service lighter and more rapidly deployable, Shinseki set about reforming the vast VA bureaucracy with a strategic campaign fought on three fronts: cutting a persistent backlog of disability claims; improving veterans’ access to VA services; and reducing homelessness among veterans. A large part of his legacy will be the notable progress he made on each front. The result has been a VA health service that is consistently rated by veteran patients in independent surveys to be among the best in the nation, and equal to or better than private-sector hospitals.

    However, the VA health system has also struggled mightily to cope with a population of wounded veterans swelled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including nearly half a million service members suffering from posttraumatic-stress disorder by some estimates, and more than a million service members expected to separate from military service and join the ranks of veterans between 2011 and 2016. They are adding to the increased demands of an aging population of Vietnam veterans, whose disability claims spiked by 250,000 after Shinseki made the decision to finally settle Agent Orange claims because “it was the right thing to do.”

    That is the context behind the recent VA IG report that the health care system in Phoenix grossly misstated how quickly veterans were receiving care, with some waiting 115 days for an initial appointment and 1,700 veterans languishing on an unofficial wait-list. It was just the latest reminder that the VA system’s supply of health care lags significantly behind growing demand.

    Sources close to Shinseki also believe the scandal and his response became hopelessly entangled in the partisan politics surrounding Obamacare, with Republicans determined to make the failings of national health care in general a primary focus in upcoming elections. A number of Republicans have responded to the scandal by calling for the privatization of the Veterans Health Administration, for instance, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., engaged in an unusually vitriolic public argument with veterans groups after criticizing them, just before Memorial Day, for not demanding Shinseki’s resignation.

    “Part of the dynamic was Republicans who favor privatization saw criticisms of the VA health system and of Shinseki as an easy way to impugn ‘socialized medicine,’ which made Democrats who might be sympathetic to such a single-payer system nervous,” said a senior VA official.

    Shinseki was determined to stay above that political scrum, and like a good general he trusted subordinates to bring him bad news as well as good. The honor and integrity that Shinseki bought to the job, said the official, thus made him reluctant to engage in political infighting, or to question the truthfulness of his lieutenants. “It’s like a Greek tragedy that way,” he said. “The very attributes that made him perfect for the job also contributed to his downfall.”

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