Scorned general's tactics proved right: original Rumsfeld plan looks in
hindsight to be a recipe for possible catastrophe
Profile of the army chief sidelined by Rumsfeld
Matthew Engel in Washington
Saturday March 29, 2003
This has been a terrible week at the Pentagon: the worst since the building
itself was attacked more than 18 months ago. But as his limo drew up to fetch
him last night, one of the most senior figures in the building might just have
permitted himself the thin smile of a vindicated man.
His name in General Eric Shinseki. And at a time when generals - whether on active or pundit duty - are the hottest showbiz properties in the world, hardly anyone knows who he is.
Officially, he is Tommy Franks's superior, head of the United States army, a member of the mighty joint chiefs, and two months away from what ought to be honoured retirement at the end of a military career stretching back to the Vietnam war.
But for the past two years Gen Shinseki has been in total eclipse after what appears to have been the most spectacular bust-up with his civilian bosses, in particular Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary.
Hardly any of this the reached public domain until last month when Gen Shinseki told a congressional committee that he thought an occupying force in the hundreds of thousands would be required to police postwar Iraq. Mr Rumsfeld publicly repudiated him, saying he was "far off the mark".
In semi-private, the Pentagon's civilian leadership was far more scathing. A "senior administration official" told the Village Voice newspaper that Gen Shinseki's remark was "bullshit from a Clintonite enamoured of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars".
Then the general said it again. "It could be as high as several hundred thousand," he told another committee. "We all hope it is something less." Most of the media were too distracted by the build-up to war to notice. Serious analysts, however, were staggered by the insubordination.
This appears to have been round two of another, more immediately relevant, dispute about how many troops are needed to win this war. In this case, the military prevailed over the original civilian notion that fewer than 100,000 could do it. As even more soldiers rush to the Gulf to bring the number closer to 300,000, the original Rumsfeld plan looks in hindsight to be what the army said at the time: a recipe for possible catastrophe.
The full reality on the ground may not become known until Saddam Hussein has fallen, but no one can now seriously believe - as many top Pentagon civilians appear to have done a week ago - that the main problem for an occupying force will be what to do with all the floral gifts.
The origins of the Shinseki-Rumsfeld war long predate any mention of Iraq. There are many ironies to it, but the most bitter seems to be that the general has found himself characterised as an obstacle to progress. This is improbable on the most personal level. He is a Japanese-American (as is his wife), born in Hawaii in 1942 when his parents were officially enemy aliens.
He was inspired to join the army by the example of uncles who fought for the US then and eradicated the perception that they might be traitors. In Vietnam, "Ric" Shinseki was terribly injured twice - losing a foot the second time - yet he persisted in the army.
He came into office in June 1999 with a clear vision for "transformation" and talked passionately about the army's need to adjust from thinking about traditional enemies to what he called "complicators", including both terrorists and the then little-known phrase "weapons of mass destruction". Gen Shinseki might thus have relished the arrival of a Republican team equally committed to change.
Unfortunately, the two sides had very different ideas about what the words meant. The general wanted a new kind of army, one that could combine the adaptability of light infantry and the power of heavily mechanised forces. His new bosses had other ideas. "They had pre-decided what transformation meant," said one Pentagon source. "It meant more from space, more from air and it didn't involve the army much. That was the essence of the conflict."
This erupted over the Crusader mobile artillery system, which Mr Rumsfeld has scrapped. Gen Shinseki told Congress a year ago it would have saved lives during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. By then he had already been turned into a lame duck ("castrated", according to the same Pentagon source) by the apparently unprecedented Rumsfeld decision to announce his successor 18 months in advance.
He seems to have been caught in a classic bind: distrusted by his subordinates for being too radical and by his bosses for being too conservative.
On Japanese-American chatlines, he is characterised as a victim of racism. Certainly in that community he is an authentic hero: "One of the most gracious, soft-spoken, low-key individuals you could meet with four stars on his shoulder," according to Kristine Manami of the Japanese-American Citizens' League.
Put it all together: a nice man, a wounded veteran - and maybe right when it mattered. Despite the allegations, his politics are unknown. But if he is a Democrat and chooses to go after one of Hawaii's Senate seats, he might have a platform for some very tasty revenge indeed.