There is a certain ironic symmetry in the resignation of General Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs—the final act of a personal tragedy, perhaps not Shakespearean but pathetic nonetheless.
Shinseki was forced to quit because of outrage over reports that the sprawling Veterans Administration he oversaw was appallingly inefficient and corrupt. Hospitals and clinics across the system have been falsifying reports to hide the fact that staffs and facilities are overwhelmed by the bourgeoning numbers of injured veterans.
Rather than admit that the crisis existed and take the steps to fix it, the management of the V.A. had for years decided that the best way to deal with the awful problem was to pretend it didn’t exist. Congress and the administration went along with the sham.
Such self-serving lies and deceit are nothing new. From the start, they have been integral to the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. No one perfected the technique more cynically than Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In February, 2002, Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, delivered his now infamous lofty musings at a briefing on Iraq, about the difficulties of finding the truth in the fog of war–talking about “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns.”
The fact is that, in most cases, the “unknowns” were unknown because that’s the way the people on top wanted things to be.
No one knows this better than Eric Shinseki. He was part of a movement in the army, determined to end the kind of official obfuscation that had led to America’s disastrous experience in Vietnam. Soldiers of all ranks would now be encouraged to tell the truth to commanders, all the way up the line, without fear of reprisal or intimidation.
Only, that’s not the way it worked out–as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-cons prepared America for a military adventure in Iraq. It was going to be a cakewalk, they said.
Shinseki, then Army Chief of Staff, saw things differently. The occupation he told a congressional committee, would require not tens of thousands of soldiers—as the administration had been claiming–but hundreds of thousands. Rumsfeld was livid. Shinseki’s statement was immediately disavowed by the Pentagon. It was attacked by Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz as “wildly off the mark.” Shinseki was marginalized, retiring a year later. His fate sent a clear signal to others in the military about the line they were expected to follow.
The invasion of Iraq, of course, was based on other fabrications as well. Contrary to what was claimed, Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction; Saddam Hussein had no important ties with Al Qaeda.
And once the attack was launched, the falsehoods and distortions continued. Widespread looting that presaged the total breakdown in government was written off by Rumsfeld as ‘stuff happens.” Iraqis beginning to target American soldiers were disparaged as “dead enders.” The rising American casualty level was dismissed as not even on the level of urban violence in the U.S.
The Pentagon refused to let the media know the time and place that caskets containing American dead would be shipped back to the United States. No pictures. No problems.
There was a steadfast denial that Iraq, with thousands of civilian deaths each month, was headed towards full-scale civil war. No official count was kept of the rocketing number of civilian casualties.
The Pentagon’s reluctance to accept that Iraqi resistance to the occupation had grown far beyond the U.S. military’s capabilities, let directly to massive overcrowding of prisons, specifically the shocking abuses at Abu Ghraib, staffed by reservists totally overwhelmed by their assignment, as a few of their officers attempted—and failed–to make clear.
In the same way, the inexorable influx of casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as the decision to extend treatment to thousands of new veterans—completely inundated the underpaid, shorthanded staff and creaking facilities of the Veterans Administration.
Despite the bloviating of supposedly outraged congressmen, editorialists and the White House, the Inspector General and the press have been reporting about the terrible shortcomings at the V.A. for years. Congress and past and present administrations, however, intent on cutting the budget, have been sweeping the scandal under the rug.
It’s a good bet that if most of the veterans were from middle class American families the V.A. crisis would never have been allowed to fester. But America’s professional military is not middle class.
Ironically, the Obama administration brought Shinseki back from retirement, making him head of the Veterans Administration, largely because of his reputation of truth-telling, of having stood up to Rumsfeld years before.
But now, the sorry circle is complete: the officer who cautioned about the true costs of attacking Iraq and was eviscerated as a result, has been felled by the consequences of the very invasion he warned against.
That, you could definitely say, is a known known.
Barry Lando is author of a novel, the Watchman’s File, available on Amazon. He is currently working on a sequel, Unknown Unknowns, about a TV reporter’s investigation of his own tragically flawed report on Iraq.
Photo courtesy West Point