Eric Shinseki speaking in front of American & Armed Forces flags

Barry Lando and journalist Jamie McIntyre look deeper into the mythology around Shinseki the “truth teller.”

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. – Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

I concluded my last blog about the resignation of General Eric Shinseki as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs with this rather dramatic statement:

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.

Maybe not. I’ve now been told that my conclusion, though pithy, was wrong—an example of the mythmaking generated by both sides of the Iraq debate.

(It’s also an instructive look of the frustrations of journalism: endlessly peeling away the layers of an onion; never 100% certain you’ve arrived at the truth. In the case of General Eric Shinseki, I’m still peeling.)

Shinseki, as I wrote, is viewed by liberals as something of a martyr–having had the guts to tell truth to power during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

In February 2003, he testified before a senate committee that the occupation of Iraq could take hundreds of thousands of American troops, not the tens of thousands, that the neo-cons pushing for war were claiming. In the end, of course, the general’s guestimate proved far closer to the truth than those of the Pentagon spokesmen who dismissed Shinseki’s views as rubbish.

But for challenging Rumsfeld, the story grew, Shinseki became an outcast, an object lesson to military commanders about what happens to those who took on Rumsfeld and his cronies over Iraq.

Indeed, when Barrack Obama nominated Shinseki to be secretary of Veterans Affairs in December 2008, it was seen by many as a rehabilitation of the general, a poke in the eye of Rumsfeld.

But, according to Jamie McIntyre, who covered the Pentagon for 16 years for CNN, the Shinseki myth is just that—myth…

“Shinseki the ‘truth to power’ teller? just ain’t so.In my opinion,” McIntyre wrote me in an email.

The main thing is:  Shinseki had ample opportunity to voice his concerns. In fact, as a member of the Joint Chiefs, he had a DUTY to voice them.

Once the plans [for the invasion of Iraq] were in place, Gen Richard Myers the Chairman at the time — polled all the chiefs and asked each one if they had ANY reservations about the war planning to speak up. He asked Shinseki DIRECTLY (I was told this by Myers and Gen Pace the Vice Chief) and Shinseki said nothing.

Shinseki NEVER — And I repeat NEVER — voiced a single concern to ANYONE in the administration or the military.

His one and only comment was the one forced out of him by Sen. Levin, in that Feb 2003 hearing. And Shinseki steadfastly refused then — or forever afterward — to clarify what he meant — until his exit memo to Rumsfeld. In the June 2003 memo, Shinseki admitted he didn’t think there was a “right” answer to a question that would depend largely on what the commander on the ground’s analysis. He said he only offered an open-ended nonspecific larger number to  allow for maximum flexibility.

So, people read into it what they wanted.

This whole mythology that has grown up around Shinseki is maddening because it’s just not true.

According to McIntyre, “Shinseki’s clash with Rumsfeld was more about Shinseki’s insular taciturn style, than any dispute about the size of the force:”

He spent four years working on something called the FCS Future Combat system,) which was supposed to be a family of high-tech fighting vehicles, all connected by wi-fi, but the program, ‘Shinseki’s signature achievement,’ was cancelled years after he left, with a price tag of $20 Billion.

As a side note, what really rankled Rumsfeld was all the effort Shinseki put into changing the army’s hat into a beret…Shinseki’s crusade for the beret was seen as wrong-headed and widely mocked inside the army. Pictures circulated with Shinseki sporting Mickey Mouse ears. He was becoming a joke. That’s why Rumsfeld was annoyed and frustrated with him. He seemed clueless–focused on all the wrong things. Rumsfeld was also enraged over the Army’s decision to go behind his back and lobby for a weapons program he canceled.

The fact that Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz never attended Shinseki’s retirement ceremony in June 2003 was widely interpreted as their final snub of the general. But, according to McIntyre, the two officials never showed up because Shinseki never invited them. “when Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz asked to come speak at his retirement, they were refused twice.”

Why didn’t Shinseki invite them? One might speculate that Shinseki never forgave them for their sharp reaction to his congressional testimony or the humiliation he suffered when the Pentagon leaked the name of his replacement fifteen months before his retirement, turning him into a lame duck.

Yet, as McIntyre writes, those ignoring the background to Rumsfeld’s and Wolfowitz’s absence were left to draw their own conclusions.

And in characteristic style Shinseki let that misimpression stand, never publically correcting the record, just as he never publically corrected the record about what he really meant in his February 2003 Senate testimony.

It is shameful that he never spoke up to tell what really happened. He just retired and never spoke to anyone. And let the lie grow,

I saw many acts of moral courage in my 16 years covering the Pentagon.

Shinseki was not one who demonstrated that quality.

I am sure there are many who would take issue with McIntyre’s vitriolic critique of General Shinseki. On the other hand, the fact that the general was apparently caught unawares by a devastating crisis at the V.A., a crisis that critics had been screaming about for years, may prove McIntyre’s point.

If true, it’s also of course, a sorry reflection on an Obama administration that first appointed Shinseki to the key post and kept him there for six years.

By the way, as Jamie McIntyre also points out, the question of “known knowns,” intrigued not just Donald Rumsfeld:

“Mark Twain is reputed to have said, (but nobody knows if he actually did) : ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’”

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