The Obama Message to the Military

Mark Twain once wrote the model epigram. “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example” – short, sweet and to the point. Someone does the obviously right thing – the one thing you and everyone else failed to do – and it ticks you off. But there’s nothing you can do about it. You can hardly complain – then you’d have to explain yourself, and your lack of judgment or basic decency. Nope, you certainly don’t want to do that. You’d look like a fool saying, yep, I can be a bonehead and I’m basically a thoughtless brute. And you can hardly say the other guy was just lucky, or showing off. He did the right thing, and you’d look petty and small, and petulant. You don’t want to be a whining little child. You’re left with two alternatives – blank silence, or a reluctant compliment with the admission that, yep, you had it wrong. It’s all quite irritating. Twain just compressed it all into a few words.


Now that Obama will be the next president, the Republicans had better get used to this annoyance. Sunday, December 7, he did it again:


President-elect Barack Obama chose retired general Eric Shinseki on Sunday to be secretary of Veterans Affairs, tapping a former Army chief of staff who left the Bush administration after questioning its post-invasion plan for stabilizing Iraq.


Obama chose the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to announce his first Asian-American Cabinet selection, a decorated Vietnam veteran whom he called on “to build a 21st century VA that will better serve all who have answered our nation’s call.”


This is very curious. As you recall, back in 2003 Shinseki told Congress that several hundred thousand troops – he said maybe half a million – would be needed to secure Iraq after we got rid of the bad guy and had a country the size of Texas on our hands. Rumsfeld was livid, but kind of joked – Shinseki was wildly off the mark, and his own plan for just 150,000 troops, and those there for only a few months, would be just fine. Behind the scenes they shut down any chance Shinseki would have much to do in the future other than counting paper clips, so Shinseki resigned. He knew he was finished. He had said what he should not have said.


Of course it was the truth, but that never did matter much in Washington – and in this case it was the vision. Things were going to work out just as Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz said they were going to work out. Shinseki was asked if he, as a man of vast military experience, thought they might be wrong. He was dumb enough to say that yes, he thought they were. Or he was honorable enough to say that. And last year we had to send in more troops, after four years of increasing chaos – we had to surge, as they put it. Oops. All of us looking in on things from the outside were not supposed to remember General Shinseki. Obama remembered him.


And now we have this:


Shinseki, a Japanese-American born in Hawaii, won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam for injuries that included the loss of part of his right foot. He vowed Sunday to improve a Department of Veterans Affairs that has been widely criticized for failing to meet disabled veterans’ needs.


“Veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular are confronting serious, severe wounds – some seen, some unseen – making it difficult for them to get on with their lives in this struggling economy,” he said, referring in part to veterans with hidden mental health ills. “They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans.”


Speaking to veterans, Shinseki added, “I will work each and every day to ensure we are serving you as well as you served us.”


Okay – toss in the Pearl Harbor thing, reminding people about tolerance for people who don’t look like everyone else, who have different traditions, but can be extraordinary Americans anyway, and toss in a vague reference to the scandals at Walter Reed and other military hospitals, and hint at the increasing limitations on veterans benefits and the effective decrease in funding, and you have a bit of a poke in the eye here, or a slap in the face. But it’s not as direct as either. There’s not much of a way to take offense without looking like a fool.


Twain also said this – “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”


The Republicans don’t need this kind of astonishment, although the Republican senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, who sits on a Senate Appropriations subcommittee for defense spending, called Shinseki “a great soldier” – and he said that on Fox News Sunday. Shelby said “we should have listened” to Shinseki on Iraq troop levels. Fox News may not invite Shelby back on air for a bit. Their mission is to balance out all the pro-Obama enthusiasm in the rest of the liberal media, to counterbalance all the nonsense that makes him into some kind of hero or something, or so they see it. Fox News wants to be the voice of reason, or so they say. There must be something wrong with this appointment, something wrong with this man. Shelby just pulled a Shinseki on them.


Maybe Fox News will sic Karl Rove on Shelby. Rove has been shopping around his new tell-all book, without much success but now it seems that Simon & Schuster will buy it on spec and we’ll have it in our hands one day – Mary Matalin has her conservative imprint there and green-lighted it. See Amanda Terkel on the report that it is Karl Rove’s intention to “name names” of course:


Much of Washington, Rove said, never accepted Bush as a legitimate president and “acted accordingly.”


… “There were people who never accepted the legitimacy of George W. Bush and acted accordingly,” he said.


… Also reserved for between the covers of Rove’s book is his checklist of the “great many of the political actors in this town (who) never accepted him as a legitimate president.”


“I’ve got behind-the-scenes episodes that are going to show how unreceiving they were of this man as president of the United States,” Rove said, adding: “I’m going to name names and show examples.”


Steve Benen comments:


Great. Rove is going to identify all the people he doesn’t like, and all the big meanies who were less than kind when his former boss failed at every opportunity.


No wonder publishers didn’t jump at the chance to get behind the book.


Mark Twain is smiling somewhere. Obama provides the annoying good example, Rove provides the comic relief.


Rove to this day may still be sticking pins in his Shinseki voodoo doll, but regarding this man, in this job, see Spencer Ackerman:


To say this is an inspired choice underscores its magnitude. Shinseki’s personal courage and virtue are close to unparalleled in the current generation of general officers. He knows the sacrifices of war personally, as he left part of his right foot in Vietnam. The new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – already underserved by the country that sent them to war – can know that he has their backs. After all, before the war began, he all but ended his career (Rumsfeld had announced his successor months before after they feuded over the Crusader artillery system) by telling Congress that the indefinite occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops to keep the peace, far beyond the antiseptic and now-discredited estimates of the Bush administration. At his retirement ceremony, Shinseki gave a prescient and impassioned speech imploring the Pentagon to “beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army.”


What Ackerman is getting at is that this is not really so much of a slap in the face to Rumsfeld and Cheney and the rest as it is a message from Obama to the current generation of general officers – Obama stands behind them. Ackerman reminds us that last year one Paul Yingling wrote “a scathing essay indicting the generals who acquiesced to the Bush administration’s inadequate plans for the occupation” – that was A Failure in Generalship. Ackerman summarizes:


Yingling accused the current generation of generals of cowardice, egotism, careerism and dereliction of duty, putting self-interested deference to the administration before integrity, intellectual honesty and service to both the frontline soldier, sailor, airman and marine and the country itself. Eric Shinseki was the man who stood against this unfortunate trend, and he paid for his integrity with his career. To see him vindicated is to witness a proud moment in American history.


That Yingling essay did cause a buzz. Perhaps this is the place to comment on the mixed feelings of one lieutenant colonel with battalion command on this matter – but no, that conversation was private. It’s probably enough to say he was worried about general officers, feeling suddenly free from the burden of having to say some boneheaded idea was not only the greatest thing ever, and could be done easily, might go too far the other way. In the process of telling the actual truth about what can and cannot be done, given the objectives in relation to the actual resources available, they might be tempted to think it was their job to shape policy. It never is, at least not in our history. We have a civilian government, and that government makes policy. America is not some military junta or something. The lieutenant colonel was worried.


This is a worry. Shinseki, back in 2003, may not have intended to shape national policy – should we invade Iraq and remove its government, as the administration proposed and congress was asked to authorize? Shinseki did not offer a policy opinion there – he just said that, given his experience and his area of expertise, it would take a certain level of resources to pull it off properly. Congress was aghast, and the administration enraged – it was time to flood Fox News with not only those who said Shinseki was wrong, but with others who would say Shinseki was meddling in policy. Well, Shinseki wasn’t, but he might as well have been. It gets tricky.


So this appointment, as a message to the general officers to feel free to tell the truth about what can and cannot be done, could be dangerous. As it is, Bush and his administration has flat-out said our policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is determined by the general in command there, David Petraeus – we’d like to do lot of things, and maybe even wind things down, but we listen to Petraeus and do what he says. Now that they’ve found the right general you get the Bush shrug and sigh – what can Bush do, after all? Bush is no expert. And of course you hear all sort of rumors that Petraeus will run for president 2012 or 2016 – that he’s always had that ambition. He seems to relish making policy, not just executing it. Sarah Palin had better watch out. She may not be the next sure thing.


But maybe that wasn’t the message Obama intended to send. Hilary Bok, while agreeing that Shinseki is “a wonderful choice” and all, adds this:


First, it’s yet another example of Obama getting a very diverse cabinet without ever seeming to pick someone just for the sake of diversity. Second, Obama served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, so while there might be some areas where he does not know, in detail, who is good and who is not, this is surely not one of them. Third, Obama is clearly courting the military, not by giving into their every whim, or by ceding to them on matters of policy, but by appointing people whom they trust, and who are very, very good.


She thinks this is important as “with all Obama wants to accomplish, he needs strained relations with the military like he needs a hole in the head.” But also sees that Obama’s choices to date – Gates and now Shinseki – raise a really provocative possibility, that Obama “could end (or at least mitigate) the Republican tilt of the senior officer corps.” And that is not so farfetched:


They have already experienced life under George W. Bush, and by all accounts, they did not care for it. But their distrust of Democrats might easily have prevented them from seriously considering drawing the obvious conclusion from Bush and Rumsfeld’s trashing of the armed forces. If Obama can get past that hurdle, he could, just possibly, cause a very significant change.


I don’t expect that the senior officer corps would go Democratic the way they are now Republican, nor, frankly, would I really want them to. I think that it’s bad for the senior officer corps to be overwhelmingly aligned with either party. I would just like the two parties to be on a level playing field, as far as the officer corps goes. Obama might actually achieve that. And that would be a very big deal.


Having ties to the military, knowing a few general officers, having been to a few key bases – nope, that’s unlikely.


And what Bok, as a Democrat, says here is even wilder:


I’ve always thought that the military and Democrats have some obvious, if unrecognized, bits of common ground. The military believes in individual responsibility, and expects each of its members to do his or her best, but they also believe that if a member of your unit has a problem, you should of course help him or her to overcome it; that just saying “ha ha, deal with it yourself” is neither a good way to end up with a well-functioning unit nor a decent way to act. And they believe in trying to put their people in the best possible position to succeed, and to do the best job that they can possibly do. Above all, they do not leave their people behind.


The way they think about members of the military is the way we think about members of society.


That’s just too logical – but it’s something to run past the lieutenant colonel next time around. Tell him he’s a closet Democrat – that’ll be good for a laugh.


But really, Obama tapping Eric Shinseki for Secretary of Veterans Affairs was about something else entirely. James Fallows explains here:


Whenever he talks about this selection, Obama (plus his lieutenants) can describe it completely, sufficiently, and strictly in the most bipartisan high-road terms. They have selected a wounded combat veteran; a proven military leader and manager; a model of personal dignity and nonpartisan probity: an unimpeachable choice. Symbolic elements? If people want them, they can work with Shinseki’s status as (to my recollection at the moment) the first Asian-American in a military-related cabinet position, not to mention a Japanese-American honored for lifelong military service on Pearl Harbor Day.


As for the other symbolic element – that Obama is elevating the man who was right, when Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, et al were so catastrophically wrong – that is something that neither Obama nor anyone around him need say out loud, ever. The nomination is like a hyper-precision missile, or what is known in politics as a “dog whistle.” The people for whom this is a complete slap in the face don’t need to be told that. They know – and know that others know it too. So do the people for whom it is vindication. And all without Obama descending for one second from his bring-us-together higher plane.


That’s about it. It’s mostly political, and a really, really annoying good example.


And anyway, Obama can handle the military just fine. You recall his trip to Iraq and his meeting with General Petraeus, and how that meeting went:


He made the case for maximum flexibility and I said you know what if I were in your shoes I would be making the exact same argument because your job right now is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. My job as a potential commander in chief is to view your counsel and your interests through the prism of our overall national security which includes what is happening in Afghanistan, which includes the costs to our image in the middle east, to the continued occupation, which includes the financial costs of our occupation, which includes what it is doing to our military.


… But the point is that hopefully I communicated to the press my complete respect and gratitude to him and Proder who was in the meeting for their outstanding work. Our differences don’t necessarily derive from differences in sort, or my differences with him don’t derive from tactical objections to his approach. But rather from a strategic framework that is trying to take into account the challenges to our national security and the fact that we’ve got finite resources.


If General Petraeus has a problem with that, let General Petraeus run for president. He’d just better come up with his own really annoying good examples.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in David Petraeus, Eric Shinseki, Military Matters, Obama and the Military, Obama's Cabinet, Obama's Cabinet Picks, Veterans Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Obama Message to the Military

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Hilary Bok:

    “I’ve always thought that the military and Democrats have some obvious, if unrecognized, bits of common ground. The military … believe that if a member of your unit has a problem, you should of course help him or her to overcome it … The way they think about members of the military is the way we think about members of society.”

    Yes, but therein lies the crucial difference.

    Democrats, who tend to be liberals, don’t just care about their own people, they also care about all people, even those they’ve never met. Republicans, who tend to be conservatives, are much more tribal and are much more likely to value loyalty to your immediate team, the ones who will “have your back.”

    It’s more of what I was saying here a few weeks ago: If you think we all should be try to be nice and to work together to make the world a better place, you’re a liberal. But if you’d rather have the other guys “respect” us than “love” us? You’re a conservative.

    I’m assuming members of the military will always be more conservative than liberal, since it’s in the nature of those likely to join up to believe that defending your country mostly means being willing to fight for it, in the sense that physical force becomes more important than diplomacy.

    This is one reason why, despite the constant miscalculation of us Democrats, it matters little to most soldiers and veterans (and conservative voters in general) that Al Gore and John Kerry had more military experience than George W. Bush. Forget their service to the country, the conservatives think, those guys are liberals, and they will just never have what it takes to do what needs to be done to keep our country safe.

    I’ve never seen a study on it, but I’m willing to bet we’d find about the same percentage of liberals in uniform as we’d find conservatives who are teachers and journalists. It’s because you tend to go into the field that you think is doing the work that you think is important.


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