« Bill Ayers: Please Go Away | Main | Jefferson Loses »

December 06, 2008


I offer a somewhat contrarian approach to Shinseki's pending nomination http://acreofindependence.com/2008/12/06/shinseki-to-head-veterans-affairs/>here.


I mean it.

I like Shinseki for the same reasons that other progressives do and I'm proud to see him vindicated, by this moment and by history, but I'm still a bit weary of the pick for this particular department.

When I think about the challenges that the VA faces--tackling homelessness among veterans, addressing the backlog of 800,000+ backlogged disabilities claims, fixing the woefully inadequate mental health care system within the VA, etc.--I don't know if Shinseki is the best equipped to address those challenges.

"I offer a somewhat contrarian approach to Shinseki's pending nomination here."

This strikes me as criticizing Shinseki as not being a god-like, perfectly perceiving, perfectly objective, anticipator of the future.

If you know of anyone who fits that description, or who escapes equivalent criticism, I'd be extremely interested in which individuals you are specifically suggesting.

A note on style, hilzoy: no need for quotation marks when using a block quote like that.

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

Thanks for this. The sociology of the military is a very interesting and important issue. I've just finished teaching a course on "Evolution and Biology of Morality" (reading Haidt, Damasio, Joyce, and De Waal). Background reading took me to Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes Alone, which has very interesting stuff on the tensions in the military (and elsewhere) between egalitarian small-group loyalty and hierarchical large-group discipline. See 229-236 especially.

My issue isn't so much with Gen(R) Shinseki, as I stated in my post I think his experience leading a large organization will aid him in doing a great job at the Vet Affairs chief. I have a problem with how he is consistently portrayed in the press however, as a prescient visionary talking truth to power.

His pursuit of weapon systems and education priorities, which his office set, were proven wrong by the wars the Army found itself in, cost billions (in the case of the weapons), and subsequently had to be corrected by his successors. One year before the 9/11 attacks, Shinseki's office expended a great deal of effort puzzlingly expended changing the headgear of the Army from a cap to a black beret.

One day of testimony does not erase four years of leading an organization that was pursuing many of the wrong priorities for the world it was operating in.


Bob W., you do make some important points about his career, although somewhat irrelevant for the position he his going into. And your comment about "the black beret thing" struck a chord ith me, as I remember my son's reaction to it.

hilzoy, regarding the political leaning of the officer corps, if Obama does what I think he can as CiC, that whole perception may well change. It would not surprise me at all to find out that Obama won the votes of the junior officers (major and below) by a significant margin.

I think your reading is pretty accurate in that the senior corps is not Republican per se but votes for the party that it feels is strongr in its regard for the military.

Like most people, military officers are relatively narrow issue voters and party identification is really based upon issue rather than party ideology.

The next step would be to get the Christian zealots out of positions of authority.

One other thing- when I was working in aerospace in the early 1980s, I noticed that the military had significant numbers of African-Americans in positions of real authority at a time when most corporations and other civilian institutions did not. I honestly think most military folk, even if extremely conservative, are much less racist than society as a whole- probably because the military experience involves getting to know lots of African-Americans really well.

And I would expect that a person whose Republican voting is not even partially driven by racial resentment is a person who will be much more willing to consider another option.

There's a lot to be said for Bob W.'s post - the public has a tendency to lionize individuals for a single moment of conspicuously good judgment or brave behavior, when considering the totality of a career might provide a far better guide to future performance.

But in Shinseki's case, as John Miller points out, these criticisms are largely irrelevant to his new role. Sure, he was overly enamored of technology, and fought against the necessary reorientation of the post-Cold War military. I would adamantly impose installing the man in a job overseeing military strategy or procurement - he's been a manifest failure in both of those roles. The very best parts of his tenure in office, though, sprang from his concern for the average grunt. Say what you will about the black berets - it was Shinseki's intent to improve morale across the force, because he cared. He also stressed improving social services on military bases and focusing on quality-of-life issues and retention. These were the arenas in which he was most innovative, as he was a well-regarded chief of staff among the rank and file on account of those initiatives.

Veteran's Affairs is an ideal posting for Shinseki. He can focus entirely on the provision of care. Veterans, for the most part, will trust him. And it's a cabinet post for an Asian-American - another dexterous move by the Obama team, done with such skill that virtually none of the media accounts prominently feature that crucial fact.

The very best parts of his tenure in office, though, sprang from his concern for the average grunt.

Sure. But in a world where outcomes of intent are considered important, the black beret wasn't all that good of an outcome. I really doubt that it was the intended outcome.

The only really bad part of having Shinseki in charge of Veteran's Affairs would be lingering resentment from the black-beret thing, and I have really no idea how big a deal that is, at this remove.

I concur with commenters who say that my criticism of Gen(R) Shinseki is not relevant to how well he will perform as VA secretary. I have full confidence that he will take care of Soldiers and their families, as I wrote originally in my post.

My main point remains that his tenure was as Army Chief of Staff was four years, but the traditional media narrative focuses on one day of testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, not the other 3 years and 364 days where he was one the wrong side of many decisions that impacted the force.

I do not think most people in the military really care about the beret thing, actually, which is why I did not really address it in the post as more than a footnote. No one lost pay or had hard feelings after the fact. But whatever the original intent of introducing the black beret was, it turned into a public relations disaster, both within the force as well as with the media. The headgear change ended up being implemented, and people simply stopped talking about it, and now the Beret is largely symbolizes nothing, it's just a hat like the baseball and garrison style caps it replaced.

The shift to the center is happening. See:




News that the military is fairly centrist shouldn't shock anybody.
The military is largely a reflection of socety in general, with a few caveats. It probably skews a bit more southern than a rep sample of the rest of the U.S. Probably a bit more pro-gun, and slightly more religious than secular, and overwhelmingly married-with-kids, too.
But it is all over the map on social issues, much like the rest of American Society.

On a similar subject, it is important to mention that the incoming administration has done a great job of establishing rapport with the military, largely due to the efforts and statements of the President-Elect himself and Mrs. Obama.

Contrast that with President Clinton. President Clinton, whose hard fought Presidential campaign found him defending charges of being a "potsmoking draft dodger", probably needed to do a great deal to establish a relationship with the military. Instead, his administration became involved from the start in the Gays-in-the-military debate, developed the controversial don't ask don't tell policy that didn't really satsfy anybody, had a staffer tell a four star general not to wear his uniform to the white house, etc. President Clinton eventually developed a cordial relationship with people in uniform, and also approved large pay raises for the services during his Presidency. But for a Commander-in-Chief who relied heavily on the military to advance his foreign policy objectives, the initial years of the Clinton Presidency were pretty rocky ones for the military. It didn't have to be that way, and I am almost certain President Clinton did not intend it to be that way, but it probably needed a little more work on his administration's part, especially in the beginning.

SO, kudos for the new administration working right from the start to establish a good relationship with people in uniform. This is a win-win deal for everyone involved.

Excuse my typos, it is hard has all hell to type coherently into these comment boxes!

"I do not think most people in the military really care about the beret thing, actually, which is why I did not really address it in the post as more than a footnote. No one lost pay or had hard feelings after the fact."

I served in the airborne infantry, i ill go ahead and label that statement as speculation. Because anyone who had ever EARNED the right to wear a beret was and is still pissed about it. The beret, wether maroon, green, or black used to show that you had done something above the basic requirement. Shinseki decided that it would boost the morale of the kinder, gentler, feel good army he was creating by handing the black beret out to everyone...that way everyone could feel elite like the rangers.

Unfortunately, it wasnt the beret that made the rangers elite, it was the training, dedication, and esprit de corps that made them that way. Now you have "couldnt pass a PT test without being pencil whipped" fattys bitching about the beret they have to wear because they never had to sweat and suffer to earn it.

The criticisms may not apply to the position he is currently nominated for directly, but perhaps they paint a more realistic picture of the man. Liberal camps will idolize anyone who criticized the bush administration, but when you look at the broader scope, i dont believe shinseki was all that visionary. He enacted alot of "feel good" measures thinking they would make soldiers better. They didnt. It just created worse soldiers who felt better about themselves. As a current recipient of VA care, lets hope he does not follow suit. The va needs real change in direction, not policies that will make the VA feel better about the horrible job they are doing.


Fair enough, I certainly did not conduct a survey with a representative sample of the Army or anything, my comment was anecdotal. I would add that I received a bunch of emails about the beret issue based on some comments I responded to in my http://acreofindependence.com/2008/12/06/shinseki-to-head-veterans-affairs/>original post, from Soldiers past and present. They were a mixed bag, with a surprising number saying they dug the black beret, amazingly enough.

But I did say in the previous comment above that the Black beret, once a symbol of excellence, now symbolizes nothing. It is just a "thanks for being there" hat now.

I just wonder if Secretary-elect Shinseki ever knew my uncle, General Jonas Platt. He was sent to Japan shortly after I was born in 1957 and was dearly loved by the people there. He also taught me to treasure Japan. He rose to a 5 star general while on different missions in Vietnam. He passed away at the turn of the century but know that he would celebrate this appointment so very much.

Best wishes!


The comments to this entry are closed.