Skip to main content

Punished for telling truth about Iraq war

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
Eric Shinseki, who clashed with the Bush administration over Iraq, is now secretary of the Veterans Administration.
Eric Shinseki, who clashed with the Bush administration over Iraq, is now secretary of the Veterans Administration.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: An American general took issue with Bush administration views on Iraq
  • Eric Shinseki argued that the U.S. needed a much larger force to bring stability to Iraq
  • Others who objected to his estimate were proved wrong, Mills says
  • Mills: Shinseki, now VA chief, was penalized for showing loyalty to troops

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower." He is currently at work on a book about the West Point football team of 1964 and its experience in Vietnam.

(CNN) -- This week, we mark the tenth anniversary of the day the U.S. launched the Iraq War. But when we think of how differently that war might have been fought, the most important date to remember is February 25, 2003.

That's when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed in Iraq when post-hostilities control was taken into consideration.

Shinseki's estimate was more than double that of the George W. Bush administration, which in March 2003 sent a ground invasion force of 145,000 troops into Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department wasted no time in answering Shinseki. Two days after Shinseki's Senate testimony, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz used his appearance before the House Budget Committee to present an entirely different view of America's prospects in Iraq.

"Some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam (Hussein) Iraq, are wildly off the mark," Wolfowitz declared. "It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in a post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself."

The Department of Defense's anger with Shinseki was understandable. His troop estimate made it seem as if the Bush administration was lowballing Congress and the American public. But there was nothing out of the ordinary in Shinseki's thinking.

In Bosnia, where Shinseki had served with the United States peacekeeping mission after the ethnic warfare there was stopped, the Pentagon had used a formula of one soldier for every 50 Bosnians. In Iraq that calculation added up to 300,000 troops.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

The Defense Department countered Shinseki by saying that Iraq was very different from Bosnia when it came to troop needs. "There has been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another that produced so much bloodshed and permanent scars in Bosnia, along with a continuing requirement for large peacekeeping forces to separate those militias," Wolfowitz insisted.

By April 2003, one month after the Iraq invasion began, it became clear that Shinseki's troop estimate was correct. When mobs began looting government buildings and hospitals, there were not enough American soldiers to stop them. "Stuff happens!" was Rumsfeld's explanation of the chaos.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



A more publicity conscious Army chief of staff than Shinseki might have used the looting to make his case before the media. Long before their disagreement over Iraq, he and Rumsfeld had clashed over Rumsfeld's belief that high-tech warfare gave the Pentagon leeway to reduce overall American troop strength.

In 2002 Rumsfeld, irritated by Shinseki's insistence that American troops were stretched too thin around the world, had made Shinseki a lame-duck Army chief of staff by announcing his successor while Shinseki had more than a year left to serve.

In the spring of 2003 Shinseki chose, however, not to engage in a protracted war of words with Rumsfeld. Instead, he stuck to his position on what was needed in Iraq and waited until his Pentagon retirement ceremony in June 2003 to make his case that in the wake of 9/11, America needed more boots on the ground to meet its global responsibilities.

"Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army," Shinseki told his Pentagon audience and then went on to compare America's war in Iraq with the war he knew as a junior officer in Vietnam. "The lessons I learned in Vietnam are always with me," Shinseki stressed, "lessons about loyalty, about taking care of the people who sacrifice the most."

Both President Bush and Rumsfeld made a point of not attending Shinseki's retirement ceremony, and the New York Times buried its account of Shinseki's retirement speech on page 32 of the news section.

By contrast, those who came to Shinseki's retirement ceremony did so as an act of support, and they included not only Army brass who appreciated the stance he had taken on Iraq but a contingent of his West Point classmates, who, like Shinseki, had served in Vietnam during the 1960s.

In the eyes of many of his classmates, Shinseki, who lost nearly half his right foot after stepping on a Vietnam land mine, was doing for the troops in Iraq what President Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, had failed to do for America's troops in Vietnam: he was looking out for them regardless of the political consequences.

To these classmates Shinseki's candor about Iraq made him as much a hero as his Vietnam combat record, and today, as we look back on Iraq and try to decide who the best and brightest generals of that war were, Shinseki's 2003 judgment shines through. Small wonder that, like another admired Army chief of staff, World War II hero Omar Bradley, Shinseki has had a second career as the head of the Veterans Administration.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT