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 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT