Skip to main content

Punished for telling truth about Iraq war

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
March 20, 2013 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT