The fifth anniversary of the Iraq war has been marked by long postmortems about where America went wrong. But in the rush to assign blame for America’s failures, the general who got things right militarily about Iraq—and spoke out publicly from the start—has been forgotten.
While other top military brass were ducking for cover, former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki put his career on the line to defy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and tell the truth about the danger of going to war in Iraq with too few troops.
The courage that it took for Shinseki to confront the president and secretary of defense was brought home recently with the forced retirement of Admiral William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command and an opponent of a long-term surge in Iraq. Fallon was done in by a profile on him in the April issue of Esquire in which he openly challenged the administration, insisting that America should keep its military affairs on “a more even keel” than it had been doing in the Middle East.
The Shinseki story begins on February 25, 2003, a month before the March 20 start of the war. In response to a question posed to him at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on how many troops would be needed in Iraq, General Shinseki replied, “Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably…a figure that would be required.” Shinseki’s estimate was more than twice the size of the actual ground force of 145,000 that led the Iraq invasion, and his testimony should have set off alarm bells in Congress when he went on to point out, “It takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment to ensure that people are fed [and] that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.”
But Shinseki quickly became the one forced to play defense when he was portrayed by the Pentagon officials as a general who could not be trusted. Two days after Shinseki testified, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz used his appearance before the House Committee on the Budget to attack the Army chief of staff.
“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 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 troop ratio—of one soldier for every 50 citizens—that Shinseki was asking for and which was based on his experience as NATO commander of peacekeeping forces in Bosnia was not a good one, Wolfowitz insisted. “There has been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militia 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.”
At this point, Shinseki had every reason to back off and defer to the Pentagon. He had already drawn Rumsfeld’s wrath for his opposition to Rumsfeld’s desire to transform the Army from a fighting force that could be a significant, boots-on-the ground presence to an elite, high-tech strike force primarily equipped to carry out rapid, surgical missions. By April 2002 Rumsfeld had grown so displeased with Shinseki’s opposition that fourteen months before Shinseki was due to retire, he named General John Keane as his successor, thus insuring that Shinseki would finish out his four-year term as Army chief of staff with diminished authority.
But Shinseki quietly stood his ground following his February Congressional testimony. In the months that followed, he never gave the Iraq hawks the cover they wanted. “He was asked his judgment, and he responded with his best military judgment,” Shinseki’s press office told reporters.
In June 2003, Shinseki completed his term as chief of staff and left the Army on schedule in a quiet Pentagon retirement ceremony (that Rumsfeld did not attend) in which he made a speech warning: “Beware the twelve-division strategy for a ten-division Army.”
The Army soon discovered, as General John Abizaid, the former commander of American forces in the Middle East, later acknowledged, “General Shinseki was right.” Beginning in April 2003 with the looting of hospitals and the Iraq National Museum, events on the ground quickly vindicated Shinseki’s Senate testimony. A mobile American invasion force, capable of coordinating long-distance air strikes, was incapable of the basic policing mission required of it once Saddam’s army was defeated.
Two years later at the fortieth reunion of his West Point class of 1965, Shinseki’s classmates honored him by wearing caps that said, “Ric Was Right.” By contrast, among the public and within the anti-war movement, Shinseki’s defiance of the Pentagon has gone largely unnoticed. He has become a forgotten man. And in retirement, he has done nothing to encourage a reassessment of his career.
In 2006, when a group of former generals made headlines by openly criticizing Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraq war strategy, Shinseki might rightfully have claimed to be their inspiration. But rather than defend his military record, Shinseki continued his practice of avoiding self-serving statements. Asked by reporters if he should be criticized for having failed to push harder for more American troops at the outset of the Iraq war, Shinseki did not point out that his positions in 2003 isolated him from the military brass. Instead, his response to the criticism that he should have done more was—“Probably that’s fair. Not my style.”
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower. Photo: General Shinseki in 2000 (Department of Defense).