Shinseki's departure only one step in repairing an agency long in dire need of funding and leadership
The current scandal rocking the Department of Veterans Affairs promises only to get larger until either drastic action is taken or a new and more interesting subject pushes it aside. Exactly what drastic action to take, of course, is up for grabs. Opinions abound. Hard facts and sensible solutions less so. And when you search for such facts and knowledge, beware of the hidden agendas of many who claim to hold the key to the facts and knowledge storehouse.
There are those, for example, who insist that government is incapable of running any enterprise successfully. This position, in my opinion, is idiotic in the extreme. Maybe it's because I've lived long enough to see government run any number of large operations successfully, although the anti-government folks would likely declare failure where I see success. And I've seen civilian leadership fail. I call your attention to Wall Street. Throw a dart to pick a name. Want something other than finance? I offer General Motors. Or the late, unlamented Enron.
Froma Harrop, in a column in this newspaper last weekend, pointed out that there are certain groups of politicians who insist that privatization is the answer. Their insistence on this as the only solution to problems reflects a personal political philosophy that is unlikely to change regardless of facts. I saw this years ago when the federal government underwent the drive to privatize support activities on military installations. I was intimately involved in this action at Fort Benning, and while there was no doubt some savings could be realized by streamlining and contracting out services in many cases, I got the distinct impression that a lot of people pushing the plan were determined to put it through regardless, savings or not. They were convinced that an outside, profit-making contractor could do the job better than in-house government employees. Government just can't be trusted.
I saw similar prejudice in play in Washington many years ago when some in Congress were convinced that the military services' inspectors general could treat soldiers fairly only if the function were taken over by civilians. Uniformed officers were suspect. How changing the Inspector General from a military officer in uniform to a civilian in a business suit, still responsible for the same function, would miraculously and instantly solve all problems was never made clear to me. The people pushing the idea, though, would not give up until countless hearings had been held, countless studies had been performed, and countless dollars had been spent.
A rising chorus of voices called for the head of the Director of Veterans Affairs. Motivations vary. No doubt some sincerely believed that firing General (Retired) Eric Shinseki was the right step. Some are happy to see a key administration figure axed simply because he belongs to the opposing political party. Senator John McCain is famous for vicious attacks on most military and former military officers who occupy the hot seat beneath his gaze, and Shinseki was a ripe target. Some Democratic politicians running for reelection decided that calling for the Director's ouster was a better gamble than standing up for him.
I am one who believed that General Shinseki, unless the ongoing investigation provided strong and plentiful evidence otherwise, should go. Not because he isn't capable and of proven executive ability, but because he was the head of an apparently failing agency, and as such was tainted by its failures beyond recovery. Coaches of losing teams get bounced, no matter how much ability may lie within. Commanders of units unsuccessful in combat get relieved, sometimes as the victim of sheer bad luck or others' failures. Trust has been lost.
The President may, out of loyalty to his choice for the post, have hung on longer. Loyalty is a great quality, but unyielding loyalty to burdensome subordinates can become an Achilles heel of giant proportions. In his memoir, "Without Hesitation," former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General (Retired) Hugh Shelton, discusses strong and weak points of the two presidents under whom he served. Despite the positive characteristics he attributes to President George W. Bush, he faults him for unquestioning, and virtually unending, loyalty to subordinates who had become obvious liabilities. And whose retention caused him unnecessary damage.
My opinion of the needed fix for the VA? Not privatization. Not changing names, splitting bureaucracies into other bureaucracies, or dumping hundreds of thousands of new patients on an already over-burdened civilian health system. But a thorough and fair housecleaning from top to bottom. Probably more money, despite our preference for turning a blind eye to the total, and long-lasting, cost of fighting wars. And leadership, at every level. Not management. Leadership, by those willing to keep turning over rocks and getting rid of any vermin they discover, before it can multiply.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."