Eric Shinseki is a stand-up individual: Willing to serve two combat tours in Vietnam. Later, as Army chief of staff, willing to publicly differ with his bosses when the Bush administration soft-pedaled the personnel needs of occupying Iraq.
Having stepped up at the apex of his career to lead the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, last week, Shinseki was willing to step down.
At this point, the most ridiculous question is: Scapegoat or not? It doesn’t matter. Focusing on Shinseki’s situation is an insult to those whose pain should be the focus.
For generations, the people who sacrificed the most for this nation’s military objectives have gotten the shaft.
We've had no excuse not to serve them with gusto, because with gusto we delivered them to battle, flags waving, bands playing.
Everyone seems to have a theory about what the VA’s problem is, but amazingly no one sees it. Shinseki isn’t it. A civil service bureaucracy isn’t it.
The VA’s big problem is, um, war.
That is: War sold on the cheap. War advertised by carnival barkers. War spun by propaganda masters, with phrases like “War on Terror.” Oh, yeah.
A collateral concern: This nation clearly doesn’t see care for veterans as part of that gallant war effort. If the latter were so, they’d get better care.
But the VA and the nation’s veterans hospitals continue to be atrocity machines. It's due to many factors, but mostly it's because of how deeply we as a culture continue to believe in the power of war – itself an atrocity.
It is laughable to see those who rail against “out-of-control spending” salute every military dollar as a good dollar. War is, after all, the biggest “big government” proposition ever invented.
Much has been said of how the VA’s problems demonstrate the condition of government’s being “the problem,” particularly as pertains to health care.
That’s wrong, argues Time magazine’s Stephen Brill. He who has written several penetrating analyses about health care, particularly cost outrages at not-for-profit hospitals, points to Medicare as the nation’s model for price controls and services delivered.
The VA can have the same kind of efficiency. But let’s face it: If the issue is waiting lists, the prime culprit isn’t weaselly paper pushers. The culprit is war.
I did many years of newspaper work in a city, Waco, Texas, that spent much of the previous decade fighting with all of its might to save its VA hospital. The facility’s emphasis: psychiatric care, yet it faced closure at the very time that Uncle Sam was furiously churning out combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan – 2.3 million at this point, with post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by some 20 percent.
Fortunately, the citizens and their representatives managed to save the Waco VA Medical Center. Now it has a mighty and daunting assignment: the sea swell of PTSD from two theaters of battle.
Speaking of “government is the problem,” it is alarmingly laughable that Texas’ Rick Perry is among a few governors who said they would investigate to see if the VA is serving veterans sufficiently in their respective states. Perry’s privatize-at-all-costs policies have been a huge disservice to Texas social services. The most galling thing is that these policies haven’t necessarily saved taxpayers any money.
That's par for the course. A trademark of 21st century war-making, American-style, has been such privatizing, and the profiteering of contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater Security, their offenses portrayed in the 2006 documentary, “Iraq for Sale.” Big, big, bucks, big, big cost overruns and wholly egregious behavior, without a shred of accountability.
That can’t be said about the VA, and Exhibit A is Shinseki’s departure.
Now, wonders of wonders: Republicans and Democrats in Congress are on the cusp of making key reforms that could make a difference in how the VA works.
And we were thinking that shame had no currency in Washington anymore.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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