WASHINGTON — As Army chief of staff under President George W. Bush, Gen. Eric Shinseki infuriated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by predicting that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed in postwar Iraq — and was ostracized by a White House that was later forced by growing chaos to build up U.S. forces in the country to more than 160,000.
When Shinseki stepped down as chief of staff in 2003, a scholar from the Brookings Institution said that an honorable man had been put through "the meat grinder."
Now Shinseki, 71, is under fire once again, this time as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Allegations that sick veterans suffered while waiting to see doctors and that the agency hid the extent of the problems have provoked outrage on Capitol Hill, where the ordinarily taciturn Shinseki testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week that the situation made him "mad as hell."
Already his career has been the stuff of drama. As a young soldier in Vietnam, he lost most of one foot and part of the other but refused to retire as the Army wanted. He went through reconstructive surgery and physical therapy and ultimately rose to the Army's top job, chief of staff. Born in Hawaii to parents of Japanese ancestry, he was the highest-ranking Asian-American in the history of the military.
As chief of staff, Shinseki pushed his tradition-bound service on a difficult path toward transformation. But his four-year term was marked by repeated clashes with Rumsfeld over troop strength and weapons systems.
The most bitter of those clashes involved Shinseki's prediction, shortly before the Iraq War began in 2003, that not enough troops had been sent to Iraq to establish control there. He was pushed aside by the White House and was in a sense disgraced when he left.
But his prediction was ultimately proved correct. Several years after Shinseki retired, Bush, facing a deteriorating security situation and explosive violence in Iraq, committed more troops during the so-called surge in January 2007.