Four-Star General Eric Shinseki’s abrupt and stunning fall from grace among the civilian military leaders of the Bush administration in the months leading up to the Iraq War is the subject of this column. I feel that it contains profound lessons for us as our growing kehila kedosha explores parameters for the public discussion of pressing communal issues in these trying times.
Eric K. Shinseki graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1965, quickly rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army, was promoted to General in June 1997, and became the Army’s 34th chief of staff on June 22nd, 1999. After an extraordinary career in the Army, however, Eric was forced to retire in less than ideal circumstances in June, 2003. The ‘sin’ General Shinseki committed that earned him the disfavor of President Bush’s inner circle was his courageous stand in publicly stating that far more troops and resources were needed by the American military in order to secure Iraq and transition it to a vibrant democracy.
On February 28th, 2003, The New York Times reported that, “Mr. Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, opened a two-front war of words on Capitol Hill, calling the recent estimate by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of the Army that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, "wildly off the mark." Mr. Wolfowitz then dismissed articles in several newspapers asserting that Pentagon budget specialists put the cost of war and reconstruction at $60 billion to $95 billion. (For the record, current long-term estimates of the War’s cost range from $1 trillion to $3 trillion dollars.)
Many months later, A Newsweek story titled, “ERIC WAS RIGHT,” notes that “The personality clash between Shinseki and Rumsfeld was well known. Shinseki had a reputation as a quiet, reserved officer, while Rumsfeld had a history of his tough questioning and "wire-brushing" senior officers. (A senior Army officer described Rumsfeld’s wire-brushing as "chewing them out, typically in a public way that's demeaning to their stature.")
Eric paid a steep price for his principled stand. He quickly fell into disfavor with senior administration officials and was either asked, encouraged or forced to resign, depending on whom one asks. In a “highly unusual move,” The Washington Post reported, Pentagon officials informed the press fourteen months before Eric’s retirement that his replacement had already been selected, undermining the General’s authority. And in another departure from tradition, no senior administration officials attended his retirement ceremony.
Why all the talk about General Shinseki? Because, from my vantage point, I see striking and frightening parallels between the conduct of Bush administration officials and the attitudes of many members of our community as it pertains to having candid discussions about the challenges we collectively face.
Instead of lauding the caring and knowledgeable individuals who offered diverse and dissenting opinions, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz shunned, ignored and “wirebrushed” them – repeatedly accusing them of being unpatriotic. The result was a headlong rush into a disastrous war without the careful evaluation and reflection that may have avoided the horrific carnage that ensued, the effects of which will haunt us for decades.
Sadly, I keep seeing this pattern of thinking in our kehila as well, where people who respectfully attempt to draw our collective attention to pressing communal problems are accused of spreading negativity and displaying a lack of “patriotism.”
Look; we all know that there are many very real issues that are practically begging to be addressed—really addressed, not merely managed. The elitism that is needlessly driving more and more of our mainstream, average sons and daughters (according to recent studies, fifty percent of children are below average) to at-risk schools or to the streets because they cannot meet criterion or keep schedules that few adults can. The exponentially growing instances of abuse and molestation. The lack of parnasah that is draining the simchas hachayim and shalom bayis from so many homes. The crushing, unbearable burden being carried by so many 50-and-60-year olds who are supporting several families at an age when they should be retiring or at least winding down. The horrific acts of violence perpetrated by members of our community on others that do not meet their standards or chumros. On and on.
What is most troubling is that we seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis without any substantive discussion of strategic, proactive solutions that could improve things.
Why? Because many of the soft-spoken “Erics” among the members and even leaders of our kehila are reluctant to engage in such long overdue dialogue due to the very real fear that they will be “wirebrushed” or worse by kanayimfor daring to mention that we are not superhuman, flawless beings or for promoting appropriate Torah hashkafos that are different than theirs. And I fear that as long as this mindset continues, things will never improve.
Thirty years ago, perhaps the premiere “Eric” of our generation, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, received numerous death threats for speaking publicly about spousal/child abuse and kids at risk. How ironic it is that, to my knowledge, none of the recent high-profile accused or convicted pedophiles in our kehila needed protection from such threats, while Rabbi Twerski paid the price for being decades ahead of his time and for caring enough to stick his neck out and saying what needed to be said.
Sixty years ago, our charedi kehila was a small, start-up enterprise. Since then, we have, with the chesed of Hashem, grown and thrived beyond the wildest dreams of our leaders of two generations ago. But along with the growth comes the need to discuss and address the problems we collectively face as we expand and face the changing world of today and tomorrow. Not from a position of weakness, but rather with the self-confidence and maturity of having arrived.
Condemning the “Erics” for their courage to dissent and empowering the “wirebrushers” to intimidate and be hostile to them will only lead us down the road to ever-growing misery and the creation of problems that are increasingly difficult to solve.
© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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