Behind the Mess at Walter Reed

Scott Lilly discusses the organizational strategies of the Bush administration leading up to the Walter Reed scandal.

Over the past half century, effective organizations have increasingly distributed power downward to middle and lower echelons so that the people who are the first to see a problem also have the authority to fix it. That is the model for innovative corporations, and even successful schools and non-profit organizations.

But it is no secret that for the past six years the federal government has been going in the exact opposite direction. Not only are individual employees and their section chiefs expected to parrot the company line, but agency heads and departmental secretaries are as well. A loyal and dedicated Secretary of the Treasury was shown the door when he ventured to speculate that tax cuts might result in large deficits. The CIA was virtually placed in receivership when it failed to produce politically correct intelligence about Iraq. And a budget officer at the Department of Health and Human Services was threatened with being fired if he explained his projections on the cost of a prescription drug bill pending in Congress.

The heavy hand of the White House is possibly most apparent in its centralization of power and decision making in the United States Army. Very early in the administration, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Mike Parker, was sacked when he commented publicly that the White House-requested funding level for the Army Corps of Engineers was insufficient to meet critical requirements.

The following year, highly regarded and highly decorated Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki responded to a question from the Senate Armed Services Committee on troop numbers that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to police a post-invasion Iraq. He was publicly rebuked, and 14 months before he was scheduled to retire, his replacement was announced. The Secretary of Defense even refused to attend his retirement ceremony.

And the following year, the administration sent the Army yet another strong message. When Secretary of the Army Thomas White was suspected of not fully supporting administration policy to alter a new weapons system, an investigation was launched and White was forced to resign. For nearly 18 months, a period that covered most of the early Iraq deployment, the Army was left with an acting secretary as the White House searched for a candidate that might prove more consistent in supporting the policies developed at higher levels.

Most of the reporting on the Walter Reed scandal has overlooked this history but it is key to understanding why the commander at Walter Reed would tolerate such conditions.

Major General George Weightman spent 34 years in the United States Army before being selected to lead the North Atlantic Medical Command and Walter Reed Army Hospital. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and served in infantry units for much of the nine-year period before earning his medical degree. Weightman, like virtually all of his fellow career soldiers, viewed the Army as his family, and his calling as a doctor made him even more sensitive to the needs of those in the family who are sick or injured.

So why would such a man tolerate the conditions that were revealed at Walter Reed? The obvious answer is that he should not have. But it is also important to note what the previous six years in the Army had taught senior officers about what the Bush administration expected of “good soldiers”: A “good soldier” does the best that can be done without demanding more resources or questioning decisions that are made above his pay grade.

Does anyone think that if George Weightman had been given the resources to fix the problems at Walter Reed and take care of the troops in his charge he would have refused to do so? Does anyone believe that prior to The Washington Post’s public expose demands for more resources at Walter Reed would have been met with any more tolerance than that afforded to Mike Parker or Eric Shinseki or Thomas White? Does anyone think that the conditions faced by recovering troops at Walter Reed are unique among health facilities maintained by the U.S. Army worldwide or that dozens of other Army commanders aren’t facing exactly the same issues which Weightman had to face?

Centralized, top-down decision making allows an organization to move very rapidly in the direction chosen by its leaders. But even a well-informed leadership will fail to see problems along the way or have the time to order remedies. Assuming that the White House would have wanted these problems fixed, they did not grant those who were aware of them the authority to take action; as a result, they cannot escape responsibility for the scandalous manner in which our returning injured soldiers are being treated.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where his work focuses on a wide range of areas, including governance, federal budgeting, national security, and the economy. He served two years as an enlistee in the U.S. Army.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow