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Walter Reed is the Tip of the Iceberg

Walter Reed’s Larger Governmental Issues

Scott Lilly explains how the Bush administration has centralized its power, preventing those who see problems from fixing them.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs continues its investigation into conditions at Walter Reed tomorrow with a hearing that asks the question, “Is this any way to treat our troops?” 

The answer to this question is clearly a resounding “No.” The underlying question, which is less clear, is how the Bush administration allowed the conditions at Walter Reed and military hospitals around the country to go unaddressed for so long.

Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly spoke on this issue last month in “Behind the Mess at Walter Reed.” Lilly argues that for the past six years the federal government has centralized power and decision making to such an extent that effectively identifying and solving problems has become near-impossible.

Effective, innovative organizations, Lilly argues, distribute 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. Yet the Bush administration 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,” Lilly explains, citing a former Secretary of the Treasury who was fired after speculating that tax cuts might result in large deficits, among others. 

This governing style has hit the U.S. Army particularly hard. Numerous Army officials have been ousted by the heavy hand of the Bush White House. Highly decorated Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, for example, was sacked 14 months before his retirement after telling the Senate Armed Services that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required to police a post-invasion Iraq. And Secretary of the Army Thomas White was forced to resign due to suspicion that he did not fully support administration policy to alter a new weapons system, leaving the Army without an acting secretary for 18 months, a period that covered most of the early Iraq deployment.  

It’s no surprise, then, that the Walter Reed scandal has so been treated in much the same way.  

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.

As Lilly points out, “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?” 

If we want to work to fix the conditions at Walter Reed and ensure that problems are identified and solved before they become widespread issues, there needs to be systematic change. Centralized, top-down decision making may allow 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.

The federal government should grant those who are aware of problems the authority to take action. If it doesn’t, it has only itself to blame when issues like the scandalous conditions of military hospitals come to light.

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