On March 1, U.S. Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey fired Walter Reed Hospital's director, Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who is the brother of outgoing Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker. The very next day, Gates fired Harvey too. The move was a sudden one that took the Army's own staff in the Pentagon by surprise.
The recent change in U.S. military leadership and strategy in Iraq was a direct consequence of Rumsfeld's dismissal and his replacement by Gates. It was deliberately planned by Gates and his colleagues. The sackings of Weightman and Harvey were not anticipated, but were a direct response to the scandal of the revelations of poor standards and health care being implemented at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland, the U.S. Army's premier health care institution for its own forces.
However, the fall of Weightman and Harvey were also signs of the very different values, attitudes and managerial style that Gates is bringing to the Pentagon from his controversial, much criticized predecessor.
Rumsfeld's six-year tenure of office was marked by his driving will, inflexibility and also by a deep sense of complacency and personal loyalty towards top staff. He never demanded any change in top commands in Iraq. He micromanaged his generals -- to a degree never attempted by any previous SecDef in U.S. history.
But even while the Sunni insurgency in Iraq went from bad to worse, Rumsfeld never demanded an acocui8nting. One of his foremost critics, retired U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregror, has argued that in every major modern war the United States ever fought, dozens, sometimes hundreds of generals had to be fired because they were not up to the challenges and intense physical and mental pressures of the job. But Rumsfeld refused to do it or to let the top uniformed commanders he micromanaged do it.
This complacency appears to have affected the administration of Walter Reed as well. Over the past two years, an increasing number of reports had appeared in the media about problems over health care there. But Weightman kept his job. Harvey saw no need to fire him before, or to institute any independent inquiry. Rumsfeld certainly saw no need to heed the criticism and complaints and hold either Wieghtman or Harvey to account.
It may be that Gates would have looked for a reason to fire Harvey anyone, wanting to purge the top Pentagon positions of Rumsfeld loyalists. But this does not appear to be the case. Had it been so, Gates would have swung his ax right after taking over as SecDef, or signaled that hew as going to be put his trop officials under searching scrutiny., he did neither of those things.
Gates's decision to fire Harvey, even after Harvey had -- very belatedly -- fired Weightman appears geared to send a different message through the corridors of the Pentagon: It is that the era of business-as-before, of complacency, and of ignoring outside criticism is over.
Gates' action also sends a message to U.S. soldiers risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world that the new SecDef appears a lot more prepared to take action to preserve and improve their medical care than his predecessor did. At a time when U.S. forces are squaring off in new confrontations against the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and bracing for an expected Taliban spring offensive in Afghanistan, those are timely and welcome signals.