Williamson places the VA scandal in context

Kevin Williamson asks National Review Online readers to look beyond the immediate disturbing details of the scandal rocking American Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Politics is not always about somebody getting his way and somebody else failing to get his way. Consider the case of the Veterans Affairs hospitals: Nobody wanted this outcome. That outcome, recall, is a great many dead veterans, the result of medical and managerial malpractice. Democrats did not want the hospitals that care for our veterans to be catastrophically mismanaged while administrators set about systematically destroying the evidence of their incompetence, and Republicans did not want that, either. Independents are firmly opposed to negligently killing veterans. It doesn’t poll well. Everybody is so opposed to that outcome that we created a cabinet-level secretariat to prevent it and installed as its boss Eric Shinseki, a highly regarded former Army general. We spent very large sums of money, billions of dollars, to prevent this outcome, almost trebling VA spending from 2000 to 2013 even as the total number of veterans declined by several million.

Nobody wanted these veterans dead, but dead they are. How is it possible that the government of the United States of America — arguably the most powerful organization of any sort in the history of the human race, in possession of a navy, a nuclear arsenal, and a vast police apparatus — cannot ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees? Never mind providing veterans with world-class medical care — the federal government cannot even prevent bureaucratic homicide. All of the political will is behind having a decent VA, and there is nothing to be gained politically from having a horrific one. How can it be that, with everybody free to vote as he pleases and to propose such policies as please him, we end up with what nobody wants? …

… What is going to happen is an epic episode of blame-dodging, evasion, angry accusations, outright lies, indignant harrumphing by mind-killed partisans, etc. At some point, there will be a series of exchanges that can be summarized: “Republicans endorse x policy for Veterans Affairs, while Democrats endorse y policy.” People will have very strong feelings about x vs. y. They will feel so strongly, in fact, that they will forget that nobody endorsed the state of affairs at the VA that preceded x or y, that it was nobody’s policy for the organization to be mired in incompetency and indifference so cruel that it borders on the psychotic. (Gangrene deaths — 150 years after Middleton Goldsmith figured out how to treat gangrene in army hospitals, and our veterans are still dying from it.) It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?

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