erik lundegaard

The Unknown Known
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The Unknown Known (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

One of the first things we hear him say in the doc is a riff on one of his more famous (or infamous) press conferences:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

What did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld think he knew but did not? WMD come to mind. Al Qaeda. Tora Bora. Quagmires. Henny Penny. He thought he knew the sky wasn’t falling in postwar Iraq when that’s exactly what it was doing.

But the ultimate unknown known of the doc is Rumsfeld himself, who talks and talks about the thousands of memos he wrote during his public career but gets us nowhere. In the title alone, one senses the frustration of filmmaker Errol Morris, who, in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” had a more open subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of our disastrous war in Vietnam. Indeed, Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself “aren’t I clever?” grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.

We and they

I’ve spent most of the 21st century despising Donald Rumsfeld and his policies so I didn’t even consider this question before I began watching; but I consider it now: Do I like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of the doc?

I’m frustrated with him, certainly. I get tired of the petty deflections and semantic arguments. We’re there to learn something and Rumsfeld seems forever blocking our attempt to learn something. In a way, Rumsfeld is to Morris as Osama bin Laden was to Rumsfeld and the Bush administration: forever escaping.

There’s this exchange, for example:

Morris: If the purpose of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can’t we just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who’s ‘they’?
Morris: Us.
Rumsfeld: You said ‘they,’ you didn’t say ‘we.’

Well, he actually said “you.” But onward.

Morris: I’ll rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.

At this point, I expected Morris to bring up, oh, I don’t know, the coups that the CIA, or “we,” have backed: Iran in ’53, Vietnam in ’63, Chile in ’73. But he doesn’t. He brings up Dora Farms.

Morris: Well, at Dora Farms we’re doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.

In case you’re unfamiliar (as I was), Dora Farms was where the U.S., on March 19, 2003, at the very beginning of the Iraq war, attempted to kill Saddam Hussein with a missile strike. It didn’t work. It might have been faulty intelligence. He might not have been there in the first place.

But it takes a second for the circular logic to filter down.

Wait: So Rumsfeld is arguing we had to go to war because we don’t assassinate foreign leaders—even though we do, or have. But once we’re in that war, all bets are off. Then we can assassinate him.

No wonder he’s big on semantics.

In and out

We still learn things. He didn’t get along with George H.W. Bush and less with Condoleezza Rice. Morris details much of Rumsfeld’s early career: running for Congress in ’62, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon, director of the Cost-of-Living Council for Nixon. Then run-ins with H.R. Haldeman that led to being banished to Brussels. This probably saved him, since, when Watergate blew up, he wasn’t near the explosion. He was one of the last Republicans standing. He became Pres. Ford’s Chief of Staff, then his Defense Secretary, where he argued against détente and for a stronger military. In 1980, probably because of this stance, he was among the top potential picks for Reagan’s vice president. “If that [VP] decision had gone another way, you could’ve been the vice president and future president of the United States,” Morris tells him. There’s a long pause. It’s not a thoughtful pause. It just leads to this: “That’s possible.”

Oh, Don.

In the 1980s, Rumsfeld became the CEO of a Midwest pharmaceutical company but was called back into public service after the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. Reagan sent him to the Mid-East as his special envoy, which led to the famous (or infamous) footage of Rumsfeld meeting and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image the left made much of during the Iraq War. Not me. You need to meet the world to understand the world. And Rumsfeld did. He said this about the megalomania of dictators in general and Saddam specifically:

You know, if you see your picture everywhere, and you see enough statues, pretty soon you might even begin to believe that [you’re a great leader].

In November 1983, he also dictated this memo to himself. You wonder how the man who said it could have done what he (or we) did 20 years later:

I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

He almost sounds like Pres. Obama here. Cue Danny Elfman’s ghostly (and obtrusive) soundtrack music.

Don and me

That’s part of what’s so frustrating with Rumsfeld. How can someone so serious and studious, who’s a student of history, who dictated thousands of memos to himself and others to clarify his worldview, who was in Congress when the Vietnam War began and in the White House when it ended so badly, who foresaw in the 1980s that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than it is to get out of it, how can such a person preside over our disastrous war in Iraq? And not even see it as a disaster?

Rumsfeld is a tragic figure who doesn’t realize he’s a tragic figure. That’s his tragedy. He’s too busy playing small ball with semantics to see the larger picture.

Maybe that’s why, surprisingly, shockingly, I wind up liking him a little bit by the end. I guess I feel sorry for him. I see his faults. Keeping Morris’ questions at bay doesn’t hide his nature but reveals it. He wins the arguments but loses the war.

—April 15, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard

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