Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker who interviewed Robert McNamara (former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War) in The Fog of War, has, this time interviewed Donald Rumsfeld, also known as the voice of the Iraq war.
In “The Unknown Known” Rumsfeld pontificates on “Things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.” He spouts phrases like “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” If that phrase sounds like gobbledy-gook, most of the rest of Rumsfeld’s pearls of wisdom are worse. Even though he occasionally will say something that makes sense (“Invasion is easy. Occupation is hard.”), most of the time he seems smug, self-satisfied, egotistical and in dire need of a reality check.
Example: On September26, 2002, during a press conference, Rumsfeld is heard to say, “We know they (Iraq) have active programs and Weapons of Mass Destruction. There isn’t any debate about it.” Of course, there should have been a debate about it, because it wasn’t true. Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (husband of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame) wrote exactly that in an Op Ed piece for the New York Times entitled “What I didn’t find in Nigeria” after he traveled there to check out the claim that Saddam Hussein tried to buy yellow cake uranium from the Nigerian government. The Bush spokesmen, among whom Rumsfeld was a prominent Hawk, either ignored the damage they were doing by denying the true facts, or dismissed the catastrophic effects of their hubris, saying things like, “Stuff happens.” A reporter in the press pool suggests that Saddam does NOT have WMD’s. Rumsfeld’s smart Alec response is, “And Abraham Lincoln was short.”
At other points in the documentary, Rumsfeld actually admits that he is not being candid with the American people, saying, “I’m working my way over to figuring out how I’m not going to answer that one.” He seems quite cheerful as he continues to find ways to duck legitimate questions from the press.
Rumsfeld, at one point, denies that the American people somehow got the misguided notion that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, saying, “Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t.” Morris then quotes a Washington Post poll that showed that 59% of the American public had this misguided belief, nurtured by the Bush Administration. (“I don’t remember or recall anyone in the Bush Administration saying that,” says Rumsfeld, disingenuously.)
There are frequent suggestions that Rumsfeld’s over-sized ego was responsible for some of his actions. He left the Nixon administration to become Ambassador to NATO because of friction with Nixon’s top aide, Haldeman. He sent a memo to Condoleezza Rice that read, “You are making a mistake. You are not in the chain of command. One way or another, it will stop when I’m Secretary of Defense,” signed, tersely, “Thanks.”
Much of the documentary dwells on Rumsfeld’s penchant for creating massive numbers of memos, which the staffers dubbed “snowflakes” because they were on white paper and there were so many of them. Rumsfeld, himself, acknowledges he wrote 20,000 memos in just his last 6 years at the Pentagon.
He explains that, after his election to Congress at age 30 in 1962, he’d “sit down and dictate why he did what he did.” He claims he did it for “communication with the staff.” When he was finally fired in 2006 (12/14/2006), in leaving he said, “The blizzard is over,” referencing the voluminous amounts of correspondence he produced. Even Rumsfeld is amazed, saying, “I can’t believe some of the things I wrote.” He says, “I can’t believe where all these words came from.” Rumsfeld spent countless hours producing a “Pentagon dictionary,” defining terms like “terrorist” and “insurgency,” all of which suggests that he was in love with both the sound of his own voice and the looks of his own words on paper. Otherwise, why so many? When one reporter suggests that “quagmire” might be a word for the Pentagon dictionary that befits the situation Rumsfeld quickly responds, “I don’t do quagmires.”
Asked by Morris whether it would have been better to simply stay out of Iraq, Rumsfeld says, “I guess time will tell.” On October 16, 2003, Rumsfeld decries the fact that “We have not yet made truly bold moves.” Saying, “Things occur which shouldn’t occur” (cold comfort for the many military families who lost loved ones) he dismisses the huge debt our nation incurred in invading Iraq—the wrong country to punish for 9/11. A repetitive refrain in the film deals with, “Things that you think you know that it turns out you did not know.”
What came to be known as “the Halloween massacre” was a blatant power ploy to convince Gerald Ford to re-organize the duties of his administration in order to strengthen Rumsfeld’s power; Rumsfeld is compared to Machiavelli at one point.
Admitting that abuses occurred at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo (although Rumsfeld defends the latter, saying it was one of the best-run prisons on the face of the planet), he admits, “I felt a very strong sense that something terrible had happened on my watch.” Unfortunately, what Rumsfeld is referencing isn’t the entire horrendous legacy left by the Bush years, which Rummy helped engineer. Rumsfeld claims he tried to resign twice, but was rebuffed.
When Donald Rumsfeld finally got the ax, on 12/15/06, he said of George W. Bush: “I know, with certainty, that over time, the contributions you made will be recognized by history.” Of course, being recognized by history is a typically vague and evasive statement. (Hitler is recognized by history, but not in a good way.)
The last question Errol Morris asks Rumsfeld is, “Why are you talking to me?”
Rumsfeld responds, “That is a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.”