Donald Rumsfeld is a master or rhetorical flourish, as the title of this new Errol Morris documentary, The Unknown Known alludes to. Talking point sleight of hand like “Unknown Unknown,” and “The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence,” was one of the reasons that Rumsfeld was, at once, both one of the most beloved and most hated senior advisors during the perilous first years of the War on Terror. Naturally, the man himself is staggeringly more complex than this simple caricature implies, and Morris has decided to put the spotlight him, albeit rather uncomfortably, in his latest film.
Firstly, if one tunes in to The Unknown Known expecting a weepy apology for Rumsfeld’s role in marching U.S. soldiers into dual quagmires in the Afghanistan and Iraq, you’ll be profoundly disappointed. The closest Rumsfeld comes to emotional regret is near the end when he talks about visiting a soldier in Walter Reed and how the doctors told him he wouldn’t make it, only to re-visit the hospital weeks later to learn that the same soldier had, in fact, lived. Some will argue that Rumsfeld was shedding crocodile tears, but I’m not so sure. It’s probably the only moment in the film where the former Sec Def’s arrogant, almost smarmy, veneer is punctured thoroughly.
Instead, The Unknown Known covers Rumsfeld’s entire political career. Culled from some 34 hours of interviews between Morris and his subject, Rumsfeld discusses his time in the Nixon White House, climbing the chain of command when Ford came to power after Nixon resigned in disgraced, being recruited into the cabinet of Ronald Regan and then being called to service again when George W. Bush assumed the office in 2001. Rumsfeld has become so indelibly tied to the Bush-era and the Iraq War that we forget that he has such a long and varied career in politics, and for the novice political historian there are a number of insights.
For instance, Rumsfeld wasn’t particularly popular with Richard Nixon. Strange to think of Rumsfeld as anti-establishment, but White House tapes played in the film show a typically paranoid Nixon wondering aloud to his Chief of Staff Alexander Haig if the deputy chief, Rumsfeld, was, to borrow a phrase, with them or against them. Rumsfeld became Ford’s chief of staff in ’74, and he tells a tale about a safe he found in the chief’s office that no one could find the combination for; he had the safe swiftly removed according to the chain of evidence, Rumsfeld recalls with a laugh.
It was during the Ford years that the Machiavelli streak that people like to associate with Rumsfeld really shined. He and his deputy chief of staff Dick Cheney pushed Ford to shake up his cabinet going into the 1976 presidential race with Rumsfeld taking over at the Pentagon and the future vice-president taking over from Rumsfeld at the White House. Of course, this left Rumsfeld in a precarious position to oversee the evacuation of U.S. personnel from the embassy in Saigon in ’75, and Morris combines archival footage* and photography well with Rumsfeld’s remembrances from the day.
*The one thing that struck me was film of aircraft carrier seaman pushing helicopters off the deck to make more room for incoming birds. That seemed like an awful waste of military assets, but then again, people were lined up off the roof to get away.
But the thing people want to explore most, probably, is the veteran politician’s thoughts and motivations concerning the prosecution of the wars he oversaw post-9/11. Rumsfeld’s the first to admit that things didn’t go according to plan, but he seems to think that’s not his fault. Indeed, war is messy, and you’re only as good as the situation allows, it seems. For Rumsfeld, Iraq seemed to be as much a policy exercise as it was a military action; his generals were telling him that Iraq policy was murky and complex, and the Bush administration clarified things by making it a matter of urgency to address the situation. Iraq fell, they picked up Saddam, and sure that torture stuff got out of control, but as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld says he neither shaped history nor was he shaped by it. A proverbial leaf on the wind, I suppose.
I know people will want castration, and failing that they’ll take confession, but Rumsfeld doesn’t go in for apologies much, and that should have been clear from all his years in office. I also don’t think Morris went into this thinking he was going to get anything resembling contrition, and indeed the director’s final question to Rumsfeld is to ask him why he’d subject himself to this. Still, I find The Unknown Known a fitting bookend to Morris other conversation with a past secretary of defense, The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara took the fault and the blame for Vietnam, a war arguably not nearly as destructive as the War on Terror in terms of cost to America’s treasury or reputation. Maybe more time lends more doubt, or maybe ideology hardens a man in a way regret can’t reach. Either way, it’s a fascinating portrait of an influential man in interesting times.