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Donald Rumsfeld, 1932-2021
Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as Defense secretary helped George W. Bush lie America's way into the Iraq War and kept lying about the war itself ever after, has died at the age of 88. A family spokesperson said Rumsfeld died at his home in Taos, New Mexico, of multiple myeloma. We imagine that on some unearthly plane of existence, Mr. Rumsfeld himself is insisting that the situation is just fine, and he's about to turn the corner and get better.
Or perhaps he'll simply say you go to Hell with the soul you have, not the soul you might wish you had.
Also, if you missed it last night, take a few minutes to watch this incredible Rachel Maddow story about a house Rumsfeld was happy to live in, even though it was where Frederick Douglass was tortured in the 1830s, in an attempt to "break" him.
For the full, in-depth obits, check out the New York Times or, for no paywall, NBC News. Or perhaps Al Jazeera, which memorializes Rumsfeld accurately as "a criminal in a suit and tie." Here, we'll be focusing mostly on what a smug, glib, amoral bully he was, committed always to justifying the Bush administration's dirty war and his own part in it. Rumsfeld never for a second doubted that invading Iraq was a great idea, and that the invasion and occupation was handled just fine.
He tended not to focus on the few less than ideal developments, like the long-term horrorshow of regional instability that followed, the failure of Iraq to become the vibrant democracy and free market economy Team Bush had promised, and all that death — more than 4,400 US dead, and Iraqi civilian casualty estimates that are still difficult to pin down, ranging from a low near 150,000 to as high as a million.
As preparation for this piece, I re-watched Errol Morris's 2014 documentary The Unknown Known on Netflix last night. When it was released, the comparisons to Morris's earlier film, The Fog Of War, about Robert McNamara, were frequent. Most boiled down to pointing out that where McNamara wrestled with his past, and with the awful legacy of the US war in Vietnam, Rumsfeld was utterly incurious, like the president he worked for, not interested in reconsidering any aspect of the war or his role in it — or even reflecting on it much. Was the Iraq War worth all the consequences? Rumsfeld had no thoughts: "Only time will tell."
Late in his life, McNamara was hoping, if not for redemption, then at least for the record of his mistakes in managing the Vietnam war to be useful to others, as a warning. Rumsfeld, by contrast, was still doing a PR tour, treating his 34 hours of interviews with Morris not as a chance to look for insights, but to beat back a pesky reporter, just as he did during briefings while he was in the Bush admnistration. At one point, he even mimed making a little score hashmark on a wall, because he thought he'd done such a terrific job of defeating one of Morris's questions.
In an essay for Vanity Fair, Morris wrote that Rumsfeld was "a man using language to obscure the world from himself as well as from others," and that's frequently on display in The Unknown Known. In one sequence, Rumsfeld disputed a goddamn pronoun in one of Morris's questions, treating it as a matter of great importance. But once Morris conceded the point about the pronoun, Rumsfeld dismissed the question with completely new nitpicks about what words mean.
Morris: If the purpose of the war is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can't they just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who's "they"?
Rumsfeld: You said "they." You didn't say "we."
Morris: Well, "we." I will rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don't assassinate leaders of other countries.
Morris: Well, at Dora Farms [apre-invasion airstrike on an estate where Saddam was thought to be], we were doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.
Even Rumsfeld's most infamous pronouncement, about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns, Morris points out, was an exercise in obfuscation and avoidance.
Most people remember that Rumsfeld's famous comment about "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns" happened at a press conference, but few remember that it was in response to a question about what evidence we had that Saddam Hussein was linked to terrorist organizations—which was the justification for the war in the first place. The more I studied this performance, the more I realized that what Rumsfeld said wasn't really an answer. It was an attempt to change the subject, to turn reporters' questions about intelligence into a lofty question about the nature of knowledge: "Sometimes we have evidence for things and sometimes we don't; sometimes we know what we're looking for and sometimes we don't."
Rumsfeld had a wrong, mendacious answer for everything. US troops were dying and getting grievously injured because their Humvees lacked even a pretense of armor? "You go to war with the Army you have — not the Army you might wish you have." Iraqis were looting museums and government buildings because the US had sent only enough troops to defeat the Iraqi military, not to secure the country? "Stuff happens." Besides, maybe all the disorder was just the exuberance of people who were freed from oppression, you ever think of that? They were maybe looting museums as a healthy sign of "pent-up feelings" against Saddam, even.
"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," Rumsfeld said. "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."
Nearly 20 years on, the wonderful things are still on hold, but sure to arrive any moment now, because Iraq is turning the corner.
And so on. Abu Ghraib? Just a "small group of prison guards who ran amok." Torture at Guantanamo Bay? Hey, nobody was waterboarded there, because that was done by the CIA, at other places. And maybe prisoners were placed in "stress positions" and forced to stand for hours at a time, but as Rumsfeld wrote by hand on one memo, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing [for prisoners] limited to 4 hours?"
As George Packer reminds us at The Atlantic, Rumsfeld got right to work being wrong and deceitful about 9/11 itself. To his credit, in the minutes after the Pentagon was hit by one of the planes, Rumsfeld did help to evacuate the building and get injured people to ambulances. "But within a few hours, he was already entertaining catastrophic ideas," like speculating how best to use the attacks as an excuse to attack Saddam Hussein as well, even though Osama bin Laden's involvement was already a known known. Notes taken by an aide show Rumsfeld said, "Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."
I remember listening incredulously that day when Rumsfeld said on TV that the attacks proved the US needed to spend more to develop a missile-defense "shield," as if spending billions of dollars on technology to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles would protect the US from hijackers armed with box cutters. Turns out, the far better solution was to reinforce flight deck doors and keep them locked.
Later, he insisted all was going well in Iraq, and that since he didn't think the armed groups attacking US forces met a dictionary definition of "insurgency" or "guerilla warfare," then there was no reason to take them seriously. They were merely "dead-enders," and if you insult and dismiss them, they cease to be a problem.
When someone like Donald Rumsfeld dies, it's almost enough to tempt an atheist to want to believe in an afterlife, if only to imagine him trying to win an argument with God Almighty. Instead, we can perhaps be satisfied that he's done doing active harm to the USA and to people in other countries. There's still the tiny problem that Afghanistan and Iraq are both no closer to peace after the US went in to make the world safe. Also, the cynical manipulation of intelligence that got us into the war, which Donald Trump later used to downplay the intelligence community's finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Why believe those guys? They lied about WMDs in Iraq.
So congratulations, Mr. Rumsfeld. In the most twisted sense possible, your vision of the world prevailed. You won. You can go to your reward, even if it's only dust.
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