Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”

“I bet Rumsfeld is one hell of a poker player.” –my first comment walking out of Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld.

Before seeing the film I had heard Morris talk about sitting down with the former defense secretary and he contrasted the experience with that of filming McNamara for “A Fog of War.” McNamara, he said, grappled with the consequences of his policies in Vietnam while Rumsfeld was glib, disingenuous, empty, and not someone who was at all relatable. A review in the Atlantic follows this same tact by saying that Rumsfeld was unsuccessful in his verbal jousts and that Morris’ true target in the film was smugness.

I do not totally agree. Don’t get me wrong, Rumsfeld was absolutely smug and does not vindicate himself in the film, but focusing on this surface attitude overlooks some larger points.

The issue is that Rumsfeld appeared to have three modes: toeing in the party line, coyly defending Rumsfeld against the rest of the Bush-administration appointees, and the truth, from his point of view. My contention here is that Rumsfeld was telling the truth more frequently than he gets credit for.

One theme Rumsfeld repeated in his answers was his unflappable faith in rational actors. He is a realist, through and through and the great failing of realists is their faith in rationality in the face of an irrational world. Take two examples:

  1. With the prisoner abuse scandals Rumsfeld tried to justify the sequence of events and defend the D.o.D. by pointing out that 1) the interrogators went further than permitted and 2) they failed to heed a memo that retracted the order. On one hand, this is Rumsfeld passing the blame on down the line where another person would express remorse. On the other, I do not doubt that Rumsfeld believed that his responsibility was done with once he sent the memo. Does this absolve Rumsfeld? No, but given the situation, his power was a good deal more limited than many people would like to think and I can understand why he might have believed himself not responsible for the prisoners and certainly not solely responsible for the military decision in the Bush administration.
  2. In a line of questions that dealt with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld said he had no interest in talking with the Iraqi leader. Rumsfeld had met him in the 1980s and found him to be a pompous blowhard (in so many words), but had connected with one of Saddam Hussein’s lieutenants on that same trip. Rumsfeld said that that was who he wanted to talk to, rational actor to rational actor to learn how he could let Iraq get into a war with the United States–he was genuinely perplexed as to how the two sides got to the point of war, but it was clear that he expected Iraqi decision making to be based on the same rational process as his own.

But the world is not made of rational actors, on either side, which was one of Rumsfeld’s grand delusions. Likewise, there is a persistent glossing of WMDs (chemical, nerve, atomic) and a Nuclear Program that was used as justification for the invasion of Iraq, and The Terrorists were characterized as some sort of unified front against which the US and Co. fight against as the Defenders of Freedom. These are two of the great myths of 21st century political discourse that Rumsfeld used in his answers and Errol Morris slipped into his questions. Thus, a final point: n both the film and the clips of press conferences from Rumsfeld time at the D.o.D., Rumsfeld only answered the questions asked, and not all the questions were good.

“Unknown Known” didn’t do Rumsfeld any favors in terms of his legacy because he was smug, clever, sometimes coy, and unrepentant. But to dismiss him as such gives Rumsfeld both too much and too little credit.

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