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.


I have always loved maps. In fact, I had a pocket atlas of the world in middle school and was teased for “reading” it. But in a European tradition, maps are seductive, deceptive. They instill a sense of order and possession in the world that bear not resemblance to reality. Sure, sometimes the line is a simulacrum of a wall or a road or a river or a mountain, but in many instances that is an artificial creation; where the line is not man-made, it is wont to move,such as when a river changes course.[1]

There are other issues with maps, too. One West Wing episode features a petition from a group called Cartographers for social equality–a group dedicated to flipping the usual N-S paradigm because having north on top creates top-bottom attitudes. Likewise, the central panel of a map centralizes that landmass–usually the United States or Europe–in the viewer’s awareness. Then there are claims to ownership that the cartographer inscribes on the map, which gets us back to the issue of lines. The common practice in Ancient Greece was to place boundary markers (horoi) to denote borders of property (particularly rented or mortgaged property) and temple land.[2] Similar stones could denote the boundary of the chora that belonged to the town. There may also have been border watch posts or border forts along or near that border that would have extended a more physical presence along the border. Within the territory there was ownership of property, but on a state level the possession of territory was more about what the state could claim as its own and subsequently protect than any sort of “ownership” in the modern sense.

Lines that appear on maps showing the extent of territory in the ancient world are often problematic, but so too is replacing the lines with nodes. The key here is a multiplicity of forms of territory. Each city in Greece would have possessed its own chora, but the furthest border was rarely a line, even if there was a border of boundary stones. Control and borders of empires are even more problematic. We can drawn an outline of Alexander’s conquests, but in the furthest reaches of Bactria and in central India, those lines would have been meaningless. Territory was only possessed if it could be controlled–lines were only real if they had physical manifestations. This necessity led to an emphasis on urbanization by ancient state buildings (Seleucus and Antigonus among the successors to Alexander’s empire being classic examples). Sedentary peoples were easier to control than nomads and cities, or fortresses in some instances, offered a physical presence in the area. The Seleucid kingdom eventually reached a point where it was consisted of cities along the royal road, with each city having its own chora.

I wrote before that these fissures and cracks in the ancient world and how we think about it are where I see some ancient relevance to the modern world. Recently there have been some reports about the escalation of violence in Syria and Iraq and how the US withdrawal from Iraq has allowed “terrorist” groups to form actual camps without fear of airstrikes. In a radio story (apologies, I forget which NPR program this was on), the host asked the expert to clarify whether the camps were in Syria or Iraq and was told that the people involved did not recognize a border in the region. The United States and Western Europe are committed to a nation-state paradigm and territorial integrity for their own reasons, which is why there has been only a passing discussion of breaking up Iraq and Syria,[3] but it is easy to forget that the borders only exist in as much as there is collective agreement and are enforced. The jigsaw puzzle of the world map offers certainty and completion in the world and in some parts of the world that paradigm works, but in any number of other places the borders are just as illusory as the concept of the state that the borders are supposed to demarcate.

[1]The root of the English word “meander,” for instance, is the Maeandros River in Anatolia, a waterway notorious for wandering around the valley.

[2]The word also denotes other borders or memorials.

[3]If the United States was to support separatist movements without widespread international support (such as from the UN), then there would be precedent for other nations to support Hawaii in its separatist bid. Most nations have groups that would rather be independent, so unless there is a compelling reason (e.g. ethnic cleansing) for the region to be independent, there is a dearth of support for such groups on the international level.

Lest We Forget

Obituary of Osama bin Laden

My long silence is broken (albeit temporarily, since I must resume writing my thesis for another month) by the breaking news that Osama bin Laden has been killed by a US raid on a building in Pakistan. So tonight, eight years after George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished,” another president took another podium and announced to the American people a success in the war. He told us that he made killing Osama bin Laden a top priority and reminded us that bin Laden was the mastermind behind the worst attack ever upon the American people. He told us that “justice has been done.” He told us that bin Laden was a terrorist and was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims. And there was much rejoicing; from the crowds outside the White House, to the fireworks I can hear going off outside in Columbia, Missouri.

The events of 9/11 were of the sort that those who saw them will never forget. The smoke from the Pentagon, one tower smoking while the second plane lazily came in to the second tower, then both towers coming down. The backlash afterward and the vastly changed tenor of the dialogue. Since that day the United States has entered into two different wars, ostensibly to kill one man. Yes, al-Qaeda is a large organization, and the parameters of the war have always been rather hazy, but bin Laden has, for the most part, always been the target. We targeted the Taliban in Afghanistan because they harbored terrorists. We attacked Iraq because they might have had weapons of mass destruction and/or al-Qaeda ties, despite evidence to the contrary. In those two conflicts at least 919,967 men, women and children have died as of August 10, 2010 according to the lowest credible estimates.1 And just today a twelve year old suicide bomber killed four people and wounded another dozen. So, in all probability, in excess of a million people have died in a conflict ostensibly to kill one man.

Moreover, the changes that have happened, have happened. As many have pointed out, the Patriot Act (among other limitations to civil liberties) is not likely to go away, and the troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are not likely to come home any sooner. It is also entirely conceivable that this incident, coming on the heels of a bombing attack that killed Saif Gaddafi will only encourage aerial involvement around the world. In any case, justice seems like a stretch and if this is justice, I’d almost rather live with the injustice.

That is an exaggeration, but not by much. Part of the problem is that after 9/11 people wanted blood. Well, we have it now. The blood we wanted and a million times more.

Another thing to recall is that the United States as part of Cold War Policy supported radical Muslim fighters in Afghanistan at a time when Osama bin Laden was fighting in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether or not bin Laden received direct CIA aid and training, but it is certainly far from impossible. Later he was actively involved in radical terrorist attacks around the world, including the 1993 bombing on the World Trade Center. The 9/11 attacks were the largest and most awful among the attacks, but I can’t help thinking that 9/11 was simply a clarion call that shocked Americans into global awareness in the most terrible way possible. As a side effect everything became radicalized.

And now there there has been justice, but tomorrow is Monday morning. We will wake up and nothing will have changed.

ADDENDUM: There is another thing I have been dwelling upon, and since another friend noted this as well, I thought I’d add it. Millions of people are celebrating tonight because we killed on person. Nobody I know likes or is even sympathetic to this man, however he is still a person and we are still celebrating the bloodshed, not the fact that he is no longer able to attack anyone else. It is possible to say that in fact we are celebrating his death in order to celebrate that he cannot directly cause any more attacks, but that seems to be more of a rationalization and an explanation in hindsight than truth. To quote a friend, “the blind glee and fanatical patriotism that such deaths incur in objectively rational, liberal people absolutely horrifies me.”

1 Unknown News Casualties

The Costs of War

This week ran an interesting article on the cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. To my mind, the most important observation made in the article is that the wars have been notable removed from the American population, with a small percentage of the population actually involved and a small part of the American GDP spent. Unlike World War 2, where over a third of the GDP went to the war and far more soldiers were committed. Vietnam had a comparable financial cost, but a draft brought the war home to a far greater degree.

It is an interesting note, especially in regard to how often America is at war and the danger that ‘limited’ wars could become more common as the costs are not directly related to the American people. As one historian cited in the article noted: “the army is at war, but the country is not.”