Mar 8 2011

Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld

Eric Martin

web exclusive


The most surprising thing about Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, Known and Unknown, is that a lot of it is boring. How could that be? Donald Rumsfeld was not boring; his life was not boring; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were and are not boring. What other contemporary public figure attained brief sex-symbol status at the age of sixty-nine, drew mad vitriol from hippies and hawks alike, and had lawsuits filed against them on everything from habeas corpus to torture to sexual harassment in the military, even as poets, novelists, and comics riffed passionately on their words and lives? Yet Rumsfeld the memoirist is kind of boring.

The main reason for this is that Known and Unknown is less a biographical memoir than an 815-page persuasive essay. At its heart lies a classic three-part thesis: Weakness is provocative; the world is a dangerous place; and Rumsfeld spent his life doing his right and legal best to keep us strong and safe. A large body of annotated evidence is drawn from thousands of documents, many of which have been declassified for the first time, to make the case. Counterarguments are considered: Would we be a better, safer nation without the invasion of Iraq, enhanced interrogation, or the many small and large decisions Rumsfeld faced and made in the course of his five decades of public service? The conclusion: no—and those who think differently must be naive, blinded by ideology, or misled by unfortunate communication failures that happened along the way.

Communication, in fact, is one of the dominant themes of Known and Unknown. At first glance, this seems like a clue: Perhaps Known and Unknown is boring because Donald Rumsfeld is a poor communicator? Not exactly. He was once a press-conference favorite, a kind of kung-fu zen master mixing maxims with the plain talk of his Midwest. "If you looked down from Mars" was not an atypical opening to a statement. "There's a lot of mischief being made," he'd say. And: "We are not what's wrong with the world." The man was Twitter before Twitter, churning out 140-character memos, scrawling in the margins, ready with a Rumsfeld Rule for every occasion. His odd sound bites struck even his many detractors as something that set him apart from the talking heads around him—smarter, more interesting, a bit fearless, even charming.

Much has been made of the lack of regret expressed in Known and Unknown, in part because the regrets he does explore focus on style, not substance. He meant "old NATO," not "old Europe"; he meant "we know where the suspect sites are," not "we know where they are." "I had uttered more than a thousand words at that press conference before I said 'Stuff happens,'" he remarks, "but they were the only two words that seemed to matter." He was imprudent to think people would understand the context of "You go to war with the army you have" (to troops complaining about vehicle armor) or "I stand 8–10 hours a day" (in the margin of an interrogation-techniques memo). The more he looks back at the trouble spots of his career and the nation alike, the more he sees failures of style and communication everywhere: at the core of Nixon's lack of redemption, Gerald Ford's lost election, flagging support for our twenty-first century wars, and public sentiment about prisoners, detainment, and torture.

But the fact is, as a memoirist, Rumsfeld's style and linguistic knack should serve him well. And it doesn't, in part because he's decided to write an over-detailed forty-two-ounce persuasive essay that explains every possible problem as a failure in communication. Who exactly is he writing for? This is man who always understood his audience, using striking graphs to drive home the Cold War Soviet threat and customizing Bush powerpoints with bible quotes. Perhaps he has here someone specific in mind; in a recent interview, he describes his memoir as "a serious book of history that is rooted in the primary documents that I will have on the website, and historians and interested readers, serious people, will be able to go in there and make their own judgments."

In Known and Unknown, we are a world away from the big skies of George W. Bush's Decision Points, where the former president leaps lightly from peak to peak: War on Terror, Surge, No Child Left Behind. Rumsfeld is down in the valleys, debating the truth and fault of individual rocks and crags, armed with fifty-two pages of endnotes and his bottomless website documents. His "serious book of history" has made an undeniable short-term historical contribution by the sheer number of documents he has had declassified. It's a book that a publishing house with upfront millions on the line probably wouldn't have stood for—not with an exhaustive 2009 832-page Rumsfeld biography already on the shelves, not in this era, not in this marketplace. Take the high road, come out swinging, tell your stories, charm their pants off, let your wit and bravado shine. We don't need more footnotes—we need more you!

Boring aside, is the essay persuasive? Sometimes. He is persuasive about his passion for public service and the troops. He is persuasive about the need for military and broader government reform in a global and digital age that has outstripped the old systems and bureaucracy. Most of all, he is persuasive about the first two-thirds of his thesis: that weakness is provocative and the world is a dangerous place.

But like many writers of persuasive essays before him, in the end he is intent only on victory and absolutely cannot be trusted. The citations I followed soon suggested Rumsfeld's cherry picking: For example, a Congressional report citation to a bullet point supporting the presence of a WMD facility is surrounded by pages and pages that undermine other of his arguments: about the kind of threat the Iraqi state posed, about the missing links to Al Qaeda, about the lack of coordination between Ansar al-Islam and Sadaam Hussein, and so on. And then there is this statement: "None of the authorized interrogation methods [by the Department of Defense] involved physical or mental pain. None were inhumane. None met any reasonable person's definition of torture." Of these techniques—stress positions, isolation, sensory deprivation, removal of clothing, sleep deprivation, extreme use of cold and sound and light (to say nothing of the broader techniques the Justice Department authorized for the CIA which include slaps, walling, and waterboarding, none of which Rumsfeld objects to)—Rumsfeld writes little, in a section that insider reports suggest was the most difficult for him to write. It is deeply dishonest to dismiss these techniques as inarguably humane with so little focus on the techniques themselves, especially in a book where far less important details merit intensive exploration.

The key to this strange book, however, may lie in its very final line, buried deep in the endnotes of acknowledgements: "My proceeds from this project will go to the programs my foundation supports for the men and women in uniform, including the wounded and their families. If this book does nothing else but reflect my respect and appreciation for them, that will be enough."

Here lies his true audience. Rumsfeld has written a book that is less interesting and more forgettable than he should have because he decided to argue every contentious debate of the last ten years, large and small alike, at such a detailed level that the only people who will care will be the ideologues, historians, and perhaps the men and women who worked for him and the troops on the ground and in the prisons who followed orders that Rumsfeld critics says were wrong. Rumsfeld will not let them be torturers; he will not let them be part of any wrong military strategy; he will not let the wars they fought be anything other than the right thing at the right time; he will not allow error or even complexity to stain their sacrifices in any way. Knowingly or not, Rumsfeld is taking one for the team. Who else would throw away the story of a rather fascinating life—wrestler, pilot, the scholarship kid at Princeton writing his thesis on curbing executive overstep—to try to win an unwinnable argument and hereby condemn his memoir to forgettable mediocrity as a bundle of selective footnotes rather than a true contribution to history? Only Rumsfeld.

Eric Martin, with Stephen Elliott, is co-author of the novel Donald and author of three other novels. His nonfiction has been published by Chronicle Books, 77, McSweeney's, and others.

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