April 3, 2014

Iraq: What’s Known, What’s Unknown, What We Don’t Want to Know

The best question about the Iraq war perhaps isn't for the architects, but for us: what does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven't held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn't there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?
Stephen Kinzer on the Dulles Brothers
Lawrence Wilkerson: Why Does Rumsfeld Always Win?
Phil Klay: Redeployment
Rumsfeld, Snowflake by Snowflake

TheUnknownKnown

Guest List

Mark Danner, supreme chronicler of the wars and of America’s military misadventures for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.

Stephen Kinzer, reporter, academic, and author, most recently of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a first-rate thinker on war and foreign policy.

Errol Morris’s movie The Unknown Known is the provocation this week: cinema sequel to the Oscar winning documentary on Robert McNamara and Vietnam, “The Fog of War.”  The Rumsfeld questions implied by Morris but unanswered in the movie begin with who Rumsfeld was, and what he was up to; how has the experience of a trillion-dollar catastrophe sailed past any apparent reflection or rethinking on the part of the Iraq War’s architect. The journalist Mark Danner, who covered the war and is now covering the aftermath, says the inconvenient truth here is that the public doesn’t want to reconsider it either, because we’re all implicated in the shame. 

Rumsfeld spent 33 hours talking into Errol Morris’s camera — an exercise in cheerful deflection, denial and a good deal of distortion of the checkable record, including his own public memos and comments.  The architects won’t answer them, so the questions come back to us, whether we want them or not. What does it say about our system, our media, our country, and our age that we haven’t held anyone responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq apart from Chelsea Manning and a few enlisted men and women at Abu Ghraib? Isn’t there a lesson for us in the life and times of Donald Rumsfeld?

Reading List

• Mark Danner’s three-part series on Rumsfeld for the New York Review of Books, listed here;
• Errol Morris’s  massive four-part series chasing after the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld for The New York Times — it begins here;
• Lawrence Wilkerson’s interview with us on the subject of Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq;
• The transcript from Bill Moyers’s troubling documentary on how America was sold that war;
• And our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s latest comment on the war, in anticipation of his forthcoming book, The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.

And check out our extra content this week: an interview with the veteran-writer Phil Klay, a reflection in memos on the making of The Unknown Known, and archive interviews with guests Lawrence Wilkerson and Steve Kinzer.

Podcast • November 18, 2009

Thomas Balmes on Documentary Democracy

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Thomas Balmes (23 minutes, 11 mb mp3). Thomas Balmes is a global filmmaker from France who commits anthropology with his camera. He is coaching us here in how ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Thomas Balmes (23 minutes, 11 mb mp3).

Thomas Balmes is a global filmmaker from France who commits anthropology with his camera. He is coaching us here in how to make expressive use of the new video democracy on YouTube — how to adapt our own anthropological eyes to see and perhaps reveal what’s lurking in plain sight all around us.

I go by an amateur’s notion of anthropology, as the social science of spotting, as they say, what’s familiar in the strange … and what’s strange in the familiar. Thomas Balmes has improvised his way to mastery of the art all over the planet.

Damages is his rare American film, by turns grotesque, hilarious and perversely winsome, about lawyers in a litigate-or-die law firm in Bridgeport, Connecticut haggling over personal-injury and wrongful death claims.

You’ll feel a certain shock of recognition hearing Thomas Balmes say why the US is heaven for documentarians: because we Americans (unlike, say, Japanese or French folk) will talk openly on a stranger’s camera (or into a cellphone, on a bus) about anything, including dollars for death.

Most of the Balmes movies are made elsewhere: looking at the tribal wars in the Balkans, for example, through the eyes of tribal warriors from Kenya who went to Bosnia as peace keepers; or watching McDonalds market its burgers in India, the land of the Sacred Cow. The next big Balmes production will track four babies from birth to walking – in Namibia, Japan, Mongolia and San Francisco. Everywhere Balmes uses the fly-on-the-wall “direct cinema” technique. No shooting script, no voice-over commentaries: just looking, listening, and leaving viewers to make sense of whatever it is we catch – as in that Bridgeport law office:

My questions to Thomas Balmes have mainly to do with the lessons for journalism or anti-mass media: how might we all learn to shoot the scene outside the window with freshness, ambiguity, tolerance, humor and entertainment value? (His answer boils down to: Just do it.) What if in place of television “news” we could call on Thomas Balmes and his inspired imitators to show us what and who they’re looking at tonight?