By Max Larkin
Errol Morris calls his latest film, The Unknown Known, “history from the inside out.” The film draws on the archive of tens of thousands of ‘working documents’ that Donald Rumsfeld created over his long career in power. These orders, memoranda,and gnomic notes-to-self came to be known as “snowflakes”, because there were lots of them and they were on white paper.
Most of these memos don’t tell us what was going on, but rather what Rumsfeld wanted to go on, and what he feared would happen if he didn’t get his way. (At some point, these documents will pass into the Library of Congress, part of our vast paper inheritance.) So the film was conceived as a look into the mind of a man who was comfortable with war, who caused soldiers and civilians to die by the thousands for his mistakes, who made torture official policy, who violated the compact of government with the certainty of all strongmen.
All reasons why most Americans don’t ever want to see or hear from Rumsfeld again. There was a temptation to bracket the film in explanations — excuses, almost, or disclaimers: “I’m anti-war, honest. I don’t believe in Donald Rumsfeld.” So, again, I don’t believe in Donald Rumsfeld. If disgust were ever a correct political response, he would represent our chance to feel it fully.
But it isn’t, ever, correct. Disgust — the aversion of the eyes — gets us nothing and spares us nothing. It’s a lesson I learned working as an assistant producer on The Unknown Known out of Morris’s office in Cambridge.
The film took months and months to make, with more than thirty hours of on-camera interviews with Rumsfeld. I met the man; I got his coffee, sweetened with the artificial sweetener he helped bring to market. (Feel free to go down that rabbit hole here.) As an assistant I spent most of my time reading the memos, watching briefings and speeches, and watching and discussing the movie as it was cut by Errol and his terrific editor, Steven Hathaway. That last part meant hundreds of hours of sitting in a dark room looking into Rumsfeld’s eyes or hearing his voice in the other room.
Errol Morris has said that the film was the product of obsession for him: obsession with “the pursuit of truth and the avoidance of truth,” and an investigation into nonsense. I was obsessed, too. Rumsfeld’s cadences, his lame Midwestern sayings, came home with me. Late at night, I would think over this charming grayish man. Beyond what did he do and even why did he do it, who is he? The character question: what matters to him? The tragic question: what did him in?
The Iraq veteran-writer Phil Klay, whom Chris interviewed this week, is no fan of Rumsfeld, but since he loved the soldiers under Rumsfeld’s command, he can’t condemn the war entirely. He sent us back to the Iliad as the beginning of mixed feelings about war in the Western canon, and sent me back to Simone Weil’s essay on “the poem of force”, to the phrase: “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.” Klay and Weil both speak to me as a veteran of The Unknown Known. I enjoyed the time I spent with Rumsfeld. Our captors compel us. (I was glad to learn that the Pentagon press corps had fun covering him.)
Morris selected a dozen and more memos for the film, in the hope that Rumsfeld might have slipped up and revealed something about himself or the country. I believe he did. To understand Rumsfeld’s longevity, his mass appeal, and our readiness, now, to be 100 percent rid of him is to learn some Tocquevillian truth about our land and its people. We are embodied in our leaders, and they aren’t all Lincoln. To say that J. Edgar Hoover reflected America is not to concede that he was good for America — “to understand is not to excuse.”
So, the film and the memos are part of a painful but necessary education. Rumsfeld would say we’d better get about it. Here are a few interesting documents that didn’t make it into the film.
1. Handwritten note, September 26, 2001
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NSC mtg. with President—
As [it] ended he asked to see me alone…
After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone
He was at his desk—
He talked about the meet
Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]
Then he said Dick [Cheney] told me about your son—I broke down and cried. I couldn’t speak—
said I love him so much
He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son—
He said much more.
Stood and hugged me
An amazing day—
He is a fine human being—
I am so grateful he is President.
I am proud to be working for him.
Joyce says I have to let Nick go.
The story: Rumsfeld’s only son Nick, who had struggled with drug addiction, relapsed shortly after the attacks (like many others). Bush, an alcoholic in recovery, consoled Rumsfeld in the Oval Office, just after asking him to plan the invasion of Iraq — finally, good news, and “an amazing day”.
In 2014, the line about drawing up a secret “plan to invade Ir” reads as creepy, if not incriminating. Nonetheless Rumsfeld’s office posted the note on Facebook as evidence that the readiness for a global retributive war went beyond the Rumsfeld-Cheney cabal. And it did, of course: Tim Russert’s first question for Rumsfeld that week was, “Nineteen days ago, America was attacked. How hard has it been to resist an immediate and overwhelming massive retaliation?”
Days later, on September 30 — the same day as the interview with Russert — Rumsfeld sent the President a top-secret memo entitled “Strategic Thoughts“, proposing American support for “Iraqis, Lebanese, Sudanese and others” willing to attack “the common enemies”. The administration had a responsibility, he argued, to “change the world’s political map,” and the wherewithal to do it — and so they did.
2. “Remarks on the U.S. Problem in South Vietnam”, April 11, 1966
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On April 12, 1966, when Rumsfeld delivered this speech at the Marshall Field office in Chicago, he spoke as a conservative congressman and the son of a realtor who had enlisted in the Navy out of patriotism. It’s not quite an antiwar speech, but it observes that the Vietnam War suffered by comparison to World War II. Why didn’t Vietnam feel necessary to the young man, a “bright, clean product of our area,” who had asked Rumsfeld to keep him out of the war?
I believe that this young man reflected his society. But he would respond to a reasonable cause — clearly stated. He sees no such cause. I have great confidence in the American people when they have the information they need to decide. But they’re not blind followers. They need information.
At fifteen, my horror at the war came with the sense of its own meaninglessness. Many intellectuals — including Morris — opposed the war loudly. But they didn’t turn the tide, either. Why?
It isn’t enough to say that, even late in the day, many ordinary Americans were convinced that in Iraq we were somehow executing the second phase of retribution for September 11. That is, as the film shows, a tribute to the little things of persuasion — to Rumsfeld’s bearing, his very certainty — and to the power of the idealized, black-and-white story he was telling. The presentation of the Global War on Terror wasn’t academic or even historical. It was idealistic, and hung on the fact that Americans, the world’s safest people, had just shared a vivid first impression of war. The lessons Rumsfeld learned from Vietnam were lessons in sales, not in restraint.
But the corruption only started there, and spread through powerful America: to Clinton and Kerry, David Remnick and Bill Keller. Again, why? The administration’s weapon of last resort was intelligence, as in the climactic scene with Dick Armey on the eve of war. But that does not explain it all. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that people needed strength at that moment, and to oppose the war was to be weak.
I’m reminded of the fact that the journalist David Halberstam was for the war in Vietnam before he was against it, in the fateful beginning moments, as he acknowledged in a touching open letter to his daughter: “Sometimes… in talking about what the Americans were doing in Vietnam, I, like others there, slipped unconsciously into the pronoun ‘we’. That we were there to help another country against encroachment from within was the line, and I did not dissent.”
3. The “Parade of Horribles” memo, October 15, 2002
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This memo means a lot to Rumsfeld, for all that it isn’t. He admits it isn’t a plan, or a solution, or even a decision. It is “simply… a checklist,” intended to prompt a discussion about all the things that could go wrong in Iraq that never happened. WMD could fail to materialize; reconstruction could be long and costly; an insurgency could form up. He brandishes this memo, pleased by his foresight in spite of the fact that he will be held responsible for letting the “horrible” happen.
Defense establishments have to wrestle with surprise — the “unknown unknowns”, the disasters that come ‘from nowhere’. In a chapter on Rumsfeld in The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver meditates upon the task of sorting through intelligence to detect the real threats: “Anytime you are able to enumerate a dangerous or unpredictable element, you are expressing a known unknown. To articulate what you don’t know is a mark of progress.”
But what does it mean to draw the borders of your ignorance about the danger of your situation, if you don’t avoid the danger, or the loss? Memos can’t save lives. What bothers Morris most of all is that the logic behind the “Parade of Horribles,” offered as evidence of Rumsfeld’s essential rationality and his sensitivity to threats, in fact deprecates the very idea of reason, the idea that critical thinking can make our society safer and more innocuous. It is in fact an invitation to let paranoid imaginations run wild, and to build armies to suit our nightmares.
4. Senior thesis (1954)
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Finally, there’s Rumsfeld’s serendipitous choice of a senior thesis at Princeton in 1954. His subject was the Supreme Court’s decision, two years earlier, to invalidate Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel industry, in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. Rumsfeld supported the decision of the court, concluding with a meditation on the Constitution’s strength in emergency: through strife, “the theory upon which our government is based has demonstrated its adaptability and soundness in practice.” He concludes:
…The United States of America is such an amazing Nation, that literally any man can one day be President. This is both good and bad. With an eye toward its bad aspect, i.e., the Presidency may not always be occupied by a man intelligent enough to use his power sparingly, Jefferson had the correct answer one hundred sixty-five years ago, when he warned: “In questions of power let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Rumsfeld encountered into this decision again fifty years later as a very different man, when, as Secretary of Defense, he was named as the defendant in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. The plurality opinion, which went against Rumsfeld, restored to detainees the right to due process. The opinion, authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, declared that the court had “long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.” She cited Youngstown.
I also have a private fascination with this document. To be young and political is to hear, as often as not, that you are not yet serious enough to speak. You can’t reckon all the possibilities and factors at play when a given decision is made. The fact that this is often true doesn’t prevent it from being infantilizing — and it isn’t always true.
Rumsfeld laughs about the thesis. What a coincidence! What did he know? He was a wrestler. He hadn’t yet seen the view from the top. As he got older, he drifted and things changed. He unlearned, and learned the truth.
But doesn’t the solid ground, in fact, lie under the undergraduate? Isn’t it the country, and really the executive office, that drifted, and that needs reminding about “the theory upon which our government is based”? This is what Elaine Scarry tells us in her new book. (Scarry’s thesis, about the real Deciders in the United States, is borne out by exactly how hard Rumsfeld and the others sold the war — indiscriminately, in the register of populism.)
Rumsfeld was my political education, as he was for everyone who was young in 2001. I can’t be sure of much when it comes to him. But I know that I believe that when he looks into the camera or picks up his Dictaphone and declares that freedom comes with vulnerability, he is speaking a truth deeper than he realizes. And I’m glad we’ll have a chance to hear him say it at the movies.