Rumsfeld’s Infuriating Oblivion

John Glaser, April 14, 2014

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Errol Morris’s new documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, is not as valuable as his last piece The Fog of War, a similarly styled conversation with another former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The fault is not Morris’s, but Rumsfeld’s.

In The Fog of War, McNamara is guilt-ridden and reflective about his involvement in the Vietnam War and war in general. He makes damning confessions, saying the U.S. committed war crimes in WWII and talking openly about the false justifications for the Johnson administration’s escalation in Vietnam. He questions war, nationalism, the elite zeitgeist that drove the U.S. into the Vietnam calamity.

Somehow, this is satisfying to anyone who was alive and opposed the Vietnam War. And for younger generations that lived through the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was gratifying to at least know that the architects of the U.S. war machine in the highest reaches of government know deep down what they’ve done, even if they don’t admit it publicly. It’s a kind of corrective; if war criminals aren’t going to be prosecuted, their guilt-ridden hearts are a distant second to that justice.

In The Unknown Known, by contrast, Rumsfeld leaves us Iraq War opponents deeply unfulfilled. There is not a whiff of regret, not the slightest willingness to admit wrongdoing, no culpability, no self-reflection. Instead, the former Secretary of Defense is almost gleeful; it’s not enough to say he is unrepentant because the viewer can find no indication that he is aware of anything for which to repent.

Beyond Rumsfeld’s failure to feel any remorse, the real twist of the knife is that Morris can’t even get him to agree on the facts, and Rumsfeld is therefore relieved of any obligation to reckon with the contrast between the Bush administration’s claims and what were the facts.

In other words, the up close and personal Don Rumsfeld is the same wretched snake that toyed with reporters in all those infamous press conferences, in which he spewed evasive epistemological inanities like “known unknowns” and “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” instead of straightforwardly answering questions about Saddam’s pursuit of WMDs or his alleged alliance with terrorist groups.

It is this “philosophizing” of Don Rumsfeld, Morris tells Reason‘s Nick Gillespie in an interview about the project, that “is the thrust” of the whole film. It is “the devaluation of evidence,” Morris explains, that drives Rumsfeld’s approach. Instead of thinking about “fact versus fiction,” Rumsfeld “drifts off into some kind of crazy meta-talk that is seemingly significant, but is not.”

Morris says he believes Rumsfeld is not a trickster, but rather that he believes his own nonsense, or at least is unperturbed by it. “Who is kidding whom?” Morris asks. “I think he’s kidding himself.”

A rabid dog that mauls a toddler to pieces may not be aware of what he has done, but he will still be put down. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, will live out the rest of his life in this freewheeling oblivion without threat of punishment.

The film is infuriating, but it is worth a watch. You can see Gillspie’s interview with Morris below.




11 Responses to “Rumsfeld’s Infuriating Oblivion”

  1. McNamara's regrets about the Vietnam War were expressed more or less publicly some 40 years after the events, even though he now acknowledges having doubts at the time the war was ongoing. Perhaps it's still too early for Rumsfeld to be able to look back on the Iraq war without feeling the need to justify it. But it's far more likely that Rumsfeld is just a "wretched snake that toyed with reporters…" who will forever remain unrepentant, and convinced of the "righteousness" of his cause.

  2. Where is justice when you need it, this man needs to be at the international court of justice answering prosecutors question about his and gang of Bush Neo fascism regime committed and documented war crime against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if that happens, then half of us democratic far right and falsified democrats should be attending the very same session.

  3. A psychopath wouldn't feel like they have done anything wrong.

  4. The frightening thing is that Obama is more like Rumsfeld than like McNamara.

  5. Rumsfeld is the perfect bureaucrat, driven, mean, without compassion, and incapable of self-reflection. In other words, a sociopath. If he had been a German during the rise of Hitler, he would have fitted right in.

  6. Rumsfeld may very well be a sociopath but, let's not forget the enthusiastic American Media that lapped up his drivel like Otis Campbell finishing the last drop of Raif Hollister's moonshine then licking the jar. I recall one presser in the run up to the Iraq Invasion that I watched on NBC. After Rummy left the podium Tom Brokaw turn toward the camera wearing the same rimless glass Herr Rumsfeld was wearing…I wanted to puke. They couldn't discern duplicity from intelligence and cunning from wisdom. or, if they could, they were willing participants in war crimes.

  7. I literally hate rumsfeld. I can't say that about too many human beings. Well, there's cheney of course. I wish I believed in hell.

  8. They don't get punished, even when they get it wrong. That's why America's political elite is so pro-war, there is no consequences for them to face afterwards.

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  11. Snowden also seems eerily resigned to the likely consequences of his actions — namely that he may never see his home country again, and that government officials may come for him at any time.