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Forever In His Debt

With his new memoir, Donald Rumsfeld has cleared the air more than he knows.

By From the April 2011 issue

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Known and Unknown: A Memoir
by Donald Rumsfeld
(Sentinel, 726 pages, $36)

Born in 1932, Donald Rumsfeld was too young to have been a member of that "Greatest Generation" who fought in America's "good" war (though he was the 10-year-old son of a father who, after Pearl Harbor, managed by sheer dint of will to nag an initially unwilling United States Navy into accepting him for duty). By the same token, he was too late for the "bad" wars, that is, Korea and Vietnam. What he did instead on being graduated from college was to join the Navy, learn to fly, become a naval flight instructor, and then head to Washington, where he learned some of the lesser arts of politics by working in the losing campaigns of two different congressmen. And at the age of 29 he ran for Congress himself from his home district in Illinois and won. But, though he himself does not quite put it this way -- and despite the fact that with a group of fellow congressmen he would succeed, as it would turn out fatefully, in replacing the old minority leader with a congressman from Michigan named Gerald Ford -- he was, especially as a Republican, bound to find the rules of the House too confining for his best energies. Thus it was that when Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency and called him to join the administration (as, of all things for someone regarding himself as a mostly conservative Republican, the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity) he was ready to embark on his true career as a manager of men and events.

Thirty-two years later, having played a variety of important roles in the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan as well as having taken time out to serve as the chief executive officer of two corporations, he would not himself be on the ground in a war but rather given the responsibility, as George W. Bush's secretary of defense, for planning and directing two of them, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. And it is that experience, of course -- quite properly -- which occupies both the most engrossing, and inevitably the most significant, part of his book.

His first assignment as defense secretary, however (it would be his second round of duty in the job, having served briefly in the Pentagon during the Ford administration), was a no less daunting one than to reform and modernize (as well as to gain control and reshape the budget of) the American military. Anyone who merely casts a glance at the mass that is the Pentagon, no matter how ignorant he might be of the details of all the bureaucratic agreements and disagreements that seethe inside, can at least begin to imagine the uproar, personal as well as impersonal -- or as Rumsfeld himself might have put it, "known and unknown" -- that was bound to ensue. He was, of course, a manager, by that time a famously successful one, and it was said that the building itself began to tremble as he set loose an avalanche of the little white notes of inquiry and instruction that had come to be known as "Rumsfeld's snowflakes."

And then came September 11, 2001, which left the country (albeit not as determinedly as it did for a while appear to be) in the mood to be avenged for the terror visited upon New York and Washington. Thus less than a month later, on Sunday, October 7, Bush went on the air to announce that the United States was now engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom -- as it would turn out, his less than apposite name for the campaign to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the putative author of September 11, as well as to rid Afghanistan of the terrorists of al Qaeda and their Taliban allies. And despite the fact that as December rolled around bin Laden was still safely at large, how could large numbers of Americans not have felt enthusiastic about the taking of Kabul, the toppling and decamping of the Taliban, and the establishment of a transitional Afghan tribal council headed by a tribally neutral leader named Hamid Karzai? Rumsfeld, however, was not among them: gangs of terrorists, after all, were mobile; they would still have to be pursued for who knew how long and how far and the governments who saw fit to protect them punished.

Next came Iraq. George W. Bush's father had, of course, taken us to war with Iraq in 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But having driven the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, the president, the secretary of state, and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, namely, General Colin Powell, believed that they had now done enough, militarily speaking. We have reached our military goal, Powell was alleged to have remarked; our military success is simply turning into a massacre. It was agreed in Washington that Saddam Hussein was bound to fall from power, particularly if the U.S. helped to push him by urging "pro-democracy elements" to rise up and topple him. But after this so very wise and humane counsel, as we know, the massacre that Powell feared seemed to fit better on the other foot -- that is, the victims of the uprising turned out not to be the forces of Saddam but precisely those who rose up against him. Shiites and Kurds were slaughtered in the tens of thousands, while Saddam Hussein remained serenely in power. And through the eight years of the Clinton presidency the issue continued to fester -- if not for Clinton himself, whose attention was so famously taken up with other problems, then at least for others, including Rumsfeld, who was among the signatories of a letter to Clinton urging that he take some kind of strong action against Saddam's regime.

ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE legitimacy of our having gone into Iraq in the first place as well as about the conduct of American policy post-Saddam have been rehearsed and re-rehearsed for what is by now a very long time and must be known to every even half-sentient American. It would be merely tiresome to rehearse them here, except to point out that Rumsfeld himself, as he of course must, goes into the development of his own views of the matter at considerable length and with what is, in this book, a rather unusual degree of rhetorical passion. (Those who to this day claim not to have been convinced about the justice of that war are merely dancing to the music of a culture grown tired of feeling the often very complex rhythms of responsibility. So they continue to dispute established facts and look instead for simpler, more self-assured entertainment.)

Not that Donald Rumsfeld has never been a source of high entertainment for such people. Though the book purports to be a memoir not merely of his most significant work but of his life as a whole, he has entirely left out of it -- for those who know him, no doubt predictably -- any account of his experience as a national media celebrity. He nowhere mentions, for instance, that his frequent televised press conferences, in which he was able to run circles of humor, for the most part high good humor, around the Pentagon reporters gathered to challenge and be instructed by him, became a kind of popular public entertainment. Nor, of course, does he tell his readers that in 2002 he was named the world's sexiest cabinet member by no less an authority on the issue of celebrity than People magazine.

But the day-to-day course of Rumsfeld's (presumably final) tour of duty in the U.S. government turned out in the end, no doubt predictably, to be a somewhat different story, and for many, apparently to this day, a controversial one. For Washington is Washington. And if, as the man once said, power corrupts, it is the kind on display in that city and nearby environs, that is to say, divided power, that truly corrupts, and that is in turn corrupted, in a steady fashion. The White House and its staff, Congress and the individual members thereof, the secretary of state and his minions, the intelligence agencies and theirs, and the seemingly myriad departments and offices devoted to regulating the details of day-to-day governance all have interests of their own, often of course political interests, but perhaps almost as often individual ones, to pursue. And to say that the Pentagon is no exception is to say only that the wearing of a military uniform (especially one with some number of stars on it), and hence now and then a critical degree of responsibility for the very survival and well-being of the nation, does less than those of innocent mind might imagine to lessen the push of interests. All of which is to say further that on his second tour of duty as secretary of defense, with two wars to manage and two highly unstable countries to help bring to some degree of political and social decency, Rumsfeld not only had his work as a manager cut out for him but that some of that kind of work had to take place far closer to home than Afghanistan or Iraq -- as close as across the Potomac River and even, now and then, as close as down the hall. And it is, of course, his account of these labors that takes up the major part as well as the true importance of Known and Unknown.

NOW, THE EARLY POPULAR ENTHUSIASM for the televised images of American military triumph in Iraq -- the images of blazing aerial bombardment, speeding tanks on their way to Baghdad, the tearing down and dismantling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, etc. -- would give way first to the pangs of anxiety brought on by uncertainty and not all that long after to a fairly widespread mood of complaint. Thus on May 1, 2003, when the president made the mistake of speaking cheerfully as he stood before a banner on which were emblazoned the words "Mission Accomplished," the press, with a fair portion of the public in tow, was to land on him like a ton of bricks.

What, it was asked, was to be the role of the military now that Iraq had been taken over? The country was a place of wreckage in need of vast repair, its political condition too arcane for comprehension, its transition to something even mildly resembling stability seemingly so far off. Soldiers as well as civilians were now being terrorized and killed by roadside bombs. Who was supposed to oversee this mess? Would the United States be stuck with paying the bill associated with that old saw, "If you break it, you buy it?" The ranks of those experts who had taken to the press in opposition to our plans to begin with were now being mightily swelled by a veritable battalion of hostile journalists. Indeed, it was beginning to feel as if Rumsfeld's countrymen, old as well as young, had never before been witness to the phenomenon of postwar uncertainty. All of the arguments about how to proceed now, or how the U.S. should initially have proceeded, both with, and in, Iraq (including those offered with obvious malice or in equally obvious esprit d'escalier) are taken up by Rumsfeld and answered coolly and at some length.[1]

Thus if we ever come as a nation truly to understand what we have done as well as what we must continue to do about Iraq and Afghanistan -- and who at this particular moment can say where else? -- our debt to him will be immeasurable.

One thing it has not been given him to do for us, however -- being neither within the purview of the book he has written nor perhaps in his own as a man of hard sense and successful action -- is point out for his readers the critical role played in all this by the present condition of our culture. The United States has for a long time now been playing a significantly benign role in the world. At times doing so has cost us dearly in both men and treasure, but it did once (in what now often feels like a far-distant past) also serve as a source not only of social health and vitality but even a spirit of gratitude for the privilege. For a moment, the sparking of our anger and national pride at the events of September 11 seemed to be reviving such a spirit, but this turned out to be an illusion: in what was little more than another moment it died again, probably from a too-many-decades-long cultural addiction to easy substitutes for the real thing. Call this addiction greed, call it sloth -- it has, indeed, been a mighty combination of the two. Thus it is, for instance, that while just about everyone in the country is nowadays prepared to shed hot tears for its military dead, there are still among us many too many who are equally prepared to sneer at the purposes being served by those who survive to fight another day.

In himself, as both a private and a public man, Rumsfeld has been a living refutation of what has turned out to be a far too long-lived and costly cultural period. As an author he does not, of course, address this issue directly, and may have had too active and busy a life to have spent much time thinking in such terms.[2] Nevertheless, in clarifying a record of national intent and policy that has for so many unhappy reasons been so often abused, and in doing so with patience, diligence, and even a measure of high spirits, he has helped to cleanse more of the air around us than he appears to know. 


[1] In addition, he tells us, a portion of his archive of supporting documents is available on his website.

[2] Though if he is promoting this book with the press and media as publishers so often require authors to do, he is surely finding himself directly in the path of its cultural headwinds.

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About the Author

Midge Decter's books include Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait; Liberal Parents, Radical Children; and An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War.