Known and Unknown: A memoir by Donald Rumsfeld

by Tim Wilson / 02 May, 2011
A little more regret would have gone a long way in Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir.

If brevity is the soul of wit, then the assumption, in the case of Western leaders during 9/11, appears to be that the “liver” of gravitas is duration. An aside: that clunky construction gives you some idea of the bureaucratic prose that awaits.

But onwards, to length! Tony Blair’s memoir totalled over 700 pages, George W Bush’s was 500. Former US Defence Secretary (twice) Donald Rumsfeld defeats both with more than 800 pages.

You might say he has plenty to explain. Besides being the man who gave us the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld was Defence Secretary for Gerald Ford. He ran for president briefly (in 1988). He worked in the private sector as CEO at drug company Searle while it struggled to get approval for aspartame, a product that became known as ­NutraSweet or Equal. He wrestled at Princeton, and was a fighter pilot.

In some ways, this reads as a Shakespearean tragedy: the old dog done in by destiny. Entering the Bush White House as a wise head in 2000 (Dick Cheney was a mate from the Ford administration), Rumsfeld resigned as Defence Secretary six years later, his name smeared and his strategy in tatters. Iraq, having been quickly conquered by superior US forces, was convulsed by a bloody civil war he seemed unable  – or, if you listen to others, unwilling – to quell. And in Afghanistan a resurgent Taleban was confronting American and Nato troops.

Strategic failure on your watch is one thing, moral dereliction quite another. In 2004, after the torture scandals of Abu Ghraib came to light, Rumsfeld remained in office. Not his wish, apparently. In Known and Unknown, he details how he begged Bush to accept his resignation for Abu Ghraib. Bush didn’t, a decision Rumsfeld now says he regrets.

It’s the nearest Rumsfeld, who professes he’s not much of a handwringer, comes to culpability. Close observers will note the error is presented as Bush’s rather than Rumsfeld’s. And Rumsfeld doesn’t accept full responsibility for Abu Ghraib, by the way; he blames rogue officers (a claim the American Civil Liberties Union has called “demonstrably false”). Thus the tone is set: I coulda been a contender, but others gazumped me. Gazumpers include his generals, the president, Condi Rice, Congress (Democrats in particular), the media, bureaucratic turf war, etc, etc.

You won’t be startled to learn Rumsfeld’s memoir has been bagged from the left and the centre. That’s politics. More intriguing is the right’s anger at him. Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan noted in the Wall Street Journal that she liked Rumsfeld but while reading Known and Unknown wanted to fling the book against the wall in the hopes of “breaking its stupid little spine”.

My reaction was somewhat milder, those times I was awake while reading. As a public vessel, Rumsfeld contained few of my aspirations, so he didn’t let me down. I doubt the same can be said for those who served and were maimed or died while Rummy steadfastly refused to increase the numbers of troops in Iraq.

Curiously, one sees within this tissue of self-justifications an often likeable fellow. Rumsfeld quotes from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Okay, that’s probably the last novel he read, but points for that. He makes a virtue of the fact his suits are constantly falling to bits. Parsimony, like flattery, will get you ­everywhere.

Being the top guy and passing the buck won’t. A little more regret would have gone a long way. “When he merely asserts, defends and quotes from his memos, you feel overwhelmed again,” fumes Noonan, “by the terrible thought that there was no overall overarching strategic thinking. There were only second-rate minds busily, consequentially at work.”

How notable that the second rate-ness was demonstrated not in Rumsfeld’s failures as Defence Secretary, but in his failure to own them in something as meagre as a memoir. I can’t wait for My Way, oops, I mean In My Time, by Dick Cheney. It’s due out this August, and at a projected 554 pages it’s a mere haiku.

KNOWN AND UNKNOWN: A MEMOIR, by Donald Rumsfeld (Sentinel, $55).

Tim Wilson is TVNZ’s US correspondent. His novel Their Faces Were Shining was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2010.
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