The Unknown Known - Rumsfeld’s rules under scrutiny

Donald Rumsfeld: canny genius who deftly maneuvered his impressive political career into existence with one hand on the steering wheel of US foreign policy in the defining decades of the American century? Or cruel Machiavellian master of the dark arts of war and politics?

After watching The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’ new documentary focusing on Rumsfeld and his decades-long paper trail of Pentagon memos, it’s impossible to tell. It’s extraordinary. Two hours of Rumsfeld’s political career and personal life under the lens, and he slips out of reach with a shrug, an 'aw-shucks' eyelash-flutter to camera and that trademark smile. He’s there but not there, impenetrable even while squaring the camera dead on.

The Unknown Known looks at Rumsfeld's career through the memos he scribed throughout his half-century in political office – covering his term as the youngest Secretary of Defense under Ford in 1975, and as the oldest Secretary of Defense under George W Bush, until 2006. His staff called Rumsfeld’s memos his ‘snowflakes’, and they are many: 20,000 in his last six years in office alone. They range from instructions to staff (‘Find me the dictionary definition of scapegoat.’), to ‘dear diary’ journal entries, to blunt insights into the philosophy of the George W reign (‘Re. Global war on terrorism: are we winning or losing?’).

Rumsfeld speaks in self-congratulating maxims and riddles – ‘All generalisations are false – including this one.’ This is his language – the thoughts outlined in his memos, and the phrases he parrots back to Morris throughout. He is proud of ‘Rumsfeld’s rules’, commandments that he’s built up throughout his career to steer business and political success. They are for the most part grandiose-sounding dicta that turn to dust when examined; unpick its logic and the phrase evaporates into nonsense.

The film’s title references Rumsfeld’s famous, oblique answer to a journalist at a 2002 press conference questioning whether US forces in Iraq could be justified by the 'war on terror' – were there terrorist groups, harmful to the US, in Baghdad? Rumsfeld’s response:

Poof! ...And Rumsfeld, magician of words and master of language, disappears in a puff of glittering smoke. I got the impression that that was what he was after, anyway, rather than the reality of a press conference jammed with journalists continuing to stare at him, each wearing a different quizzical expression.

Rumsfeld is characterised as a man bound to definitions – many memos are directives at staff to source the ultimate meaning of words that are telling of the Bush administration: scapegoat, terrorism, insurgency. He compiles the ‘Pentagon Dictionary’. His obsessive attempt to master language reminded me of the sheer force of words manipulated by the Bush administration, with Rumsfeld at helm of defense, to justify or excuse a swathe of human rights abuses, many of them under the guise of the 'war on terror'.

By writing his own rules and crafting his own definitions, Rumsfeld swept aside existing rules – pretty important ones at that, such as the UDHR or Geneva Convention – with his military coat on. He personifies the US defense strategy that squirmed out of examination, refused to abide by international standards, and used language as a weapon to justify abuses. Torture, for example. Or indefinite detention.

‘In international armed conflict, states can recognise people they capture as prisoners of war and hold them until the war is over. [With the 'war on terror'] the United States has defined for itself a kind of war that would seem to go on everywhere and forever, and then use that concept as the basis to assert the right to indefinitely detain people.’
Matt Pollard, Amnesty Senior Legal Advisor

And like his opaque response to the journalist asking for justification for the US invasion of Iraq, in this film Rumsfeld sidesteps responsibility for human rights abuses under his watch by frequently responding to Morris' questions with answers devoid of substance or meaning. A typical wistful reflection: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see around corners?’

This film will undoubtedly be compared to Morris’ brilliant 2003 Oscar-winner The Fog of War, which focuses on Rumsfeld’s counterpart during Vietnam, Robert McNamara. The Fog of War paints McNamara as a man struggling to repent; Rumsfeld in contrast remains steely and defensive when pushed to justify the creation of Guantánamo Bay prison camp, for example. ‘Were there some things done that shouldn’t have been done at Guantánamo? You bet!’ He says animatedly, blinking, smiling. But he will not accept responsibility, claims he never read the 'torture memos' he's alleged to have signed off, and cites Obama’s failure to keep his word to close the prison camp as proof that the human rights-denying system works.

Rumsfeld really is a fascinating specimen; the more I watched, the more interesting his tics and views became. And seen through his memos and maxims, Rumsfeld becomes Iago-like, writing and unwriting his own definitions, holding up a mirror to deflect from the interviewer’s gaze. A gaze that could hold him to account.

I surprised myself by leaving the screening with a weird, new respect for a man who is all act. While Rumsfeld shirks responsibility and accountability by contorting meaning and trying to write history as he'd like it remembered, he remains standing, hardy and elusive. Does he get one up on Errol Morris? Watch and see for yourselves.

Errol Morris will be in London for Q&A screenings 17-19 March before the film goes on general release on 21 March. Find a screening near you

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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