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U.S. | Anti-War

A Well-Known Known: Donald Rumsfeld Is Smug, Sanctimonious and Insufferable
by Bill Berkowitz
Friday Mar 28th, 2014 7:00 AM
In his new film, The Unknown Known, Errol Morris allows George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to be Rumsfeld; smug, self-satisfied, and unremorseful about the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

A Well-Known Known: Donald Rumsfeld Is Smug, Sanctimonious and Insufferable

In a January 2005, story titled "Rumsfeld's Bloody Paths of Glory," I wrote: "Invoke the name of Donald Rumsfeld and these are the associations: failure to provide enough U.S. troops for Iraq; torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; extended tours of duty and stopgap orders; worn out reservists and National Guard members; hubris worthy of the Greek chroniclers of the wars of the Peloponnesus; and infamous Rumsfeldian remarks including his recent, you go to war 'with the army you have.'"

In Errol Morris' Oscar-winning Fog of War, the filmmaker was able to get Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense who guided America through the dreadful Vietnam War, to reflect on the war's failures and apologize for the disastrous mistakes he made. In his new film, The Unknown Known, Morris allows George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to be Rumsfeld; smug, self-satisfied, and unremorseful about the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

The other evening, Morris was a guest on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher". He was there to discuss and promote The Unknown Known, based in large part on Rumsfeld granting Morris more than thirty hours with him.

For most of the interview, Maher acted like a Rumsfeld fan-boy (with a few exceptions), making clear his admiration for Rumsfeld. He barely let Morris get a word in edgewise and when he did, he disagreed with many of Morris' negative assessments of the controversial secretary who helped lead America into the ill-advised, ill-fated, highly-regrettable and ultimately unsuccessful War in Iraq. Maher called Rumsfeld a "charismatic leading man," and when the former Secretary told Morris that only time would tell in terms of how the Iraq War will eventually be judged, Maher allowed that he appreciated Rumsfeld's "honesty."

Morris, when he did get a chance to speak, was a bit flummoxed by Maher's assertions, especially Maher's comment that Rumsfeld "is a guy who thinks about things." Morris strongly disagreed, saying that "There's thinking about things and then there's obfuscating and evading things." Over at the conservative newsbusters.org, Jack Coleman concluded a column on Morris' visit to "Real Time" by writing: "Maher came away from The Unknown Known liking its subject [Rumsfeld] more than the filmmaker, which is surely not what Morris intended."

The title of this film, The Unknown Known, refers to one of Rumsfeld's shining moments during a pre-Iraq War U.S. Department of Defense news briefing when he stated: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."

That remark resounded internationally and on the internet: It won Rumsfeld a "Foot in Mouth" prize awarded by the British Plain English Campaign; a bunch of websites were devoted to the "poetry" of Rumsfeld; and, a book titled Pieces of Intelligence was "dedicated to interpreting his statements as a form of existential writing," BBC News reported in December 2003.

And Rumsfeld himself used the quote in the title of his autobiography, Known and Unknown: A Memoir.

In the introduction to a recent interview with Morris, the British publication The Economist, pointed out that The Unknown Known features a series of interviews with Rumsfeld, "during which a grinning Mr Rumsfeld reads from hundreds of his own political memos, primarily covering his role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ... Comparisons have inevitably been drawn to The Fog of War, but this new film has no mea culpa moment, prompting some criticism that Mr Morris is not as adversarial as he could - or should - have been."

What spurred Morris to make the film was wanting to know how Rumsfeld sees himself: "You can imagine a radically different film where I interview 20 people in an effort to answer the question, "Who is this man?" But I was interested in a different question. How does he see himself? And the memos seemed the best way in," Morris told The Economist.

Morris said that he was surprised by many things including "How much he likes himself ... [and] [h]ow self-satisfied he is. He wound up believing that Rumsfeld "is absolutely convinced of his own rectitude. He has no remorse."

While Morris perhaps expected a more nuanced man, in Rumsfeld he encountered "nothing behind that façade, just endless quibbling about vocabulary." He admitted to wind up thinking that "in a way that I've made a horror movie."

Unlike The Fog of War, in which Morris got McNamara to apologize for his mistakes, he told The Economist that he had no such expectations going into the making of this film. "I wasn't interested in a mea culpa moment for McNamara or with Rumsfeld. Neither film is an attempt to look for an apology really. I wanted to know about the people who took us to war. How did they justify their actions to themselves?"

Rumsfeld, who was President Ford's chief of staff at the end of the Vietnam War, was asked about his feelings about that war, and he responded in typically detached Rumsfeldian fashion, saying, "Some things work out. This didn't."