There’s a scene near the end of Errol Morris’s new documentary ‘The Unknown Known’ when you think you might actually see Donald Rumsfeld crack. Is he finally going to acknowledge, on a human level, the role he played in the conflicts that led to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people during his two stints as U.S. Secretary of Defense?
Rumsfeld, now 81, talks about a visit to a military hospital where he met the wife of a gravely injured solider who hasn’t been given good odds to survive. Rumsfeld, who had an affinity for recording and dictating memos and who waged as much of a war on language as he did on ‘terror’ in the early-2000s, fumbled and stammered and choked up in this retelling, ironically remarking that he didn’t know the word that could articulate this moment where he was forced to confront the real-world consequence of one of his many backroom decisions. But then the story takes a turn. Rumsfeld describes how he returned to the hospital weeks later and “wouldn’t you know it, the fellow made it.” And there’s your happy ending.
Except, it’s not. Instead, it is at this point that you realize, as an audience member, you’re not going to get any sort of cathartic climax, or at the very least an honest instant of self-reflection. (Don’t expect to see anything close to Robert McNamara’s tortured confession at the end of Morris’s ‘Fog of War.’) Rumsfeld regains his composure and the horrifying truth hits you that he really believes every single thing he’s said and done in office, no matter how twisted the logic. It’s the one-in-a-million story he wants to sell us. He’s obviously bought this version. There is no time for the other 999,999 sad endings.
This is a tough movie to sit through. Part of this is due to feeling oddly complicit in the wars and conflicts he led us into – some of which are ongoing today – because you didn’t do enough to oppose the blatant deception being perpetrated by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Co. You sit there and marvel at how they duped us into invading Iraq. Honestly, it still doesn’t make sense.
The other, more glaring reason for the discomfort is Rumsfeld’s absolute certainty about the choices he made. Sure, he deflects, confuses and misleads, but he won’t admit to having regrets, as his own misdoings, even in hindsight, would have been committed by anyone else in his position, he assures us. (Rumsfeld’s smugness is one of the vilest film villains in recent memory.)
Humans will have evolved if they are ever able to breed out the Donald Rumsfeld worldview: that peculiar, paranoid and hopelessly cynical view of humanity that says that in order to protect (and expand) your own interests, you must punish, bloody and kill anyone you (rightfully or wrongly) view as a threat. (“If you want peace, prepare for war,” is one of the idioms he repeats over and over.)
Rumsfeld played Don Draper during the Bush years, selling a non-sequitur war in Iraq that nobody wanted and that ultimately ended more than 100,000 lives. And he shows no remorse. But why should he? He did all his dirty work from behind a desk, approving strategic air strikes with a quick signature or stamp, completely disconnected from the actual blood and guts and death that marked his most recent tenure as Secretary of Defense. He saw that one solider beat the odds and that’s what he chooses to remember. And that’s what he’s trying to sell us, and history, in this film,
If you can take any solace though, it’s that, in the very long run, history is rarely spun successfully. Despite his efforts, Donald Rumsfeld will not be remembered fondly by future generations.