Trying to understand another human being is often a dismal task. And if not dismal, ungrateful. What am I supposed to do? Disapprove of Donald Rumsfeld? It’s easy. Maybe too easy. He was ambitious, motivated – also lucky. And, as we all know, he was one of the main architects of the disastrous Iraq war.
It is impossible for me to write about Mr. Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense who died on Tuesday, without writing on his memos. He played a role in making memo writing the new frontier of government accountability. He also pioneered the memo as an obscuring instrument. Write a memo saying one thing, write another memo saying the exact opposite.
When I interviewed Mr. Rumsfeld for my documentary about him, “The Unknown Known”, it became (at least for me) the story of a man lost in his endless archives, adrift in a sea. of its own verbiage.
In 1966, early in his public service career, Rep. Rumsfeld, Republican of Illinois, co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act, a means of understanding the intentions of senior politicians. Then, as a member of President Gerald Ford’s administration – first as the President’s Chief of Staff, then as Secretary of Defense – he found a way to effectively undermine it.
President Richard Nixon was defeated by his attempts to cover up and suppress the official record. Mr. Rumsfeld knew best when he served under Mr. Nixon’s successor. The trick was to marginalize the dossier, to smear it with so many contradictions that a refutation to any future historian could always be found. Its memos (known as “yellow perils” under the Nixon administration and “snowflakes” under Ford) drifted apart, obscuring the underlying historical landscape. It’s a level of genius that hasn’t been recognized in the press – the founder of FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) is the guy who figured out how to make it almost completely worthless.
And what explains his apparent change of mind? The metamorphosis of Rockefeller’s Liberal Republican congressman, civil rights confidante and anti-war activist Allard Lowenstein, into one of the most vilified neoconservatives?
It’s easy to blame it all on opportunism, a rapidly changing environment for success, and more success. Professional greed… I don’t know. But whatever the reason, a new Donald Rumsfeld has emerged under the Ford administration.
His first stint as Secretary of Defense marks the beginning of history – Team B, in particular. It was an exercise in which a dozen Russian defense industry idiots and hawks were given carte blanche to effectively undermine and rewrite the latest National Intelligence estimate on the Soviet Union, which, according to them, did not reflect the real peril facing America. They called it a “competitive stress assessment” – more confusing verbiage.
How it works? Simply put, you have a body of evidence. You don’t trust it. Or maybe you don’t like it. It conflicts with other beliefs you have. So you create another body of evidence, supporting your alternative point of view. I am tempted to say another view of the facts. But what the facts are is exactly what is being questioned.
I think of Mr. Rumsfeld as the epistemologist from hell. What are the foundations of rational belief?
More often than not, Mr. Rumsfeld’s goal was not to justify the belief but to undermine it. For example, many people believed in the possibility of relaxation. Team B aimed to show that this belief was stupid, or at best misplaced.
When you set up a group of people to search for evidence to support an earlier conclusion, you have opened the proverbial box of verse. It’s not hard to see Team B as a precursor to the Office of Special Plans – the ad hoc group within the Department of Defense that provided us with much of the “intelligence” that led the United States to the war against Iraq. And arguably, there is a progression from there to the current justifications for re-examining the 2020 elections.
The charitable explanation is to “reason backwards” from the consequent to the antecedent – affirming the consequent. It’s just a logical mistake. The less charitable version is reasoning without reason. While making my documentary film on Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War”, I remember being shocked by his dire assessment of Vietnam: Reason Will Not Save Us. Alas, it seems clear that lack of reason will not save us either.
Nothing could be more frightening than the appearance of thought floating on the surface of things – strangers and the like – masking an underlying absence of anything. This is what Mr. Rumsfeld ultimately excelled at.
George Packer recently called Mr. Rumsfeld America’s worst Secretary of Defense. But this is not a popularity contest. It is not so much the man as the methodology. And the methodology, alas, seems omnipresent. It’s not just him. It’s all of us.
Errol Morris is a writer and filmmaker in Cambridge, Mass. He directed a film about Donald Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known”, and wrote a series on the former Secretary of Defense for the New York Times, “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”. The New York Times.