The Rumpus Unreview: Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld

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An 800-page memoir from the former Secretary of Defense tells an old, familiar story—so familiar that our reviewer didn’t even have to read it.

Some books require close, attentive reading, a grappling with the prose and themes of the text, an appreciation of the finer points of the author’s aesthetic. Such books—we often refer to them as “literary”—invite multiple readings, complex interpretation, revealing themselves slowly and rewarding those who approach with open minds and hearts.

Then, there’s the other kind of book: The book that can be grasped immediately upon hearing the title, or the author’s name, or even, yes, looking at the cover. Such books often have an agenda, boldly announced, or are simply the latest self-imitation by a writer past his or her sell-by date. Why waste precious time reading such books when one could be out for a jog or playing “Angry Birds”?

Welcome to The Rumpus Unreview—in which a Rumpus writer reviews a book he or she has not read.

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“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”
—Robert McNamara quoted in The Fog of War.

Donald Rumsfeld isn’t as philosophical as he used to be. That’s the first thing you notice in his new memoir, Known and Unknown, the 832-page, heavily annotated account of his life and work. Or at least he isn’t philosophical in the ways you’d think. For a man who spent much of his life obsessed with questioning assumptions—which is why he pissed off people on every side of every aisle ever—he doesn’t delve into the philosophical assumptions that fueled his 21st century low points: the WMD intel, the decision to disband the Iraqi army, or the extreme interrogation practices he authorized that led to documented torture in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

What Rumsfeld is philosophical about is his personal story: the way the Depression and his father’s military service shaped his worldview; the value of character instilled in him as a Midwesterner, wrestler, and scholarship student at Princeton; the hard political lessons learned from his failed presidential bid and his tutelage under Richard Nixon. Readers curious to see whether Rumsfeld has gained new insight about his opinions and decisions, à la Robert McNamara—the introspective architect of the Vietnam War, whose experience would seem to parallel Rumsfeld’s—will be disappointed: Unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld seems to have become more sure about things with age.

But those things themselves haven’t become more sure, despite the 100 pages of footnotes and sources that appends his story, or the website built to showcase government documents supporting his case. Rumsfeld isn’t the first to go this route; his former deputy Douglas Feith paved the way with his book, War and Decision. The difference is that many of Rumsfeld’s documents were previously classified, marking the first time the general public has seen them. For many, these documents will be the most interesting part of the story Known and Unknown tells.

Yet for those who have followed Rumsfeld closely—there have, after all, been five biographies about him published since 2003, along with many other books, articles, and interviews, as well as countless news conferences and speeches that burned his expressive face and moving hands and strange aphoristic knack into our collective consciousness—or who continue to follow him on Twitter, all this sourcing does not answer the big questions about the man and his role in American history. Which is why a review of his memoir is possible and even necessary, despite the fact that almost no one has read it yet, including me. The embargo that has become standard operating procedure for celebrity memoirs means to suggest that, for a book such as Known and Unknown, the big picture is more significant than the new small glimpses and details that may fire fierce debate.

But in the bigger groan of time no book or speech can change the way Donald Rumsfeld made our country into a country that not only tortures, just as every country tortures—secretly and desperately—but twisted a Constitution written to protect us from ourselves into an American proclamation that it is acceptable to cross the moral line not only in the middle of the hot fire of battle or the chaotic pressure-cooker of a Mai Lai or Haditha, but also in the calm of a cloudy Tuesday in the Caribbean, where a man who might be a very bad man, or only a little bit bad, or maybe no more bad than most, is calmly slapped and thrown against a wall, or dangled by his cuffed wrists from a high anchor, or drowned alive, or isolated so completely for so long that his mind begins to crumble. A reviewer needn’t read a memoir to know that all this happened on a quiet Tuesday at the hands of good soldiers and bad soldiers and medium soldiers, with orders from their superiors and a reading of the law so new that the newness attracted Donald Rumsfeld in the first place, as he worked tirelessly to innovate ways to keep the country safe and give his soldiers the tools they needed to get the job done—although at the same time denying them many other tools they said they needed as he sought to remake the U.S. military but ran up against the battering rams of entrenched money and power, a fight which so consumed him that he delegated the Iraq war heavily, so heavily in fact that what went wrong he tells as a story of bad luck, and of war’s inevitable twists and turns, and of his putting too must trust in others.

The big questions have already been answered. Known and Unknown is the story of an enormously skilled bureaucrat who so prided himself on thinking outside the box—in business, in government, in his personal life—that he found ways to innovate torture into our national emergency toolkit, persuading a frightened nation to adopt any means necessary for safety. In the years since Rumsfeld resigned in 2006, that nation continues to be split roughly 50-50 on whether torture by the U.S. government can be justified. Even the most significant revelation in Known and Unknown—the first documented evidence that torture resulted in actionable intelligence—will not change that debate. The fact is that, in the age of Wikileaks, the only scoop Rumsfeld has left is the story of his own soul—and that is a story few people are truly interested in, as engaging and complex a man he is, in the absence of deeper introspection or epiphany, because motion is what catches instinct’s eye and change is what registers the most interest in our narrative and animal hearts.

The answer to the biggest question in Donald Rumsfeld’s long-awaited memoir is this: that there aren’t any “unknown unknowns” left for Donald Rumsfeld. Those unknowns lie elsewhere, in the Egypts and Tunisias and Wikileaks of the world, where the future stands ready to test our character the way Rumsfeld did and ask us how much wrong we’re willing to do for right.


Eric B. Martin is a novelist who lives in Durham, North Carolina. His novels include Luck, Winners, and Donald, co-written with Stephen Elliott. More from this author →