Apr 10, 2014

The Unknown Known

"soph·ist·ry ˈsäfəstrē/ 
noun: sophistry 
1. The use of fallacious arguments, esp. with the intention of deceiving."

If you are ready to spend 105 minutes in the exclusive company of Donald Rumsfeld, twice Secretary of Defense, as interviewed by Errol Morris, you will be treated to a crash course on self-delusion and verbal acrobatics. The picture that emerges is more damning than it seems. It doesn't look like Morris lobs harsh questions at his undeniably charming subject, but through subtlety and ironic contrast, the portrait that emerges is that of a man who thinks he's smarter than the rest of us, unrepentant, and deeply engaged with his own sophistry and self-mythologizing. 
The greatest "unknown" is why he lends himself to the scrutiny of Morris, someone he must know harbors no sympathy for his disastrous, warmongering shenanigans. Rumsfeld skirts the answer to this question. He thinks this is all a game of verbal and logical one-upmanship with a worthy opponent. Well, he did not fool me one bit.
Do not expect someone with the heroic-tragic stature of a Robert McNamara. Do not expect regret of any kind. We are dealing here with a man in love with the sound of his own mellifluous, Midwestern voice, and even more in love with having grasped power and taken it for a spin, consequences be damned. 
It is fascinating to watch him today, utterly composed, charming and relaxed and then see contradictory footage of his press briefings at the height of the war: arrogant, condescending, clearly relishing his power over the fawning press corps, to which he bequeathed famously blasé pronouncements like "stuff happens", when asked why nobody thought to prevent the looting of archaeological treasures in Iraq.  This is the subtle way by which Morris attempts to balance Rumsfeld's happy go lucky view of his own history. It's not a pretty sight.
Rumsfeld is a charmer. He has a wonderful voice, made for documentaries about life in the prairie. He acquiesces to read to camera a few of his hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of "snowflakes"; memos he wrote from the beginning of his long ascent into the pinnacle of power. Why did he put everything in writing? Was he thinking to leave a record of heroic public service behind? That he allows himself to read some damning memos only means he is hiding under this supposed transparency. He sleeps well at night. His conscience is untroubled.
I didn't know about his past career, and how he ascended to power by legendary Machiavellian maneuvers in the Ford administration, where he made enemies with Bush pére. Maybe that is the reason he ended wielding such enormous power at the cabinet of the fils, who seems to have done all the damage he did just to show up his daddy. The case against Iraq was merely a father-son Bush squabble that Rumsfeld and Cheney enabled. I didn't know that when he worked for Nixon, little Dick Cheney (aka Satan) was Rumsfeld's assistant. Rumsfeld's body language when he mentions this is priceless. He pats his hand in the air as if he was condescending to a little child. Much later, it was Cheney who recommended him to George W. Bush as Secretary of Defense. All this back story just adds to the creeping realization that we think we live in a democracy, but we actually live in a fiefdom of dynastic power and the same white, mostly male people rotating positions at the top for eternity.
Ironically, for a verbal fencer, or perhaps because of it, Rumsfeld is obsessed with definitions. He insists on the definition of every word. What is the definition of torture, he demands. Well, different people have different definitions. He and Dick Cheney decided that what they were doing to prisoners in Guantanamo was not torture, or that the Geneva Convention did not apply to them. 
He paints himself like a hero when he resigned after the pictures of Abu Ghraib came to light. I'm not buying it. That resignation had little to do with ethics and more to do with shrewd self-preservation. Bush did not accept his resignation. So he continued. It was much later that eight retired generals had had enough of his incompetence and finally mutinied.  
His legacy is the most abject decline of moral values in the handling of war in the history of this country, not to mention two failed wars and needless human suffering. But he freely roams the Earth, charming as the snake in Eden.
Unrepentant, the only tears he sheds happen as he recalls a hospital visit to a critically injured American soldier, which he turns into a happy ending. That soldier in particular rallied and survived, despite all odds: a quintessentially American narrative. But what about the tens of thousands of dead, injured, permanently damaged, overextended and abused American soldiers, plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens who didn't? Because of people like Rumsfeld, this has become a quintessentially American narrative as well. This is a fantastic, if maddening documentary. 

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