Known and Unknown: A Memoir

Image of Known and Unknown: A Memoir
Release Date: 
February 7, 2011
Reviewed by: 

Donald Rumsfeld will certainly be delighted that, at the start of his fifth year in post-public life, he remains as controversial as the day he left. His new memoir, Known and Unknown, had not been published—or apparently even read—before reviewers leaped into print with near-hysterical denunciations. Worst of the worst came from the New York Times, always eager to embody The Great Oxymoron: “media objectivity.”

Mr. Rumsfeld’s memoir covers a half-century of American history. Elected to Congress at age 29, he quickly encountered JFK and LBJ. President Nixon named him to the White House staff and later as U.S. Ambassador to NATO. Under Gerald Ford, Mr. Rumsfeld became White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense. After a 20-year hiatus as a corporate CEO, he was reappointed by George W. Bush, making Donald Rumsfeld both the youngest and oldest man to serve as “SECDEF”—and the only one to serve twice.

Known and Unknown: A Memoir is a well-written, well-organized narrative of 50 chapters and 726 pages—not 800+ as initial reviews listed it. The difference in pages lies in the inclusion of exhaustive documentation, illustrations, and notes, surely a boon to future students, researchers, historians, and general readers.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s writing style, like the man himself, is direct and often funny, never more so than in his scathing characterizations of the Washington elite. Nelson Rockefeller seems to have been a favorite target. Speaking to Republican Party leaders after being bounced from Ford’s re-election ticket, Rockefeller raged: “You got me out, you sons of bitches, now get off your ass.” As Rumsfeld then notes, “His was a rather unorthodox motivational technique.”

But so too was Mr. Rumsfeld’s. According to an unnamed CEO on whose board of directors Rumsfeld served: “Don is a terrific director but you sure as hell wouldn’t want more than one of them on your board.” That appraisal is even more compelling because it was related directly to Mr. Rumsfeld’s wife Joyce, his companion for over 50 years.

If Mr. Rumsfeld kept score, he also kept careful notes, including the entire archive of online memos, memoranda, and other documents released with the book’s publication. Sometimes, his frenetic notekeeping seems overly anal, as when he argues that the original “Laffer Curve”—the intellectual foundation of Reaganomics—was sketched out at a Rumsfeld dinner party. But sometimes those notes suggest the startling whisper of history, as when Mr. Rumsfeld recalled earlier conversations with LBJ to Gerald Ford, the president he was now serving as chief of staff: “‘There is something about that chair,’ I said, pointing to the one behind his desk, ‘that makes presidents begin to talk and act in a way to make them seem tough.’”

But 20 years later, Mr. Rumsfeld had come to see American weakness as provocation, especially regarding the growing threat of terrorism. Spurring the DOD toward lighter, faster, and more mobile forces, Mr. Rumsfeld was as startled by 9/11 as anyone else. He faced formidable difficulties in turning the Pentagon—weapons, people, systems, and daily operations—toward a generation-long confrontation with terrorism.

Strategy was another matter. From the beginning, his approach sought to prevent further attacks (especially from biological or radiological weapons), to disrupt terrorist networks worldwide, and to engage in the war of ideas to protect the all-important center of gravity: American will. His verdict: We succeeded in all but ideology—so far.

The last half of the book covers the post-9/11 period, easily its most controversial chapters. In retrospect, Afghanistan seems almost too easy, the first major challenge being that 10,000 lawyers were now in uniform, many second-guessing targeting decisions presented by the new generation of precision-guided munitions. But at the battle of Tora-Bora, as U.S. Special Forces closed in on Osama Bin-Laden, political correctness was not the issue. Mr. Rumsfeld argues that he never received a request for additional American Rangers or mountain troops either from CIA Director George Tenet or from the on-scene commander. Bin-Laden famously escaped; yet Mr. Rumsfeld’s account seems awfully close to rationalization—especially from such a vigilant and chronically hyperactive leader.

Because Iraq will permanently define Donald Rumsfeld, he presents his case with an eye toward writing and directing that history. Colin Powell comes in for some especially rough handling: on troop levels for the invasion and for wobbling on the intelligence supporting his famous speech to the UN. “‘If Powell felt duped or misled about any aspect of his presentation . . . there was no sign of it in the two days before he delivered it.’” What the book calls “A failure of diplomacy” in Iraq was preceded by equally egregious failures of American intelligence. But Rumsfeld argues that these kinds of failures had happened many times before; that most other intelligence services were equally mistaken; and that focusing on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was an unfortunate overemphasis. The ever-changing bumper-sticker quote: “The President . . . Vice President . . . Tenet . . . did not lie. I did not lie. The Congress did not lie. The far less dramatic fact is that we were wrong.”

So, too, were the preparations for administering post-war Iraq and the memo-versus-memo contretemps with civilian administrator Jerry Bremer. Agree with Mr. Rumsfeld or not, his book covers the most important events surrounding the occupation of Iraq and the resulting insurgency: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the onset of the deadly threat from roadside bombs, and the ensuing struggle to improve the armor on Army tactical vehicles (“The Army we have, not the Army you might want . . .”). Midway through those difficulties came the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, which not only shocked the world but also caused Mr. Rumsfeld to offer President Bush his resignation on two separate occasions. The president refused—both times.

Maybe Mr. Rumsfeld should have resigned anyway. Throughout the chapters dealing with Iraq through 2005–2006, the underlying theme is the war’s strategic drift—despite its cost in the lives of American soldiers. I know and respect both George Casey and John Abizaid, the two generals then answering to Mr. Rumsfeld for the war zone. So it is nothing short of maddening to read the unresolved strategic questions: Were troop levels too high or too low? Would we prevail by taking the fight to the enemy or by withdrawing? Above all: Were we winning or losing? The American high command was largely reduced to refereeing a tennis match until late summer 2006, when two things became clear: the battle for American political will had largely been lost; but, paradoxically, the Iraqi insurgency could be beaten by a combination of fresh American soldiers together with innovative counter-insurgency tactics re-discovered after a long period of disuse. The contrarian result: the Surge and an American victory where defeat once seemed inevitable.

To his credit, Mr. Rumsfeld picked the American commanders who produced that victory. But among the unanswered questions raised by his book are the following:

• In his chapter on Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Rumsfeld states categorically that, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established [without] input from anyone outside a small circle of White House aides and congressional staffers.” Whose responsibility was that, and how should those foundational errors be corrected?

• Mr. Rumsfeld describes the establishment of the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) in nearly identical terms. But, after the failures of 9/11 and regarding Iraqi WMD, why was no one fired, disciplined, or demoted at the CIA or elsewhere in the intelligence community? And is the American soldier being effectively supported today by that community?

• Mr. Rumsfeld quotes his own memo in asking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone who likes to leak classified memos and . . . publish classified information had a daughter or a son in the advance party of every military operation?” Fair question. But why was there never the slightest mention of revisiting American manpower policy in light of the generational struggle foreseen by the Bush administration? And if not necessarily reviving the draft, then why not some form of compulsory national service?

The most surprising thing I learned from reading his book is that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Rumsfeld also had to cope with the heartbreak of a son struggling with drug addiction. Those twin pressures must have been unimaginable.

Elsewhere, Mr. Rumsfeld states that while never one to wear his faith on his sleeve, “I valued prayer and a connection to the Almighty. I believed those of us in positions of authority needed to keep in mind that all humans are prone to error.” This statement offers a rare glimpse into the soul of a very private man—despite the undeniable risk that it may prompt derisive laughter from those less willing than Donald Rumsfeld to offer up their lives and reputations in service of their country.

But whatever mistakes Mr. Rumsfeld may have committed during a long and distinguished career, this remarkable memoir is not among them.