Friday’s theatrical release of Errol Morris’s newest documentary, The Unknown Known, about former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in many ways resembles Morris’s 2004 Academy Award-winning The Fog of War, about another defense secretary, Robert McNamara. Each film focuses on a man who oversaw a disastrous American war during his tenure: for McNamara, Vietnam; for Rumsfeld, Iraq. Each octogenarian is articulate and nattily dressed, facing Morris head-on in a one-on-one interview, with the director’s disembodied voice in the background, probing for deeper responses.
For all these similarities, however, the two films could not be more different—because the men at the center of each also could not be more different.
We have never met Donald Rumsfeld, but we worked with Morris and McNamara on The Fog of War (and a book by the same name), and we closely observed Morris’s interview for that film. Stylistically, both documentaries show Morris at the top of his game: allusive, allegorical and suggestive, but never overly insistent. Like the mythical citizens of Lake Wobegon, Morris is not intimidated by silence. Both films are beautifully shot, with montages of the men narrating their careers on camera interrupted at regular intervals by archival footage. The overall effect is heuristically jarring, even unnerving, as these gray eminences calmly discuss events involving the slaughter of millions of people. In The Fog of War, Morris proved for the first time that a riveting and relevant film could be made by sitting an old man down, listening to him and inviting viewers to think about his public image. In The Unknown Known, he has done it again.
For McNamara, it was a difficult decision to take part in The Fog of War. As he said to us many times, he knew that the film would be favorably reviewed because “Errol Morris is a genius.” But McNamara also knew that he would be unfavorably, even brutally, reviewed. Both of his predictions came true. So why did he do it?
We worked with McNamara for many years on investigations into the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, traveling with him to Havana, Hanoi and Moscow for a “historical boot camp.” Over the course of these projects, McNamara directly confronted his former adversaries (and was confronted by them) regarding the events in which all had participated. Repeatedly, the former defense secretary, sometimes alone and sometimes with other colleagues from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, exhibited a curiosity to learn, confirming his belief that the facts would be meaningful and revealing, even if painful. Seeing Morris’s same reverence for the facts of history was the final green light that McNamara needed to walk into the studio and find out what more he could learn and what others could learn from him.
Morris captures this open-mindedness in The Fog of War, in which McNamara recounts 11 lessons he has learned from his experience, particularly the Vietnam War. Throughout the film, Morris juxtaposes McNamara’s press briefings on the war (“We’ve stopped losing,” “We’re making good progress,” etc.) with the facts as McNamara knew them at the time: McNamara thought the war unwinnable at least as early as mid-1965, more than three years before President Lyndon B. Johnson fired him. In fact, McNamara worked secretly within the Johnson administration to find a negotiated settlement to an unwinnable war, even as he publicly became the upbeat salesman for “McNamara’s War,” as many called it. McNamara would become famous (to many, infamous) when he wrote in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, that the U.S. war in Vietnam was “wrong, terribly wrong.” But this was the man who, while still in office, commissioned the Pentagon Papers, a treasure trove of data and analysis that examined just how “wrong” the war was, why and what might have been done to prevent it. The papers constitute perhaps the longest and most data-packed mea culpa in the history of war and politics. No one should have been surprised by what McNamara said in 1995. “Wrong, terribly wrong” is the cry of personal anguish that he finally allowed himself a quarter-century later.
In The Fog of War, accordingly, McNamara is emotional. He chokes back tears. He is confessional. He is teaching us something. Above all, his voice is urgent, a Jeremiah for the nuclear age. As Roger Angell of the New Yorker referred to him, McNamara appears as a “street saint” pointing his “bony finger” at the camera, seemingly poised to leap out of his chair and into the lap of the viewer.
Morris is nothing if not difficult to summarize and epitomize, but once each in The Fog of War and The Unknown Known he holds the unspeaking image of each former secretary on the screen for several seconds, just after each has uttered something that strikes us as unexpected and truly remarkable. Each of these moments embodies the essence of the decision-maker and the man, as Morris sees him.
In The Fog of War, Morris quotes memos that then-Lt. Col. Robert McNamara wrote to Gen. Curtis LeMay, his commanding officer, during World War II. The numbers the young McNamara then cited, in his own handwriting, represent the bombs leading to the deaths of Japanese civilians, and we get the sense that the McNamara now on camera understands, and laments, his role in the killing machine. In the following exchange, McNamara speaks with Morris about the firebombing of Japan in March 1945, when McNamara was stationed in Guam under LeMay’s command. The assault killed 100,000 Japanese citizens.
Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?
McNamara: Well. I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it. I analyzed bombing operations, and how to make them more efficient—i.e., not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in weakening the adversary. Fifty square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city, and when we dropped these firebombs, it just burned it.
McNamara: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is: In order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing or any other way. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50 percent to 90 percent of the people in 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve. LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
The camera stays on McNamara, very close up, panning slowly from left to right, as he glares, his jaw tightly clenched. In moments like this one, as NPR’s Terry Gross noted in a 2004 interview with Morris, it is as if there are “two McNamaras” struggling against each other: the 40-something, arrogant “IBM Machine with legs,” as he is referred to in the film by a newsman, and the 80-something missionary, returned from the hell of a terrible war and near nuclear holocaust in the Cuban Missile Crisis, crying, “Take heed or perish.” It’s clear that McNamara agreed to be filmed in order to come to terms with the sheer human carnage of the two wars in which he was involved.
Rumsfeld is another story. In The Unknown Known, Morris confronts him—another former memo-writer—with some of the tens of thousands of memos he authored, his famous “snowflakes” (one of which was the source for the film’s title). But Rumsfeld, revealing himself as the anti-McNamara, refuses to grapple with their context: the killing, in Iraq and Afghanistan, of hundreds of thousands of people. Both the memos and their author seem obsessed instead with quibbles about the meanings of particular terms (“What is counterinsurgency?”) and game-playing.
For instance, Morris asks Rumsfeld about his memos regarding what is permissible and what is not permissible in the interrogation of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. There follows from Rumsfeld an almost jovial listing of the two columns: what is OK and what is not OK. Meanwhile, images of beaten and hooded Abu Ghraib prisoners flood the screen, and we see key words from Rumsfeld’s memos—“water-boarding,” “sleep deprivation,” “torture”—sliding and spinning almost ballet-like into a deep black pit, where they disappear. Unlike McNamara, who clearly feels a burden, Rumsfeld seems unable or unwilling to get beyond words, concepts—abstractions. The viewer gets the feeling that Rumsfeld merely watched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as a spectator. He even seems amused by his discussion with Morris.
Reviewers of The Fog of War quibbled about whether McNamara was contrite enough to atone for his decisions during the Vietnam War. But that he was contrite at least to some degree was agreed upon by many. There is no quibbling about Rumsfeld. There is no hint of remorse in what he says to Morris, or the manner in which he discusses war, invasion and torture. Rumsfeld engages with Morris in a kind of bantering way; he does not engage emotionally. He neither confirms nor denies anything significant. It is all thrust and parry, thrust and parry. Perhaps this is why Morris’s own voice is so much more prominent in The Unknown Known than in The Fog of War.
There is one supremely appropriate English-language term for the Rumsfeld who emerges in The Unknown Known—a term that has recently been imported into serious philosophical discussion, possibly for the first time, in an influential 2005 monograph by the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. The term is “bullshit,” and practitioners of this dark art are bullshit artists (or bullshitters). According to Frankfurt, “The bullshitter is neither on the side of the true or the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all. … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Regrettably, McNamara lied at times when he was in office. But he was not a bullshitter, not like Rumsfeld.
In The Unknown Known, Morris asks Rumsfeld what the lesson of the Vietnam War is, and Rumsfeld responds that some things work out and some don’t; Vietnam didn’t. All generalizations are false, including this one. And so on. As Rumsfeld verbally sashays through the film, Morris overlays word clouds from an English dictionary, a tactic that exposes the triviality of Rumsfeld’s concerns and also mirrors the thousands of similar “snowflake” memoranda that Rumsfeld generated while in office. Rumsfeld is genial throughout. The feeling is: This is an amiable man; you might enjoy chatting with him at a cocktail party. His tone is reassuring.
But be on your guard. Morris reveals a black hole where facts, logic and a human connection ought to be. Rumsfeld appears equally comfortable asserting A, then listening to Morris read from documents that A is false, then seemingly acknowledging that what the documents say also might be so. For instance:
Morris: There is a claim that the interrogation techniques that were used in Guantanamo migrated to Iraq, where they led to incredible abuses.
Morris: This is from the Schlesinger Report. [Morris reads from the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations]: “Changes in DoD interrogation policies between December 2, 2002, and April 16, 2003, were an element contributing to uncertainties in the field as to which techniques were authorized. Although specifically limited by the secretary of defense to Guantanamo, and requiring his personal approval, given in only two cases, the augmented techniques for Guantanamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.”
Rumsfeld: Uh huh. [Rumsfeld’s head bobs up and down in agreement.] I think that’s a fair assessment. [The camera stays on him, as he sits almost motionless and expressionless for several seconds.]
Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?
Rumsfeld: Well, we know that, uh, in every war there are things that evolve that hadn’t been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn’t occur.
[There is a montage of torture victims—hooded, naked, cringing before attack dogs, etc.]
Morris: Wouldn’t it have been better not to go there [Iraq] at all?
Rumsfeld: I guess time will tell.
Time will tell if history provides redemption for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have lost their lives in the still ongoing turmoil in Iraq, and the thousands of Americans who died there. Time will tell whether the trillions of U.S. dollars expended to pacify Iraq pay a return commensurate with the “investment” made by Rumsfeld and his colleagues. Indeed it will. But ask yourself at the end of the film: What are the odds that Rumsfeld will be exonerated by history?
Rumsfeld fails to appreciate what McNamara in The Fog of War calls Lesson 1: “Empathize with your enemy.” Decades after he was secretary of defense, McNamara learned that “we must try to put ourselves in their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.” Then, it might be possible to see the chasm that too often separates our estimate of what they were up to from their description of what they were up to.
To his credit, Rumsfeld says in his interview with Morris that he would like to talk with Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister and former deputy prime minister of Iraq who is now in an Iraqi prison. He says he would like to ask Aziz “what the U.S. might have done to reach out and get them [the Iraqis] to behave rationally.” But what he seems to mean is: How might we have gotten the Iraqis to think as we thought, sitting in our offices in the Pentagon and White House? Rumsfeld implies that Iraq, in not behaving rationally, was at fault. This is a common starting point for former decision-makers reflecting on their experiences of war and crises: I am rational and you are not; I only reacted to what you did, whereas you acted aggressively, without the slightest provocation from us. This point, in fact, is where McNamara began the various phases of his historical boot camp. But this is where Rumsfeld still is now.
We should ask: What are the odds that Rumsfeld will watch The Fog of War and conclude that McNamara did have a lot to apologize for, and so does he? Rumsfeld is more than a match for McNamara in his arrogance, but so far not in his curiosity. Will he take up the challenge to follow McNamara’s lead and revisit the history of the Iraq war and thereby perhaps come to appreciate McNamara’s Lesson 1? Will he expose himself to the views of his former adversaries? Will he read their documents describing what they thought Washington was up to? It seems doubtful.
If, despite all the disincentives to do so, Rumsfeld decides to enter his own variant of historical boot camp, he should be advised: It won’t be pretty. It won’t be comfortable. It will begin with accusations, and only with luck and a lot of effort will he begin to see that he has some responsibility for the killing and torture of other human beings. Like McNamara, Rumsfeld has a lot to apologize for. And that, as McNamara discovered repeatedly, is only the beginning of the process of transcending the past and providing wisdom for the future.