A Known Unknown Quantity

Among the surge of books published in the aftermath of the Iraq war, most were written by bit-players. Usually justifications of their authors’ opposition to the war, they told us more about themselves than the period. Robin Cook, Clare Short, Scott Ritter — did anyone buy them? Did anyone keep them?

This last year has seen the publication of some of the bigger players, including Bush and Blair. But now one has come along which, like Douglas Feith’s War and Decision, is a serious contribution to the historical record and, perhaps as a result, has (like Feith’s) had few serious notices.

Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown (Sentinel, £25) is the story of one of the grandest sweeps of Washington history any individual has lived. Both the youngest defence secretary (under Ford) and the oldest (under the younger Bush), Rumsfeld’s life has, as he says in his introduction, spanned a third of the history of the United States.

But when Known and Unknown came out it seemed to lose much of the press. It is not an “I was surrounded by fools” memoir.  Even those the press reported him as being cool about receive more compliments than detractions. But the main reason the book didn’t get the attention it deserved is because it wasn’t the book the media wanted. For Rumsfeld has committed the modern cardinal sin of failing to write a Robert McNamara-style Fog of War mea culpa. It has been all the media have cared to hear from anyone involved in the Iraq war.

It’s a shame, because nobody reading it could fail to learn a huge amount. Rumsfeld’s formative memory is the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbour. On the day war ends we find him selling the San  Diego newspaper with the headlines announcing it at the local ferry dock. It is a life framed by two Pearl Harbours, for decades later he would be in the Pentagon when a plane hijacked by al-Qaeda tore into the building.

Kissinger, Nixon and most other major political figures of his time (and some surprising others, including Elvis) are the subjects of some fascinating vignettes. But the story is important for more than itself. No modern political figure has received more vitriol than Rumsfeld and to read of the actual events in which he moved is to be reminded that we live in a political culture that increasingly leans towards conspiracy for its notion of truth.

For instance, Rumsfeld’s single meeting with Saddam Hussein in 1983 has become one of the most viewed political scenes on the net. It is the source of innumerable conspiracy theories and humour from the new school of comedians who see nothing in context and rejoice only in contriving unfunny, unilluminating equivalences. Here, for the first time, Rumsfeld tells the full story of that meeting, including Saddam’s parting gift to him of a badly-edited video purporting to show Syrian support for puppy-strangling and live snake-eating.

There are plenty of details for historians to study. But several things make the book stand out. Firstly, the work is in itself a rebuke to the memoir trends of our time. This is not a story of a “journey” or a quest to self-knowledge. It is a book about history — how things happened and what it was like.

And the story is remarkable because the country it happened in was remarkable. The spirit that made this American life possible was a fortunate mix of economic and political circumstance. But it was not circumstance alone. Rather, it was the result of a nation that believed in itself and believed itself good at heart. Not uniquely good and not always good, but certainly not forever or irredeemably bad. In a memorable phrase Rumsfeld describes his opposition to an America which acts as a “global Hamlet”, forever torturing itself on the world stage. It is just such an America that we are now beginning to see.

For a different mood is now in the air.  Critics of Iraq and the famous “architects” of the war always found it far more interesting and far easier to attack the firefighters than the fire. Across the campuses and media elites of the West you will be lucky to find anybody who doesn’t believe that every death in Iraq was the fault of Rumsfeld and Bush rather than the jihadis and Baathists.

“Saddam kept a lid on it,” those same people say. Well, such lids are now coming off across the region. The institutions of the international community continue to display the same moral decrepitude that they did in Rumsfeld’s day, and the dictators still look for ways to do what they wish. What has changed is that when people across the world look to the free world for leadership today all they see is prevarication and doubt.

Much of the West is lost in a fog not of war but of peace. For all the faults and things that would be done differently, Rumsfeld and his generation knew we faced enemies and that they should be defeated: a known known. It is a lesson his successors could do with learning fast.

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