Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass
by Mark Danner
08.29.13 - 04:25 pm
With his Oscar-winning Fog of War (2004), Errol Morris redefined political cinema. The film’s core is an extended interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. As we gain insights into his psychology and his logic, we ask ourselves troubling questions about the ways American foreign policy is constructed.

Morris’s new film The Unknown Known doubles down through conversations with Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford and George W. Bush and the man behind wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Morris spoke to the festival’s Mark Danner about Rumsfeld’s philosophies and psychology.

MARK DANNER: Rumsfeld appears to be a man at once fascinated by and threatened by the imagination. He talks about the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, as an act of the imagination.

ERROL MORRIS: A failure of the imagination.

Exactly. Well, the attack was a triumph of the imagination. The failure to anticipate it was a failure of the imagination. He’s haunted by that – and the implication clearly is  that the failure to anticipate 9/11 was a similar failure of the imagination.

Are you supposed to just imagine anything? And act on it? I think about the phrase “failure of imagination” along with “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”

I say to you that there are flying monkeys with thermonuclear weapons heading towards Berkeley. And you say to me, “Well, what evidence do you have of these flying monkeys with thermonuclear weapons?” And I say, “Well, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” Are we supposed to conjure with anything? It goes back to all of these beliefs—the numerical superiority of the Russians, Saddam Hussein and W.M.D. It is a universe of imagined possibilities, unconstrained by evidence.

Also a universe of paradox. Talking about the run up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rumsfeld asks, “What else might the U.S. have done to reach out to the Iraqi leaders and gotten them to behave rationally?” Since the Bush administration, and Rumsfeld in particular, were convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, what could the Iraqis have done that would have constituted “behaving rationally”? They couldn’t have relinquished their weapons of mass destruction because they didn’t have any to relinquish.

I find one of the strangest moments in the film to be when Rumsfeld says to me, “Well, maybe he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction, but didn’t want to tell anybody.” It’s Looney Tunes.

Rumsfeld, of course, was sitting in the Oval Office nearly thirty years before as the helicopters left the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon, a complete humiliation for the United States. When you ask him about what lessons he draws from the fiasco in Vietnam, he says, “Well, some things go well, and some things go badly. And clearly that went badly.” That’s the evaluation he gives. When you ask him if we would have been better off not fighting the Iraq War at all, he says, “Only time will tell.” Is he giving you platitudes, simply because that’s what he does to mask what he thinks, or is showing you an essential shallowness that reflects who he really is?

If I could clear up that ambiguity, there would have been no reason to make the movie. But I am left with that ambiguity at the end. Cover-ups, platitudes, homilies, epithets, rules that are hollow, ultimately, in their essence, but aren’t covering up anything. That’s all there is. Versus, maybe, a person who became practiced in a certain kind of statecraft, and then became lost in it. I don’t really have the answer to it. I really don’t.

When you talk to him about the torture memos, he tells you that he hasn’t read them. And you express surprise, and he says, “I’m not a lawyer. What would I make of them?”

I would say surprise and shock. “How can you not have read these memos?” For many of us, these memos are at the center of the Bush administration. They represent the essence of the Bush administration. The endorsement of torture, the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions, rather—all of these things are really, really disturbing.

You have a wonderful quote from a memo that Rumsfeld sent to the president within a month of September 11th, saying that we need to “take down” the governments of Afghanistan and “perhaps one or two other countries.”

That’s quite a line, isn’t it?

An astonishing line.

And then the other line about significantly changing the map of the Middle East.

Of course, which is quite astonishing, too.

Maybe I just think small. I’m usually worried about what I am going to have for dinner….It makes you think that Afghanistan itself was the sideshow. When I look at this movie and I see Osama slipping across the porous borders of Afghanistan, moving down a field, a slope of scree, moving at about a half-a-mile an hour while he’s being chased by the most powerful military apparatus in the history of the world. There’s something so absurd about all of this, something so colossally stupid.

Osama’s on a donkey, and we’re chasing him with F-16s.

If, as Rumsfeld says, “weakness is provocative,” and the way you’re showing strength is by through a colossal display of weakness and confusion…It seems to achieve the exact opposite….

If you really strongly feel that [the rationale for the wars] was absurd, as I do, what was the ideology that brought this about? People are flummoxed by it. They reach for various kinds of explanations, like Big Oil, or world hegemony, or international finance. But I’m not sure I find any of them satisfying, or satisfactory. Maybe because in my heart of hearts I believe that history is insane.  And why is it insane? Because it is the history of people who are insane. How we got tangled up in this mess is mind-boggling. 

In fact you put the question to Rumsfeld quite forthrightly, “When you have a job like Secretary of Defense,” you ask him, “do you feel like you’re controlling history or being controlled by it?” He says, “Goodness gracious, I don’t think you can control history, but if you’re being controlled by it, you’re not doing your job.” There’s a kind of metaphysically grand…unsatisfactoriness about that answer.

He has a way of saying p and not-p in a single sentence—although maybe he takes a paragraph or so. And he has a certain kind of pride in these contradictions. … A mathematician friend of mine saw a cut of the film at MIT, and said, “Are you aware that he constantly is uttering contradictions?” And I said, “Yes, the thought has occurred to me.” Then he also, as a mathematician, pointed out to me something that I also was aware of, but is absolutely true—in logic, from a contradiction, you can prove anything.

He also has this aw-shucks, Midwestern affect, which almost becomes a parody. “Good Golly!” “Gracious me!” “Henny Penny, the sky is falling!” 

“Four hands on the steering wheel.”

How knowing do you think Rumsfeld is when he’s uttering these contradictions? There are several revealing moments where there’s no sound. He has said what he has said and he’s simply grinning at you, into the camera. You let the camera stay on him in this extremely satisfying way, and it is at those moments that one dares to think  that your camera has captured something real about him, about his knowingness.

I hesitate to say it openly. I can say it openly to you. My wife, who is of course much smarter than I am, described McNamara as the Flying Dutchman. Traveling the world looking for redemption that he will never find. I think that’s absolutely true. But her description of Rumsfeld? The Cheshire Cat. So that is all that is really left at the end. The cat is gone, just the infernal grin.

You ask him whether the techniques from Guantanamo migrated to the war zone in Iraq, and to Abu Ghraib. He says, “Oh, no, of course that couldn’t have happened,” and cites as evidence “the dozen or so” reports on Abu Ghraib. At which point, you quote from the [Schlesinger report] and show that, in fact, it says that they migrated, using precisely that word. In a sense, you catch him absolutely red-handed. And when you do, he immediately admits it. He says, “Well, that’s actually very true.” Did he know, at the very moment he was denying it, that the contrary was true?

In one of my all-time favorite essays, Schopenhauer’s “Art of Controversy,” he talks about how to win an argument any way you possibly can, and he proceeds to give you 36 or 37 ways. One of them is, after the person has shown you to be completely wrong, you look them right in the eye, and you say, “I’m really pleased you’ve come around to my way of thinking.” And you don’t blink. You can’t blink. You have to look them right in the eye. It’s exactly what he does. It’s so totally disarming. Not disarming—it’s destabilizing. It’s like, “Where am I? Who am I? What is going on here?” It’s an excursion into Alice in Wonderland. It’s Through the Looking-Glass. …

When you ask him, why is he doing this, why is he talking to you, he says, “That is a vicious question.” Then he says, “I’ll be damned if I know.”

“I’ll be darned.” He wouldn’t say “damned.”

“Darned!” And so The Unknown Known ends with him professing not to know, indeed, what he’s doing—why he’s talking to you.

It extends to everything! I think it really does. “First of all, you have no right to ask me that question. Only a kind of low-down varmint would ask a question like that. And anyway, I don’t know. So leave me alone.”

You think that’s true? You think he didn’t know why he was talking to you?

You know, I don’t think he knows....

I’m a great believer in history from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Someone asked me, “Did you ever think of interviewing other people for the movie?” And I said, “Yes, I did. It occurred to me that other people could be interviewed about Rumsfeld, and I chose simply not to do that.” Because I was more interested in how he sees himself—how he envisions who he is and why he did what he did. That’s at the heart of it, and it’s disturbing. Because in the end, you get, really, so very, very little. You get the homilies. You get the epithets. The rules, the phrases. The so-called philosophical principles, which really aren’t philosophical principles at all, but just, I would say, attempts at obfuscation.

Obfuscation raised to a principle.

But that’s…the essence of Rumsfeld.

Mark Danner has written about foreign affairs and American politics for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. Honors include a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press Awards, an Emmy and a MacArthur Fellowship. His latest book is Torture and the Forever War.

THE UNKNOWN KNOWN | U.S., 2013, 96m | Director: Errol Morris

© 2013

Mark Danner spoke with Errol Morris about his latest film, The Unknown Known, which profiles former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the man behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The edited interview was published in Telluride's The Watch. Listen to the unedited conversation here. 

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