Book Review: Donald Rumsfeld, “Known and Unknown”

I will admit to not having paid much attention to Donald Rumsfeld when he was part of the Bush cabinet. I thought he was a bit more pithy than some, but really had no opinion about him specifically. By the time I really started paying attention to what was going on in Washington he had already left.

Recently I’ve become more interested in the Bush administration. We hear plenty of criticism these days, which has made me wish I’d paid more attention. Instead, all I can do is try to fill in the blanks a bit in retrospect. Which led me to this book. I would have preferred to read George Bush’s “Decision Points”, but the library didn’t have that one. This was next on my list. I’m glad I read it.

US History, as taught to most kids thirty years ago, pretty much ends after World War II. I don’t know if that has changed any today, but when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there simply wasn’t time to cover any farther than that. What little I learned of post-WWII was on my own initiative, reading ahead in my history book before the end of the school year.

So there are large gaps in my knowledge, even though I lived through much of the era described in this book. Rumsfeld was born before WWII, but didn’t really hit his political stride until the late 50’s. He became a White House insider during the Nixon era, most of which I was alive for, but more focused on learning to walk and talk than paying attention to politics.

So first and foremost I appreciated the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps and fix more firmly in my mind when some of these events I’ve heard about all my life really happened. The Reagan and Carter years are covered lightly, to a large degree because Rumsfeld was mostly in the private sector during that time, so unfortunately those still remain a bit vague in my mind.

The second main take-away from this book is the human face Rumsfeld puts on the Federal Government. It’s so easy to view Washington as this enormous, amorphous, incomprehensible blob of corruption and incompetence. Not to say that it’s not, but it’s easy to forget that the government is also made up of a great many individuals who are sincerely trying to do what is right in an environment where “what is right” is hard to determine, and often very relative.

I finished this book more determined to give our politicians and bureaucrats some benefit of the doubt. The distinction between doing harm and intending harm is often a small one, but critical. The results may be terrible sometimes, but their intent is often more noble than we give credit for. At the end of the day they are just people–perhaps not quite like you and me, but people nonetheless. Pretty much everything they do is going to make someone upset–and someone happy.

Something I’ve already learned for myself, but this book reinforced, is to question everything you hear and read. What was actually said, or what was intended by what was said, is often quite different from what the media picks up on and reports. Our news cycle is so quick these days that the damage is often done well before the damaged party can even respond. The genie does not go easily back into the bottle. It’s up to us as media consumers to delay judgment, question details and perspectives, and make up our minds based on as much fact as we can get rather then taking as bible truth the first thing that is reported.

Rumsfeld is a good guide. He tells his story well, and while I’m also sure he does his share of image-polishing, he seems to be fairly candid about his mistakes and shortcomings. He doesn’t hide his share of the blame, though he’s not above minimizing things a little. Who would resist the urge to tweak things in their favor now and then?

His evaluations of his colleagues and enemies are not always kind, but he also tries not to be too severe, either. He seems to genuinely like most of the people he talks about, even if their actions are a disappointment. He reveals some unpleasant details, but he doesn’t seem to be vindictive or mean-spirited about it. He seems genuinely puzzled over many of the contradictions in the accounts of others writing their versions of events, and tries to set the record straight with evidence when he can. But there is very little anger or vitriol involved.

Hearing Rumsfeld’s version of events, especially around the Iraq War, has made me adjust my thinking. I’ll admit I had the blinders on much of the time. I was supportive of the war and didn’t question what was going on at the time. Rumsfeld makes it clear there was much to question, and much of it justified. He feels things could have gone much better. And much worse. He also reminds us that hindsight presents a much different picture than what was available at the time, and feels most of the decisions made were the best decisions possible with the information they had.

Through it all Rumsfeld comes across as someone who has been a close witness of some very important events in recent history and is grateful for that opportunity. I felt he struck a good narrative balance between fact and opinion. He seems continually conscious of the fact that different people see things differently, and he can only present his own perspective. He is able to laugh at himself, admit at least some of his mistakes, and come across as someone who is comfortable with who he is, where he’s been, and what he’s done. He doesn’t waste much time on “if only’s”. What’s done is done.

As I mentioned, I’ve had to adjust my perspective some as a result of this book. I’ve been giving the Bush administration more credit than it was likely due, and I’ve been harder on the Obama administration than is completely deserved. I believe that both administrations are doing the best they know how. While we can certainly disagree on the validity of both their methods and goals, I don’t believe either administration set out to be evil or make costly mistakes. I believe they all want what is best for the country–from their perspective.

The book does veer into more spirited defense of his opinions and positions on specific issues on occasion. While I don’t think he will convince his critics, the intellectually honest will come away with a broader perspective on the issues that may at least lead one to understand how a rational human being might reach the conclusions they reach. I found the section discussing international “Lawfare” against the United States particularly interesting, especially in light of the Obama administration’s recent decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq after being unable to secure legal immunity for soldiers that remain there. On many defense issues it seems as if Rumsfeld and Obama are not so far apart as one might think.

While I won’t go so far as to say the Rumsfeld has no axe to grind in his memoir, the axe-grinding is surprisingly minimal. For the most part he is simply sharing his perspective. He doesn’t put everything out there for everyone to see, but he doesn’t hide, either. There are no zingers or vitriol, no back-stabbing, and very little bearing (or baring) of grudges. With the exception of Nelson Rockafeller he seems to respect most everyone he has worked with his career, even if he doesn’t agree with them.

Perhaps that’s why this book appealed to me. It meshes well with my own life experience. While there is no doubt that politics is a different creature in some ways from life in the business world, I suspect in the area of human interaction there is much that is similar. I’ve worked with a wide variety of people through the years, and I can honestly say that there are very few I outright dislike. Most I am ambivalent toward–they did their job, and I did mine, and any disagreement wasn’t personal. Even those I disagreed with often and experienced tensions with I can, in hindsight, understand and accept their motivations.

I wouldn’t say there was anything controversial in this book. Many of the conflicts discussed are nothing new. More often than not Rumsfeld tries downplays the media reports as overblown, trying to stir up controversy where there was none. When he feels he understood the other’s perspective he tries to explain it. When he doesn’t he simply says he didn’t understand it and moves on.

There aren’t any startling revelations (except perhaps for his appreciation of Elvis). Having just experienced the marketing campaigns of both Dick Cheney’s and Steve Jobs’ biographies I find that interesting. It’s almost a pre-requisite these days for a memoir or biography to include some pot-boilers that can be used to stir up interest in the book. I don’t remember when this book came out, but I don’t remember any “Rumsfeld disses so-n-so in his new book” type headlines. I also may not have been paying attention.

Anyway, as I’ve indicated, I enjoyed reading this book. I felt it opened up some new perspectives for me. I felt Rumsfeld to be a rather likeable guy, comfortable in his own skin, and with a healthy perspective on things. He was both the youngest and the oldest Secretary of Defense, during both the Cold War and the War on Radical Islam (as he would prefer it called). His experience has spanned over 80 years, with over half of that at or near the epicenter of government. You can’t help but learn a thing or two from spending some time with someone like that, but perhaps not what you expected to learn.

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