© The Unknown Known — Errol Morris/Radius-TWC
2014, 96 minutes
With The Unknown Known, Morris continues his analysis of high-profiled bureaucrats, as he paints the portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under President Ford in the 1970s, and under President W. Bush in the year 2000s. A leading neoconservative voice and ruthless advocate of hawkish policies, Rumsfeld quickly became one of the most recognizable architects of the costly U.S. ‘War on Terror.’ Following his examination of prison guard misconduct in Abu Ghraib in the 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure, Morris offers here a spiritual sequel to The Fog of War, exploring, in a one-on-one conversation, his subject’s career and the war he helped shape.
The title “The Unknown Known,” a play on Rumsfeld’s memorable response at a 2002 press briefing to a question on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Rumsfeld, in his debates with the press or in his conversation with Morris, never shies away from using the technicalities of language to elude from the disconcerting truth.
In his four-part essay, “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,” published in the New York Times in 2014, Morris observed, “When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent […] the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more?” A victim of self-deception and wishful thinking, Rumsfeld appears in the film unable to introspectively reflect upon his past, drawing no further conclusions from the memos he frenetically used to write in the White House or in the Pentagon. These memos—dubbed ‘snowflakes’ because of the white paper they were printed on—serve as the basis for the movie’s narrative structure. As the film unfolds, they reveal how Rumsfeld—despite his intentions to modernise the Pentagon—created a harmful “climate where mistakes could be made with little or no way to correct them.”
Cut down from 33 hours of conversation, Morris deploys in the 105 minutes film all his highly stylized trademark mannerisms—intimate sequences of Rumsfeld in the Interrotron, lush soundtrack by Danny Elfman, selective newsreel close-ups, and archival video and audio footage to name a few. Yet except for some ironic metaphors used to illustrate the possible limitations of Rumsfeld’s obsessive fixation on words—which include sequences of seascapes culminating with an abstract and highly stylized sea of words—Morris remains very much withdrawn from his subject’s narrative. Indeed, contrarily to The Fog of War, Morris allows his subject’s testimony to be delivered almost unobstructed, letting Rumsfeld himself succumb to the contradictions of his own linguistic obfuscations.
By focusing on the architects of the two most controversial wars of modern U.S. history, Morris surely intends for the audience to draw its own conclusions on the existing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. From neither a strategic context nor an operational standpoint does there appear to be any strong resemblance between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the latter having been modelled as a reverse image of the first. Yet, from a political standpoint, both wars present compelling similarities that reveal an ideological blindness to the destructive character of imperialism among the heights of the U.S. government. As we learned with The Pentagon Papers, avoiding defeat in Vietnam quickly became the predominant U.S. war aim—with McNamara pressing publicly for an expanding commitment of U.S. troops while deeply disillusioned, since 1965, about the prospects of the war. In the case of the ‘War on Terror,’ the U.S. moved from Afghanistan—a historically complex country to strategically control—over to Iraq, which provided much richer material to legitimize further military actions by the U.S. government, under a supposedly messianic agenda.
Despite the obvious political failures of the ‘War on Terror,’ Rumsfeld remains absolutely convinced of his own rectitude, having no remorse whatsoever throughout the duration of the film. While McNamara appears in The Fog of War somewhat capable of self-analysis as he admits to some wrongdoing, Rumsfeld, on the contrary, is seemingly unwilling—or unable—to engage in self-reflection, let alone self-criticism. Even when discussing the photographs of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld remains evasive, shifting the discussion on technical issues, and employing the same insensitive and spiritless language he had initially used in his attempt to mitigate the gravity of the offence. “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe, technically, is different from torture,” he told reporters after the scandal erupted, as if this contrast would make any difference to Arab minds. While such a technicality might influence an Army judge in a military tribunal, it represented inconsiderate rationalization for a nation shocked by pictures representing the sexual abuse of its men. Indeed, the U.S.’s self-absorbed reaction to the abuses—epitomized here by Rumsfeld’s response—only added fuel to the raging fire.
Ultimately, as Morris observed in ‘The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,’ Rumsfeld created a climate in which “absence of evidence could be evidence of absence or evidence of presence […] An obscurantist’s dream.[…] It’s not the more familiar version of evil, but evil as a kind of disengagement and thoughtlessness. I’ve coined a new phrase for it, ‘the venality of evil’.”