–A Review of Errol Morris’ film The Unknown Known
By John Stiller
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
–Ron Suskind, quoting from a conversation he had with a ‘senior advisor’ to President Bush
“War was a sure safeguard of sanity, and so far as the ruling classes were concerned it was probably the most important of all safeguards. While wars could be won or lost, no ruling class could be completely irresponsible. But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded.”
–1984, George Orwell
Errol Morris’ latest documentary, The Unknown Known, is basically a two hour monologue from Donald Rumsfeld, often in narration played over Morris’ usual visual pyrotechnics. The film is broken occasionally with a question from the unseen Morris, but this is Rumsfeld’s show, and he relishes the chance to explain himself and engage in the linguistic obfuscation and near madness that were the hallmark of his time as Secretary of Defense.
In watching Rumsfeld talk on various topics, it seems as if he’s always trying to find the right words to describe something in a manner that will “transform” it into something it isn’t, something that is more palatable with his worldview. In a sense, everyone does that, since no one can be completely objective with regard to external reality. Biases and prejudices are ingrained in us from our parents, culture, economic status, day-to-day life experience, etc. But with Rumsfeld, he almost seems to live in an alternate reality. In this way, any attempt at examining what might be objectively called “facts” through empirical analysis becomes an exercise in splitting hairs and just redefining something in a miasmic fugue. (The most notorious of these examples is somehow redefining practices that induce extreme physical and mental pain in a person not as “torture,” but “enhanced interrogation.”)
Politicians have been engaged in linguistic double-speak since the very first governments in the world began to be organized, so Rumsfeld’s bizarre use of language is nothing new. (Joseph Goebbels is probably the undisputed master of this, and American corporations have taken Goebbels’ propaganda techniques and applied them to the business world; but instead of convincing a population why Jews, Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, Communists, gay people, and anyone else that wasn’t of pure Aryan blood and/or didn’t agree with National Socialism needed to be “expelled” from the human race, corporations use his techniques to sell people products they don’t need with money they don’t have.)
Rumsfeld’s evasions mask themselves in words and phrases that can sound very sensible at times. They are only occasionally the outright lies that a Nazi propaganda machine would have produced. Maybe Rumsfeld is just confused, an out of touch cold-war warrior from the previous world order. Or is he? After the film, I alternated between competing theories to try to explain what I had just seen. The first: Rumsfeld was just an outright Machiavellian liar. The second: the man was so steeped in self-delusion, so out of touch with reality, he should be taken away in a straight jacket by the big men in white uniforms with butterfly nets, directly to a padded room at the nearest mental health facility.
The most glaring example of outright lying comes when Morris asks him why the Bush administration implied that Saddam Hussein had connections with Al Qaeda when they were making their case to the world that would justify the invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld says that he doesn’t remember anyone in the administration ever saying anything like that. Immediately, Morris cuts to footage of a press conference from right before the invasion of Iraq where Rumsfeld says with a smirking smile on his face that Hussein does have connections with Al Qaeda, although it’s done in the manner of an incredulous joke (I’m assuming he does it this way in order to claim “plausible deniability” later on.)
Later, Morris asks if it might have been possible to just assassinate Saddam Hussein, if he was such a threat. Maybe that would have avoided the war entirely, and saved numerous American and Iraqi lives? Rumsfeld states very clearly that the United States does not assassinate people. Within minutes of this statement, he then describes how right before the invasion of Iraq started in 2003, they received very good intelligence about Saddam’s location. It was then that the US launched a missile strike to take him out. In other words, we tried to assassinate Saddam before the war started, something that only a few minutes earlier Rumsfeld said that the US “doesn’t do.”
What I found most fascinating in the film was that Rumsfeld wrote a memo to then President Reagan in 1983 after a suicide bomber massacred almost 300 Marines in Beirut, forcing the US out of Lebanon quickly. Entitled ‘The Swamp,’ Rumsfeld wrote that it’s unwise to put American forces into the Middle East, because they will get stuck there, embroiled in localized conflicts and rivalries that have existed for centuries.
If Rumsfeld was able to foresee the eventual fate of American forces invading Iraq way back in 1983 (in only a theoretical sense), why would he reverse his position and advocate such an invasion 20 years later? It’s because he didn’t reverse his position. He knew full well that invading Iraq would not be a quick conquest where American forces were welcomed to Iraq as liberators. He knew that Iraqis wouldn’t quickly form a healthy democratic government, free from the rivalry between Shite, Sunni, and Kurd, who would then in gratitude open up their closed, starving society that the sanctions had created to Western business interests.
(Sidenote: Right after the fall of Saddam, Iraqis across the country began forming municipal councils and governments and electing officials. Paul Bremer, the appointed “leader” of Iraq as designated by the Bush administration ordered that all elections be stopped when he got word of it. American troops were sent around the country to make sure the elections didn’t happen, or the ones that had already taken place were nullified. Bremer did this for obvious reasons: he was fearful that Iraqis would elect candidates who didn’t agree with our plans for the country, specifically “Islamists.” Iraqis worst fears were confirmed by this: “democracy” as proscribed by the US was really just “elect who you want, but they will do what we want, or you’re going to have to elect someone else.”)
In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, she describes how the right wing, starting in the 1960s, embraced Milton Friedman’s economic theories advocating unregulated capitalism (where the state contracts out almost all of its functions to private corporations) Friedman’s world view has dominated their thinking ever since. It’s these theories that were the driving force behind Bush’s economic policy, to downsize the government and let the private sector take over. (Sidenote: with the out of control deficit spending that marked the Bush era, taking the surplus left to him by the Clinton administration and turning it into the multi-trillion dollar boondoggle it is now, were the neocons trying to completely bankrupt the government, so that people would have to turn to private corporations for essential social services that would provide firefighters, police officers, and teachers? The economic downturn after 9/11 and increased military spending were not the only reasons the deficit went over Niagara Falls. The massive Bush tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy, were a major factor that fueled the expanding deficit. But, as Cheney said at one point: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Yet, Republicans have still been able to hold onto the aura of being the party of “fiscal responsibility.”)
What Klein’s book does lay out very explicitly really isn’t very surprising: the “war on terror” is a huge profit making industry, and outsourcing those services to private corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater has earned them billions of dollars in government contracts (money that goes pretty much to the top of the food chain). The terrorism industry fits perfectly in line with the “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned America about before he left office. This industry has a vested interest now in ensuring that there is a need for their products and services. In short, an unending “war on terror” makes good business.
The point I’m making in my roundabout, diversionary way is this: Rumsfeld and the neocons knew that by invading Iraq they would destabilize the Middle East, and have any number of excuses to send troops there to “fix” things for decades to come. Also, by invading Iraq, they helped mold and shape an entire generation of young Muslims growing up across the Middle East, who would see the hypocrisy and lies that led to Iraq’s destruction and civil war (masked as merely “political turmoil caused by the transition to democracy.”) Many of these young people would grow up hating America, and inevitably many would lend themselves to supporting terrorism against the West, with either money or their bodies. (As they are doing in Iraq and Syria right now by joining ISIS.) In doing so, the neocons have created a political situation that perfectly fits their economic interests: a world of pre-emptive violence and ongoing terrorism that creates the demand for the products and services of the exponentially growing industry that has sprung into existence to “exclusively” fight terrorism. They were going after much more than oil when the decision was made to invade Iraq.
If the horrible atrocity of 9/11 carried out by Al Qaeda and Bin Laden had been treated as a true fight against terrorism, then the world would probably be a safer place today. Military action was necessary after the attacks, but it could have been done in a way that marginalized Bin Laden and radical Islam, since most Muslims do not support terrorism. Instead, 9/11 was the Pearl Harbor the neocons had been anticipating for years, and they used it as the pretext to “give birth to the new Middle East,” i.e. create a massive new market for American businesses to expand into and exploit, as they already had in South America, Russia, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia (and later, in Asia again after the 2004 tsunami, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) Through a manufactured crisis designed to “shock” the people into submission, leaders who were pretty much American/Western puppets pushed through incredibly unpopular economic reforms that could never have been voted on, because the population didn’t want them. When people protested against being left out of the economic decisions of their countries, Pinochet-like state terror kept their mouths shut, patterns that took hold in many different areas of the world. “Nation-building” is just a new name for “colonialism” or “white man’s burden” or “economic imperialism.”
The American push for “democracy” has always been one in which the government of a nation will do what we say and not complain, whether they are democratically elected or not. When they have the audacity or impudence to try to act independently, the government is overthrown and a new one, more palatable to American businesses, is “elected.” Because of this, we have empowered radical Islam instead of marginalized it. And this was the neo-con plan all along: to create a new enemy that would be even more profitable than the Soviet Union had been during the Cold War.
The Unknown Known is a film everyone should see and study, mainly for its technique more than its substance. Morris’ doesn’t call out Rumsfeld on the innumerable lies and contradictions he says throughout the film (at least directly). Morris just lets Rumsfeld incriminate himself, which is a far more powerful technique than Michael Moore’s polemics and grandstanding in Fahrenheit 9/11. Morris elicits candid responses from his interviewees all the time by letting them talk so long that they eventually begin to question their decisions and actions, and then attempt to justify them. In The Fog of War, Morris’ documentary about Robert McNamara, McNamara talks candidly about the work he did during World War II.
One of the most affecting and startling parts of the film is when he discusses the bombing campaign of Japanese cities he helped American General Curtis Lemay plan and execute in the later years of World War II, in an attempt to convince the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. He admits that if in some alternate universe where Japan won the war, both he and Lemay would have been found guilty of war crimes, since the bombing he oversaw was not tactical. It was strategic bombing, or “terror” bombing, designed to kill large numbers of civilians to break a country’s morale and force them to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed in these raids. Morris stated in interviews about The Fog of War that he didn’t even ask McNamara about this: it was something McNamara brought up on his own.
In the rush to condemn what horrifies us, it’s easy to jump up and down and yell “baby killer” or “fascist.” It makes you feel good to be so “moral.” But are you accomplishing anything? Does the ostensible “fascist” stand back and say “Oh, maybe I am a fascist.” No. Basic self-esteem will put anyone on the defensive when you come up screaming in their face that they “kill millions of unborn babies every year” (the pro-life claim made against the pro-choice movement.) Of course the “baby killer” moniker emerged in a very different context: as an epithet thrown at soldiers coming home from Vietnam by opponents of the war. While a lot of American soldiers did kill civilians, even babies (Nick Turse’s book Kill Anything That Moves, lays out in graphic detail the atrocities that American soldiers committed in Vietnam against civilians, where massacres like My Lai occurred on a regular basis), does it accomplish anything to scream “baby killer” at a person just because he’s walking down the street in a military uniform? Was he even in Vietnam? Did he kill anyone?
It accomplishes nothing, except making you feel good. By wildly condemning what is morally outrageous to you externally in such an ostentatious manner, you can hide from your own inner demons. You don’t really call your opposition a provocative name to try to change their minds: you do it because by pointing the finger at them, you can’t point it at yourself. This is the reason people should see The Unknown Known, and other films by Morris. Sometimes in a debate it’s better to be quiet and let your opponent talk and talk until they’re in a corner of their own making. In any argument, particularly over contentious, polarizing issues like war in the Middle East, immigration, or abortion, ask yourself if you are truly trying to convince the other person of your point of view, or if you’re just trying to “win,” like you’re a child playing Chutes and Ladders, by being more “righteous” than they are. When you answer this question honestly, then you’ll learn just how complicit you are with regard to the state of the world today.