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Known and Unknown: A Memoir
By Donald Rumsfeld
HC, 832 pgs. US$36
ISBN: 1-5952-3067-X

The unknown known man

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 11, 2011

Known and Unknown: A MemoirFew Americans during the first decade of the millennium, obviously excepting George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, were as polarizing figures as Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. A warmonger to many on the left, a warrior to the right, and cantankerous to everyone, Rumsfeld was a public figure who few Americans seemed to actually really know despite the fact that he had served both as a congressman and at the pleasure of presidents who included Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Along the way he also had time to squeeze in a career as the chief executives of several prominent corporations.

Now retired from public service Rumsfeld has produced his version of events with Known and Unknown: A Memoir, the title a reference to a famous statement he made during a press conference that "there are also unknown unknowns . . . things we do not know we don't know." Although widely portrayed as arrogant and irritable, Rumsfeld comes across as a man as quick to praise those around him or share in the blame as he is of criticism or assigning it. It should also be a revelatory experience for his critics who accused him of every oversight possible during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars without knowing what was occurring behind the scenes.

As mentioned, Rumsfeld moves fairly quickly, sometimes to the book’s detriment, through the first few decades of his career. His public career began in 1963 with election to the House of Representatives from Illinois’s 13th Congressional district. Almost immediately Rumsfeld seemed to connect with future stars like Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney, making it almost preordained he would end up in the positions he did which included White House Chief of Staff, an envoy to the Middle East, secretary of defence under Ford and the second Bush and representative to NATO, among others.

As Rumsfeld moves quickly through these years, he never really communicates the daily grind of what it was like to serve the public through decades which included the Vietnam War, Watergate and the post-Nixon malaise. While he certainly communicates his impressions of major events and the people connected to them, there is little in-depth exploration of them. Watergate, for example, began as a relatively minor story before erupting into a major scandal which gripped the United States for over a year and yet Rumsfeld dispenses with it in a few pages. Granted, he was serving in a relatively minor position at the time but his friendships with Nixon and the man who would succeed him almost begs for further exploration of Rumsfeld’s interpretation of the events.

It is, however, 2001 and beyond that will likely interest readers and here Rumsfeld delves into far deeper detail. Entire chapters are devoted to issues like the detention of suspected terrorists, their interrogation and public perceptions of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Known and Unknown chronicles the battles between the various institutions of government – primarily the departments of State and Defence, the National Security Council, higher echelons of the military and Congress – in how the wars were to be waged. Although Rumsfeld is a kind critic, it is clear that he had enormous difficulty with both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in their roles as secretary of state and how the State Department seemed to overtly attempt to countermand Bush’s agenda.

Far from a self-congratulatory effort, in Known and Unknown Rumsfeld identifies several key mistakes he made in the five years as secretary of defence. He regrets the Bush administration did not clearly characterize the war against terrorism as one against Islamism. On the issue of detention he believes that involving Congress on the thorny issues of how al-Qaida and Taliban members should be detained and prosecuted. And although he’s complementary of their skills and efforts, Rumsfeld details a few instances of where he placed the wrong people in key positions, particularly in the administration of post-war Iraq. He reaches a level of honesty throughout his memoir that few other public figures have and should be praised for it.

In another failure, however, he’s less open about himself and his personal life. Although he occasionally mentions his Christian faith and support of free market principles, Rumsfeld largely leaves questions of his political ideology out of Known and Unknown. His aborted quest for the Republican nomination in 1988 takes only a few paragraphs and avoids spelling out any specific agenda. His family fares little better. Although it’s clear that he deeply loves his wife Joyce of over five decades, and his family has faced some challenges over the years, they disappear for chapters at a time as Rumsfeld focuses his attention on his government and private career. It’s unfortunate because Rumsfeld is clearly a man who, despite his public face as a no-nonsense type, is a warm and compassionate human being away from a press conference.

For a career as epic in scope as Rumsfeld’s has been, he probably would have been better served to make his memoir a multi-volume effort. Few figures have been as close for so long to the center of power as Rumsfeld and fewer still have made the impact he has had on the modern American political scene. Although most readers would be most keenly interested in five short years of his career, serious students of history and politics would want that same level of detail for relatively “minor” periods of his life such as serving as Reagan’s Middle East envoy and meeting the Iraqi dictator he would eventually help defeat.

If this review seems unduly critical, it must be noted that demanding more of an author shouldn’t be considered a slight. Rather, it merely underlines how fascinating a figure Rumsfeld is and the level of interest in his remarkable career. Known and Unknown is an engrossing read and illuminating about an important and contentious period of American history. Rumsfeld deserves praise for examining his role in them and his willingness to critically examine both his successes and failures. Although his detractors were likely happy to see him leave, it’s fairly clear that with his retirement from public life that the United States lost a man of extraordinary ability, energy and intelligence. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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