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Rumsfeld: Why We Live in His Ruins

The Unknown Known

a film directed by Errol Morris
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
An Allied soldier and Iraqi looters, Basra, Iraq, April 7, 2003


He’s a mystery to me, and in many ways, he remains a mystery to me—except for the possibility that there might not be a mystery.
—Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld1

On a lovely morning in May 2004, as occupied Iraq slipped deeper into a chaos of suicide bombings, improvised explosive attacks, and sectarian warfare, the American commander in Baghdad, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, together with his superior, General John Abizaid of Central Command, arrived at the White House for an appointment with the president. Once inside the Oval Office, General Sanchez tells us in his memoir:

President Bush, who was already standing, stepped forward and shook my hand. “Hi, Ric,” he said. I barely noticed as a photographer snapped our picture. Abizaid and I greeted several other presidetial advisors in the room and then sat down on the couch to the left of Bush.
GEN Abizaid began the conversation. “Mr. President, Ric’s convoy was hit by an IED about ten days ago,” he said. “When I called him up to ask how he was, his immediate response was, ‘Hey, sir, no big deal…. None of our soldiers were wounded. Everybody is okay.’ That’s who this guy is, Mr. President. He doesn’t think about himself. He thinks about his soldiers.”
President Bush smiled and nodded. “That’s good, that’s good,” he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld spoke next. “Mr. President, I just received a close-hold memorandum from Ambassador Bremer requesting that two additional divisions be deployed to Iraq.”
Then turning toward Abizaid and me, he asked, “Have you guys seen this?”
“No, sir,” replied Abizaid.
“Never heard of it,” was my response.
Bush then addressed Condoleezza Rice, to whom Bremer reported. “Did you know about this?” he asked.
“No, sir,” she responded. “I’m not sure why Jerry’s doing this.”
“Well, why didn’t he go through the military?” asked Bush, who seemed visibly upset. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Mr. President, you ought to be glad he didn’t send it to you, because now you don’t have to respond,” said Rice. “Bremer is ready to leave. He’ll be writing his book. He needs to go.”
“Well, this is amazing,” said Rumsfeld, shaking his head negatively. “Mr. President, you don’t have to do anything. He addressed it to me. I’ll take care of responding to him.”2

A perfect little chamber play of dysfunction: the American proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, secretly demands that 30,000 more soldiers be sent to Iraq, having neglected to mention this to the general who actually commands American forces there or to the president’s national security adviser, to whom Bremer supposedly reports. The secretary of defense, to whom he also supposedly reports, feels compelled to act out his shock and regret before the president. The proconsul’s “amazing” request, meantime, while on its face overdue—more troops are needed in Iraq, which is careening toward civil war—is a political shadow game: Bremer will soon leave his post and his “close-hold memorandum,” as Rice implies, will accomplish little more than letting him claim that he at least had demanded more troops.

Rumsfeld, domineering, wily, powerful, had maintained from the start that the US should be withdrawing soldiers, not adding them—the Americans needed to “take our hands off the bicycle seat” and let the Iraqis learn to ride on their own—and his generals, Sanchez included, knew better than to ask. So the number of attacks would go on rising, the number of deaths mounting, and within two years of this Oval Office conclave the impossible would come to pass: the United States and “the most powerful military the world had ever known,” a half-decade after having been attacked by nineteen suicide hijackers, and thanks largely to its own self-inflicted wounds, found itself on the verge of military defeat.

In early 2007, with thousands of Iraqis dying each month—and weeks after firing Rumsfeld—President Bush finally approved a “surge” of 20,000 more troops, averting a complete debacle and suppressing the violence long enough to allow American forces to move quietly over the border. Today, more than a decade after the war began, as the Iraq decisions reverberate around us—hundreds of Iraqis dying every month at the hands of home-grown al-Qaeda-allied jihadis, Iraq’s government firmly in the Iranian sphere of interest, and the next president’s hands tied, for better and for worse, by an exhausted, inward-looking American public opposed to any foreign intervention—the mystery is how and why the United States imposed this disaster on itself: not just the misbegotten and self-defeating decision to invade and occupy a major Arab country as the centerpiece of a “war on terror” against a tiny group of insurgents, but the astonishingly incompetent way the war in Iraq was prosecuted and managed. The failures—to set out clear and achievable goals, to ensure that the agencies of government acted in concert to achieve them, to recognize changes on the ground and adjust policy and tactics to them in a timely and effective way—were dramatic, and fundamental.

And yet at the helm, as secretary of defense, was a manager of rich experience and an unbroken record of success: Donald Rumsfeld had been elected to Congress at the age of thirty and before he was in his mid-forties had served as a cabinet official, a counselor to the president, White House chief of staff, and the youngest secretary of defense in history. Before George W. Bush brought him back to the Pentagon as the oldest, Rumsfeld had been able to rejuvenate, as chief executive officer, two major private corporations. He was highly experienced, dedicated, immensely ambitious, patriotic, indefatigable, and ruthless.

At the close of that brief Oval Office meeting in May 2004 Rumsfeld, after asking the generals to wait for him in the Situation Room down the hall and having a few quick words with the president, would effectively fire his Iraq commander, denying Lieutenant General Sanchez a promised promotion and deftly setting him up as one of the fall guys not only for the disaster in Iraq but for the grotesque naked images of the Abu Ghraib scandal just then seizing public attention. Having removed Sanchez from Iraq, Rumsfeld would then proceed to edit him out, as it were, of his own list of decisions. “I do not recall being made aware of the Army’s decision to move General Sanchez into the top position,” the secretary of defense tells us in his memoir.

Sanchez was not only the most junior three-star general in Iraq but the most junior three-star in the entire US Army. I can only speculate that part of the logic behind an otherwise inexplicable selection was that [Central Command] and the Army staff believed that with the emergence of an Iraqi Interim Authority and a reconstitution of Iraqi security forces, we could begin a drawdown of coalition forces.

Rumsfeld is a notorious micromanager and the notion that he as secretary of defense would not know who was going to assume command in Iraq as the occupation began is not remotely credible. What is striking, and finally unsettling, is that he could think it might be. It bespeaks a man who, having begun by believing that he could change the world by the force of his own power and will, at some point came to assume that the world must be as he wills it to be.


Stuff happens. But…it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over, and over, and over again of some boy walking out [of a building] with a vase and say, “Oh, my goodness, you didn’t have a plan.”
—Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon press conference, April 11, 2003

The Pentagon—which at Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence President Bush had in March 2003 placed solely in charge of all military and civilian operations—did have a plan for the occupation of Iraq. The plan was that there would be no occupation of Iraq. After American planes and missiles struck in a grand display of “shock and awe,” and American soldiers and Marines stormed to Baghdad and destroyed the military forces of Saddam Hussein in a stunning demonstration of what is possible for a twenty-first-century military (highly mobile, armed with the most deadly smart weapons, and interconnected with advanced computerized communications to coordinate all dimensions of a full-spectrum attack)—after a few weeks of this televised demonstration of what Donald Rumsfeld’s “transformed” military could do, power would quickly be handed over to Iraqis of the victors’ choosing and the Americans would just…leave.

The force of 150,000 that stormed into Iraq in March—fewer than half the number that George H.W. Bush had needed to expel Saddam from Kuwait in 1991—would be down to fewer than 30,000 by the autumn of 2003. The invasion of Iraq—or “liberation,” as the Bush administration preferred—would be a “cakewalk,”3 and as for the detrimental political effects of the occupation, the propaganda and recruiting bounty al-Qaeda was sure to reap as Muslims around the world watched the Americans occupy and repress an important Muslim country—well, there would be no detrimental political effects because there would be no occupation.

It is a commonplace that in war “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The problem with Donald Rumsfeld’s plan was not only that it was built on fantasy, though it was.4 (It entirely ignored not only the enormous civilian casualties of the invasion—at least three thousand died, and likely many more than that5—but also the central political problem of the Iraq transition, which was how to shift power from a ruthless Sunni minority that had always dominated to the Shia majority, while persuading the Sunnis to accept it.) The problem with Rumsfeld’s plan was that when that underlying fantasy was quickly shown to be unreal he still refused to accept what was in front of his eyes—and had the power to impose this refusal on the entire US government. This we see most vividly, and most poignantly in Rumsfeld’s famous “Henny Penny…Stuff happens” declamation of April 11, 2003, delivered to a still enthusiastic audience of Pentagon reporters:

I picked up a newspaper today and…I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny—“The sky is falling.”… And here is a country that’s being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they’re free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or ten headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot—one thing after another. It’s just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country!… Stuff happens!

Even as tens of thousands of looters were pouring into every public building, every ministry and hospital and power plant and university in Iraq, stripping them bare, emptying them of every telephone and computer and desk, ripping out plumbing and electrical wire, destroying the power grid of the country, stripping military bases of hundreds of thousands of automatic weapons and artillery shells and bombs and thus acquiring the weapons that would arm and sustain the nascent Sunni insurgency and the gathering Shia militias—even as this looting went on day after day, week after week, in broad daylight, destroying the structures of Iraqi authority and preparing the way for the real war to come, American soldiers, with no orders to intervene or restore order, sat idly by in their tanks and watched. If authority rests on attaining a monopoly of the use of legitimate violence, the United States lost whatever chance it had to gain authority in Iraq during those weeks after its great victory.

  1. 1

    See the first two articles in this series, “ Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now ” and “ Donald Rumsfeld Revealed,” The New York Review, December 19, 2013, and January 9, 2014. 

  2. 2

    See Ricardo S. Sanchez, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story (Harper, 2008), p. 395. 

  3. 3

    See Kenneth Adelman, “Cakewalk in Iraq,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2002. 

  4. 4

    See my article, “ Iraq: The War of the Imagination,” The New York Review, December 21, 2006. 

  5. 5

    See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. 

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