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.

David Hume Kennerly/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, head of Allied forces in Iraq, Baghdad, May 13, 2004

It is not that the Americans failed to anticipate the looting, or that they failed to count on the “catastrophic success” of the rapid conquest of Baghdad, or even that they failed to bring in enough troops, or the right mix of troops, to control the capital, though all of this is true. It is that the secretary of defense, who had insisted that he would gather all control, both civilian and military, in his hands, was looking upon what was going on in Iraq and failed or refused to understand what was happening. It is telling and chilling to read in his memoir, published eight years later, that “a camera caught an Iraqi taking a vase out of a building in Baghdad—and that scene was replayed over and over across the world,” as if Rumsfeld, all evidence to the contrary, refuses to part with his conviction that the looting was an irritating public relations problem that was blown all out of proportion by scandal-hungry reporters.

As the capital descended into mayhem and chaos, as Iraqis realized with horror that the Americans, whatever their fine words or their actual intentions, could not keep them safe or even keep the lights on and the air conditioners and refrigerators running, as the first insurgents began to emerge from the crowds and shoot American soldiers and then fade away again, as it became clear that the mission, far from being “accomplished,” owed a good part of its “catastrophic success” to the fact that large parts of the Baathist security apparatus and the Saddam militia and the Republican Guard had simply melted away to take up arms again as insurgents—as all this became plain, Rumsfeld, by sheer force of will, persisted in his plans to pull out the American forces.

This would not be Bosnia, where American troops had arrived for a year’s stay and spent a decade. The Iraqis, after all, must “learn to govern themselves.” So the victorious General Tommy Franks retired, as planned—having issued orders, a week after Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” comments, to withdraw combat forces from Iraq within sixty days; his Central Command—a “dream team” of senior officers and staff who had planned and managed the invasion—packed up and left Iraq; troops that were supposed to “flow into theater” were halted in their tracks and others already there prepared to depart. The youngest three-star general in the Army, Ricardo Sanchez, was handed command and supplied with a staff, drawn from his V Corps, more than half of whose billets were purposely left unfilled. Of these momentous decisions the secretary of defense later told an incredulous Sanchez that he knew little or nothing, and in his memoir tells us the same. By then the chaos on the streets of Baghdad was frightening and undeniable, but the chaos behind the scenes, in the paneled rooms in Washington where decisions were supposedly made, was arguably worse.


In his film Errol Morris has Rumsfeld read excerpts of a memorandum, one of a series on effective management, that he wrote to the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice:

Because I’ve failed to get you and the NSC staff to stop giving tasks to combatant commanders and the joint staff, I’ve drafted the attached memorandum. I’d hoped it would not be necessary for me to do it this way, but since your last memo stated that we should work it out from our end, I’m forced to do so.
You are making a mistake. You’re not in the chain of command. Since you cannot seem to accept that fact, my only choices are to go to the President and ask him to tell you to stop, or to tell anyone in the Department of Defense not to respond to you or the National Security Council staff. I’ve decided to take the latter course. If it fails, I’ll have to go to the President. One way or other, it will stop, while I am Secretary of Defense.

It is true that Rice, as national security adviser, is not formally in the chain of command, and by all accounts, not just Rumsfeld’s, she was hopelessly weak and out of her depth as a manager, a rather important failing for the official responsible for coordinating the national security bureaucracies of the government. Her boss, the first president to hold an MBA and a man who seemed to take equal pride in his lack of sophistication about foreign policy and his lack of hesitation in making momentous decisions about it, was if anything less able.

Consider this poignant scene in the Oval Office in April 2003, a year before the Sanchez meeting, just after the Americans stormed triumphantly into Baghdad and just before President Bush would deliver his famous “mission accomplished” speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. In newly occupied Iraq, General Franks still commands the military and Jay Garner the civilian occupation—which means, Secretary of State Colin Powell tells his president,

There are two chains of command…. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.
The president looked surprised.
“That’s not right,” Rice said. “That’s not right.”
Powell thought Rice could at times be quite sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. “Yes, it is,” Powell insisted.
“Wait a minute,” Bush interrupted, taking Rice’s side. “That doesn’t sound right.”
Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. “That’s right,” she said.6

It is indeed embarrassing when neither the president nor his national security adviser realizes that both the military and civilian commanders of the Middle Eastern country of 26 million the United States has just occupied in fact report to the secretary of defense. Neither seems to recall that the president, the month before, at Rumsfeld’s urging, had handed all power over the occupation to the Pentagon, bypassing the State Department. As Powell rather too patiently explains to the president and his clueless national security adviser, the two chains of command mean that “every little half-assed fight they have out there, if they can’t work it out, comes out to one place to be resolved. And that’s in the Pentagon. Not in the NSC or the State Department, but in the Pentagon.”

That would be Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, led by an old veteran of bureaucratic wars who felt himself answerable only to the president personally, free to ignore Rice and the national security council staff that was meant to manage and coordinate US foreign policy. Rumsfeld “in effect said, I don’t give a shit what the NSC staff says,” according to one staff member. “I am going to do whatever I feel is in my right to do as the chain of command.” He goes on:

So you had an [Office of the Secretary of Defense] staff given the direction by the secretary of defense not to work through the process and not to play ball. Then you had a secretary of defense who was also a policy entrepreneur who liked to dabble.7

For Rumsfeld the policy entrepreneur the Iraq War served the same purpose it did for Rumsfeld the secretary of defense: to demonstrate what a modern “transformed” military could do. But he saw a prolonged occupation as a threat—a threat to the well-being of the military (which simply didn’t have several hundred thousand spare troops for a prolonged occupation) and even more a threat to his most cherished plans to remake the US military. It is telling, and astonishing, that Rumsfeld would order the military to proceed with his highly disruptive “transformation guidance” in April, even as the looting in Iraq intensified. General Abizaid, Franks’s replacement, would finally halt the planned troop withdrawals in July, while drawing Rumsfeld’s ire for using the words “classic insurgency” to describe the rapidly growing number of attacks on American forces.

Rumsfeld preferred to describe the attackers as “dead-enders” or “regime loyalists,” as if by denying that the insurgency existed he could banish it from reality. As for the “reconstitution of Iraqi security forces” and “the emergence of an Iraqi Interim Authority” that were supposed to allow “a drawdown of coalition forces”—by then Paul Bremer, Garner’s replacement, had disbanded the Iraqi army, purged the ministries and the bureaucracies of Baathists, and downgraded and then dissolved the nascent Iraqi governing council, replacing it with a larger and largely powerless body of Iraqi politicians.

Bremer, as we have seen, supposedly worked for Rumsfeld, though as a protégé of Rumsfeld’s old rival from the Ford administration, Henry Kissinger, he showed himself to have a certain bureaucratic wiliness and ruthlessness of his own, managing, in the name of the president, to create disastrous “facts on the ground” that added immensely to the chaos—and finally put a decisive end to Rumsfeld’s “no occupation” policy. After dissolving one army, after all, how can you order the departure of another and still secure the country?


I wanted my movie to look at history from the inside out—not an external history of events but a picture of an interior landscape, of Rumsfeld’s mind, his explanations of himself, to himself…. With Rumsfeld, I [finally] felt I was witnessing something more complex: a man using language to obscure the world from himself as well as from others.8
—Errol Morris on The Unknown Known

Rumsfeld’s greatest pride was his management ability and his great ambition to transform the American military. Here, with the benefits of the doubling of the defense budget following the September 11 attacks, he managed to achieve a good deal: he enormously expanded the Special Forces; he created a more flexible army based on brigades, not divisions; he implanted small “lily pad” bases in scores of countries around the world; he created the Africa Command and the North American Command.

By these changes and others, and for better and worse, he took a military that was still largely the product of the cold war and created one inspired by and suited to the unceasing demands, unbounded in space and in time, of the “war on terror.” Meanwhile his management of the Iraq invasion as the unlikely “central front” of that war was a disaster that brought the US to the brink of defeat.

Bradley Graham, in his superb biography of Rumsfeld, implies an essential contradiction between his iron-willed insistence on managerial “efficiency” and the inherent and necessary wastefulness of war. He quotes a colonel comparing Rumsfeld’s “minimalist approach” in Iraq to Roosevelt’s in World War II: “It wasn’t a question of what can you do with what you’ve got. It was a question of what does it take to win. But Rumsfeld seemed inclined to go the other way—you know, How little can I use to try to win?”

That this was Rumsfeld’s inclination meant that it was the country’s—and that everywhere in today’s headlines one sees Rumsfeld’s work: Iraq, where al-Qaeda militants dominate the west of the country and create chaos in its major cities; Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent; Syria, where Iraqi jihadists have been vital in the rebellion against Assad. But his most important legacy may be an American public exhausted with foreign wars and deeply skeptical of leaders who advocate them. For better or worse, he wasted the most important US resource: the willingness of Americans to support their leaders in doing what they deem necessary to protect them. Without this resource, as Barack Obama learned when he considered launching a punitive attack on Syria, the president’s choices and his influence are severely limited, and with them the country’s power.

In September 2006, long after Rumsfeld had fired him, and after the political reverberations from Abu Ghraib had made his promised promotion a dead letter, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez found himself summoned from Germany back to the Pentagon for a one-on-one meeting with the secretary of defense, where he was astonished to be presented with a memorandum asserting that he, Rumsfeld, had had no idea that Sanchez had been chosen as commander in Iraq (“I did not know that Sanchez was in charge”), or that the Central Command and its staff were being withdrawn from Iraq. (The latter event, which involved thousands of people, was announced with public affairs guidances and followed by welcome home victory parades in the United States.)

“I knew it was total BS,” Sanchez writes in his memoir. By his account, he looked up from the memorandum and told Rumsfeld directly, “I just can’t believe you didn’t know that Franks’s and McKiernan’s staffs had pulled out and that the orders had been issued to redeploy the forces.”

At that point, Rumsfeld became very excited, jumped out of his seat, and sat down in the chair next to me so that he could look at the memo with me. “Now just what is it in this memorandum that you don’t agree with?” he said, almost shouting….
Starting to get a little worked up, I paused a moment, and then looked Rumsfeld straight in the eye. “Sir, I cannot believe that you didn’t know I was being left in charge in Iraq.”
“No! No!” he replied. “I was never told that the plan was for V Corps to assume the entire mission. I have to issue orders and approve force deployments into the theater, and they moved all these troops around without any orders or notification from me.”9

The scene is painful, surreal, as Rumsfeld, whom Bush would finally fire two months later, insists to the incredulous general that “this was a major failure and it has to be documented so that we never do it again.” Sanchez, who was planning his own forced retirement, remembers “walking out of the Pentagon shaking my head and wondering how in the world Rumsfeld could have expected me to believe him.”

Did Rumsfeld expect the general would believe him? Perhaps not, but he was determined we would. For in writing that memorandum, and thousands of others, he was trying to bend the world and its image of him to his will. “When you’re in a position like secretary of defense,” Morris asks, “do you feel that you actually are in control of history?” Rumsfeld demurs; but Morris catches him in the act of trying to control his own, both during and after the fact. By constructing his film out of Rumsfeld’s memos and his explication of them, Morris succeeds in depicting with a kind of terrible brilliance “a man using language to obscure the world from himself as well as from others.” His film, the portrait of an era from which we have yet to escape, might well have been titled “The Revenge of the Reality-Based Community,” after the quotation taken down by the journalist Ron Suskind in 2004 during an interview with an unnamed “Bush aide” widely believed to be Karl Rove:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality…. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “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. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”10

Donald Rumsfeld tried, and is trying still, to create his own reality. But the ruins of his efforts are visible all around us, and there is finally a kind of unsettling fantasy in his belief that he can still obscure them from us by an act of will. Just who is it, in the end, from whom reality is being obscured? This is, finally, the “unknown known” of the title Morris chose from Rumsfeld’s sham philosophy: this is “the thing you think you know that it turns out you did not.” As Donald Rumsfeld says of Saddam Hussein, the man whose hand he grasped in Baghdad in 1983: “He was living his image of himself, which was pretend.”

—This is the third in a series of articles

  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. 

  6. 6

    See Bob Woodward, State of Denial (Simon and Schuster, 2006), pp. 144–145. 

  7. 7

    See David Rothkopf, Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power (PublicAffairs, 2005), p. 419. 

  8. 8

    See Errol Morris, “Mr. Rumsfeld Doesn’t Regret,” Vanity Fair, October 2013. 

  9. 9

    See Sanchez, Wiser in Battle, pp. 440–441. 

  10. 10

    See Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.