Rumsfeld: Why We Live in His Ruins

The Unknown Known

a film directed by Errol Morris
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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 …

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  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.