‘Known and Unknown’: A Review of Reviews
This post qualifies for the coveted
First, a disclaimer. I have not read, nor intend to read, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir.
I know that “reviewing” or discussing a book without reading it is the epitome of arrogance, ignorance and so many other “ances.” However, please indulge me because as the magnanimous person that I am, I will make up for that little detail (not having read the book) by providing excerpts from three reviews. One from that “liberal rag” NEWSWEEK, and two from that venerable Conservative newspaper, the Wall Street Journal. Thus, one may call my review a known unknown—or an unknown known? (I am sure others will find some more adequate descriptions)
First from NEWSWEEK:
Lyric Winik starts her “review” with: “Donald Rumsfeld vanished from public life before resurfacing with a new book that takes the blame—for almost nothing.”
But wait, that sentence is immediately followed by “Our sources beg to differ.”
The question “begs,” does NEWSWEEK beg to differ with those who claim that Rumsfeld takes the blame for almost nothing, or what?
I must tell you that after reading the article, I still do not know, because NEWSWEEK, in my opinion, renders quite an objective review of Rumsfeld’s accomplishments and failings.
For example, in the first category—accomplishments:
He did succeed in having a major impact on transforming the U.S. military, and even now, some of his 2001 proposals to make the Pentagon more efficient are echoed by Secretary Robert Gates. At DoD, Rumsfeld reorganized the command structure, established training for international peacekeepers, and revitalized Special Operations.
As to his failings, Winik lists what we are all familiar with by now: the mangled occupation of Iraq (although Rumsfeld liberally “delegates” that responsibility); the fact that he “didn’t listen to his generals, that he micromanaged and imposed his will.” However, Winik assuages, “…when people look back on this period, they may see that a number of the problems resulted from Rumsfeld not wanting to interfere in professional military judgments.”
As to “delegating”
blame responsibility, NEWSWEEK dedicates a separate “box” to Rumsfeld’ delegations of blame to George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, L. Paul Bremer and to our maverick, John McCain. The box is labeled: “Stuff happens—and Rummy has never been shy about calling out the culprit. Some choice zingers from his memoir…”
McCain has already responded to Rumsfeld’s zinger with “Thank God he was relieved of his duties.”
But overall, NEWSWEEK is quite restrained in its criticism of Rumsfeld—almost to the point of being complimentary. For example, it cites—and rightly so—Rumsfeld’s heroic performance when the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11 and:
…yet detractors and supporters alike say that on a personal level Don Rumsfeld is warm, funny, and generous…He dotes on friends’ children, which carries particular poignancy given that two of his own kids have struggled with drug addiction….
If the reader is still puzzled by the enigmatic “Our sources beg to differ,” the following may add to the confusion—or enlightenment:
But above all, what is most likely to rankle many in Washington—and overshadow the real accomplishments of Rumsfeld’s five decades of public service—is that while he can mercilessly point out others’ flaws, he allows himself far more, shall we say, nuance.
And then there is the conclusion:
Will any of this matter? Perhaps not. History is invariably written by the winners, and try as he might, ultimate victory will be hard for Don Rumsfeld to claim.
Now, to the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal had two recent pieces on Rumsfeld’ book.
The first one, an opinion piece. The second, a genuine book review.
In the opinion piece, Kimberley Strassel calls Rumsfeld memoir a “slice of history” one that is “a far more believable account of events” compared to the “[t]he dominant narrative to date [which] has been that a cowboy president and his posse of neocons went to war without adequate preparation and ran roughshod over doubts by more sober bureaucratic and strategic minds.”
Also, a writing that “holds individuals responsible for failures of execution…” like blaming Condoleezza Rice, “Colin Powell’s State Department,” Paul Bremer, Bush—this one in a polite way—and others.
The National Security Council overseen by Condoleezza Rice (with her “style of management”) is blamed for leading to indecision and, in turn, to “the lack of a coherent post-invasion plan, to a sluggish transfer of power to Iraqis, and to a festering insurgency”— “the muddled plan for postwar Iraq”
Ms. Strassel concludes:
Mr. Rumsfeld’s critics are bitter that his memoir didn’t go the obvious commercial route, serving up a grand apology for his role in the wars. Yet readers might be appreciative to find themselves in possession of a serious memoir, more in keeping with the older Washington tradition of Dean Acheson or Henry Kissinger. As might the historians.
Finally, retired Major General (Dr.) Robert Scales’ review of Mr. Rumsfeld’s book in the Journal.
Scales starts as follows:
Personal accounts fill in the blanks of contemporary history, blanks left by sterile timelines and the speculations of carping outsiders. Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known and Unknown” is thus one of the most important contributions to a growing list of remembrances of our most recent wars.
Scales highlights a “confession”:
Mr. Rumsfeld’s confession that the nation would have been better served had he resigned immediately after the revelations of torture and detainee abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison, in 2004, is both surprising and poignant.
And, after comparing Rumsfeld to “marble man” Robert E. Lee, Scales concludes:
Thus perhaps in “Known and Unknown” Mr. Rumsfeld inadvertently reveals himself as the 21st century’s first marble man: supremely confident of his ability to manage a war of machines and sadly unapproachable to those below him willing to offer an alterative view of the shifting conflict. In truth his formidable and dominating personality, which had served him so well before, now served to impede those trying to steer a different course—the one that would prove successful in Iraq after Mr. Rumsfeld’s timely and inevitable departure.
There you have it, the known knowns, the known unknowns and even the unknown unknowns.