The Unknown Known is a ‘Rumsfeld Rule’, meaning “there are things we think we know, but turns out we do not.” The flip side of the phrase reads “the absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.” That was the maxim used to indicate “overwhelming evidence” of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Errol Morris’ new question and answer documentary investigates the dogma and decision making of Donald Rumsfeld, the man behind The War on Terror.
When Donald Rumsfeld was asked to step down as Secretary of Defense in 2006, few were disappointed. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars had veered far from course and became a national embarrassment. A decade later, most of the criticism levied against the tactics of the Bush administration have failed to subside. Guantanamo Bay is still filled with detainees, American troops (though drastically declined) still reside on Iraqi and Afghani borders, and the War on Terror looks far from ending. Narrative films like Zero Dark Thirty have questioned the efficacy of the counter-terrorism interrogation techniques, despite the international condemnation. Yet hardly a murmur of reproach – or judicial accountability- has come from the former administration. So, a decade later, are we to assume Donald Rumsfeld was right?
Interrogation of political officials is not new territory for Morris. The 2003 Best Documentary winner Fog of War’ put Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara in the hot seat. The Unknown Known can, uncomfortably enough, be seen as the decade later companion. Both McNamara and Rumsfeld enjoyed rising success in their campaigns only to drastically fall and subsequently be forced out due to public pressure. While the latter was only tangentially connected to the Vietnam war campaign, it seems lessons of military strategy were adequately gleaned from the orchestrator. Difference between the films arises in contemporary opinion and empirical conclusions. Constructed through the countless memos composed during the 2000-2006 tenure, Rumsfeld remains ambivalent on the success of the Iraqi campaign. Opinions on Vietnam are certainly less uncertain. Yet as the film progresses, viewers realize these are not the ramblings of a delusional buffoon.
Still a recent memory, the Bush administration appears an example of supreme mismanagement. The suggested redundancy of Rumsfeld stands as a pillar of evidence. Yet, the popularity of the former Commander-in-Chief is enjoying the highest poll numbers since his inauguration. While this trend is nothing out the ordinary, it does corroborate the Gore Vidal perception: “The United States of amnesia.” More than once in The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld propagates the still evolving verdict of the Iraqi campaign. Detractors will naturally condemn Morris for allowing such verbal atrocity and the myriad of questions not posed to the former Secretary of Defense. We all want to know the reason for World Trade Center 7′s destruction on September 11th. Perhaps the critics are correct. Where Morris sardonically succeeds, however, is removing the ‘buffoon’ label of the previous administration by replacing it with a more accurate one: ‘unequivocally formidable’.