President Obama announced Tuesday plans to withdraw the remaining American troops in Afghanistan by 2016, a timetable that seems to suggest an end to U.S. military presence in that region. In his recent documentary, filmmaker Errol Morris takes us back to the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in an attempt to understand why the U.S. went there in the first place.
Morris spoke to Margery Eagan and Jim Braude today about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the subject of his film “The Unknown Known”, which hit theaters in April.
More than a decade after the 2003 Iraq invasion, Rumsfeld’s conviction that the U.S. did the right thing has barely wavered despite multiple challenges from critics in politics and the media, Morris said.
“What’s so interesting is that he doesn’t see them as a challenge,” Morris said. “He ignores them and rattles on as if nothing has been said. He’s oblivious to criticism, to contradiction. He lives in his own Rumsfeld bubble.”
Notorious for his rhetorical strategies while in office, Rumsfeld’s interest in language—and perhaps how best manipulate it— is at the center of the film. Its title is a direct quote lifted from one of Rumsfeld’s thousands of memos (nicknamed “snowflakes” by staffers for their ubiquity) he sent during his tenure at the Pentagon. It was made famous at a 2002 press conference when he read it out loud in response to a reporter’s question on what evidence supported a direct link between Iraq’s capital and terrorist organizations the White House believed to be stationed there:
“There are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say there are some things we know [that] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Watch Donald Rumsfeld’s response here:
“The level of nonsense and gobbledygook…is quite extraordinary,” Morris said. “What is really extraordinary is that we, and I would count myself in this, bought into it. What is Donald Rumsfeld really telling us? He’s telling us that evidence doesn’t really count for much, so why don’t we make things up as we go along.”
Morris is no stranger to interviewing war hawks, having won considerable acclaim and his first Oscar in 2003 for his documentary “The Fog of War” that featured former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s retrospective take on the actions leading up to the Vietnam War. Aged 86 at the time of production, McNamara displayed genuine, if not brutal, self-criticism. But Rumsfeld, Morris said, appears as unrepentant as ever.
“One thing is pretty clear,” Morris said. “Donald Rumsfeld never really listened to Robert McNamara. I have no idea whether or not he saw 'The Fog of War’ but my guess is that he did not. He did tell me he hated it. He went on to explain, ‘That man had absolutely nothing to apologize for.’ I differ from him in that respect.”
Hear Morris’ full take on Donald Rumsfeld, as well as insight into his own eclectic filmmaking career, below.