Annals of Recent History: The Book of Rumsfeld

May 21, 2013, 1:52 pm

Don’t you think Donald Rumsfeld should be tried as a war criminal? I do. Or maybe he could be imprisoned for a decade or more, with no access to constitutional rights, while we sort the evidence against him and decide whether to bring him to trial.

But no. That’s not how we do things in the Land of the Free.

Like Henry Kissinger, Robert MacNamara and other architects of mass destruction, Rumsfeld has settled into the golden years of milking profits from his crimes. Instead of being interrogated with a wet washcloth over his face, he has authored a book that blends his life experiences into a few simple truths that we can all live by as we wait for the next lethal incident of blowback somewhere in America. Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life (Broadside Books, 2013) is structured by a series of homilies along the lines of “everything I needed to know about being a world leader I learned in kindergarten from Mrs. Frumplefoos.” Unfortunately, the book was not enough, and has led to a book tour, as well as appearances on major media outlets. This will bring the two-time Secretary of Defense and the architect of two paradigm-changing illegal wars into our living rooms nonstop, where — if we can’t find the remote immediately — we will once again have to disentangle his weird syntax and disconnected moral perspective.

When I first started listening to Rumsfeld’s press conferences almost a decade and a half ago I simply could not attach the words that were coming out of his mouth to the political problem at hand. Describing the bogged-down, violent mess he and the President had created, word salad would pour out of his brain and into mine. There would be ideas that you almost recognized — but not; statements that were spoken with truthful vibrato — which were clearly false; and pronouncements that seemed meaningful — but that quickly revealed themselves as irrelevant.

In skimming the Book of Rumsfeld, I am having similar problems of cognition even though the sentences, undoubtedly parsed by a skilled writer, are reasonably grammatical and in the right order. But what he says still makes no sense, given who the man really is. One of Rumsfeld’s life lessons, for example, is “Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes.” This could lead to reflections like: I wonder what it feels to have a bag over your head, be swaddled in a diaper, chained to the floor and on a transatlantic flight to God Knows Where? Instead, Rumsfeld explains that adopting another person’s point of view might smooth out a car purchase, a diplomatic negotiation, “or even resolv[e] a problem with a neighbor or youngster.”

It’s not that these examples do not seem like reasonable opportunities to adopt someone else’s point of view, but one then wants to ask: would not adopting the point of view of an Iraqi citizen who was about to be killed in an illegal attack on her country also help avert a decision to move a dictator out and grab his country’s oil? How about imagining yourself as a legless veteran, a bereft family, or the victim of a drone strike?

Imagine the outcomes for American foreign policy if the Rumsfelds of this world actually were able adopt another person’s point of view!

Skate through this book at your local store and you will see endless howlers for the irony-minded, as well as numerous obfuscations and diversions that make me think there is a PR firm, somewhere, buffing history as fast as it can. One of my favorites is Rumsfeld’s deep insight that large bureaucracies often produce uncritical thinking. This is followed in the next paragraph with “When I served on corporate boards….” rather than, say, “The yellow cake uranium lie was so awesome!” The cognitive dissonance required to write — or even to sign off on a ghost-written manuscript of — this book is just staggering. One is reminded of Albert Speer’s 1944 meeting with Karl Hanke, “a man of sympathy and directness” who, as Speer recalled, “advised me never to accept an invitation to visit a concentration camp in Upper Silesia. Never, under any circumstances.”

You can’t say that was not good advice, now, can you?

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