I haven’t finished reading the book, so this is not a proper review, as such. But, based on leafing through this 815 page tome, and having now begun reading it properly from the beginning, it’s safe to say a few things about it right off the bat. It is a monumental work, quite unlike your average book from a political figure, memoir or otherwise.
I expect it will be characterized in the near term by critics based largely on political bias: Rumsfeld’s many enemies, both on the left and right, will give it short shrift. His friends — a subset of the political right in America — will laud it.
But as opposed to what is the case with your average political book or memoir, the instant reaction to Known and Unknown is of little significance. It will live on as a crucial work of history from an intimately-involved actor and witness long after the current crop of critics have faded from memory.
The sheer breadth of time and events covered is jaw-drop-inducing. From the civil rights era through Vietnam, the Nixon years, the Ford years, as an envoy in the Middle East for Ronald Reagan, and culminating with the great events of 2001 — 2006 which should be fresh in our memories, Rumsfeld was there, and he has scrupulously preserved documents from each era to back up his written recollections of those times today, in this, the first book of any kind he has written in the course of such a long career. Merely browsing through the three distinct sections of photographs in the book inspires a kind of awe, and is symbolic of something about this man, Rummy: He is well organized. In some real sense he has surely been waiting his whole life (he is now 78 years old) to write this book, and by all appearances, he has pulled it off in rather impressive style.
The pages turn easily and quickly; the fine details and the personal story-telling seem so far to me to be interwoven both charmingly and convincingly.
In the following excerpt, Rumsfeld has just finished describing two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford which occurred in 1975 while he was with him (Rummy was his chief-of-staff) and now goes on:
In October 1975, I was with the President in Connecticut when yet another incident occurred. As the presidential motorcade moved through Hartford en route to the airport, the local police department failed to block one of the intersections at the base of a hill. When the President’s car was crossing that intersection, a car with four teenagers rammed into the side of the presidential limousine. Those of us seated in the backseat — the President, our host, and me — were thrown to the floor.
Taking no chances, the Secret Service followed their normal procedure and had the motorcade start up fast to get the President out of possible further danger. As we sped away, the lead car in the motorcade had to stop suddenly to avoid a pedestrian. Our limousine slammed into the rear of the lead car, again jostling us around in the backseat. Then, as we stopped suddenly, the Secret Service car behind us, which had been racing to keep up, slammed into the back of our car. We were thrown around in the backseat for the third time.
While no one was seriously injured, the near comic chain reaction seemed to be a metaphor for an administration whose troubles were piling up.
Actual history, told by someone who was on the scene with a perspective that is both intelligent and wryly humorous. It’s nothing more than a random passage from this book, but it’s just pure gold.
Having said all this, I’ll make no bones about it: Politically, I’m one of that subset of American conservatives who never broke with Rumsfeld. I’m not even sure I know what are the terrible crimes or mistakes which we’re supposed to believe are his responsibility.
What I liked about Rumsfeld from the start in the Bush administration — and this especially mattered once the fighting began in October of 2001 — was that it was clear, at his age, that he was not interested in pursuing any political future for himself. He was only interested in being a very good Secretary of Defense.
That the Iraq war did not go as most optimistically anticipated by some is beyond question, but:
(1) As is understood by anyone with even a curious eight-year-old’s level of general knowledge, no battle-plan survives contact with the enemy.
(2) I never saw any evidence that Rumsfeld made any foolishly optimistic predictions about how the war would go.
(3) I have never seen convincing evidence that it was inherently military failures which led to the extended instability and insurgency in Iraq. There were important decisions made, many of which can certainly be second-guessed, which were not those of the military or of the Secretary of Defense, even though it was the military who ultimately had to pick up the pieces.
I haven’t gotten to that part of Rumsfeld’s book relevant to the Iraq war yet, but those things above are what I happen to believe based merely on reading the papers while all that stuff was going on. Of-course, that meant reading between the lines a lot of the time, versus taking what was being printed at face value. In the case of Known and Unknown, my impression so far is that one doesn’t have to read between the lines very much. Rummy is laying it out there, once and for all.
Known and Unknownby Donald Rumsfeld is published by Sentinel. Rumsfeld has said he will be donating his own proceeds from the book to charities serving U.S. military families and wounded veterans.