Known and Unknown: A Memoir, by Donald Rumsfled

Four stars (of five)

I was pleased to have the time to delve into the mind of the man at the helm of the Department of Defence post-September 11, 2001. Rumsfeld does a great job of showing that his life was more than playing the Defence role for Bush, carving a name out himself over five decades. Rumsfeld details his life, from a childhood on the outskirts of Chicago through to his navy service and eventually introduction to the political sphere. In detailed chapters, Rumsfeld explores how his ties to the Illinois GOP machine allowed him to earn an upset victory that saw him in Congress by the time he was thirty and how that political acumen grew as his hobnobbed with those in positions of power, on both sides of the aisle. Rumsfeld’s inclusion in the Nixon inner circle played a decisive role in his politic future, but his true launch into the political stratosphere came in the Ford Administration, both within the West Wing and eventually as Secretary of Defence. Though short lived, Rumsfeld made the most of his time in the two years between the Nixon gaffe and (in Rumsfeld’s mind) America’s gaffe in choosing Carter. Rumsfeld faded into the background for a while, as the Democrats cleaned house and Reagan used Rumsfeld sparingly in the 80s, followed by a continued distancing by Bush 41.

The second half of the memoir, or close to it, shifts its focus onto the man whose name peppered the headlines post-September 11, 2001. In George W. Bush’s Cabinet, Rumsfeld was able to forge Defence policy from his office in the Pentagon and sought to work with Bush to craft the ultimate response. Rumsfeld lays out his arguments in favour of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also pulls out the soapbox as it relates to ignoring the Geneva Conventions and detention of prisoners during the aforementioned wars, making it clear (in his eyes, though jaded for many others) that the Bush Administration followed the letter of the law as it related to the wars and its prisoners, as well as outcomes best for the world and not just as a means of retaliation. Tossing what he calls DoJ approval and trying to parallel his actions with those of FDR, Rumsfeld attempts to shield himself and Bush 43 from scorn for their treatment of other human beings, however heinous the acts might be. Rumsfeld uses the final few parts of the book to explore non-war related causes the Bush Administration took, as if to show how they were able to handle both war and world leader paths effectively. These latter chapters were much less detailed and surely served as patches to help offset the soapbox tepid defence for suspension of human rights.

The memoir, in my mind, sought not only to defend Rumsfeld’s decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to show that he was much more than SecDef during that trying period. For a person of my age, I have come to see that many of the political figures with whom I am familiar had lives, even important political ones, before I knew them. Rumsfeld’s ties to the likes of Nixon, Ford, Cheney, and even Reagan fleshed out a career full of political importance during a point of history when much was going on that shaped current America. One downside to the written content of the memoir would be that Rumsfeld glosses over his non-political employment, a drop in the bucket of the entire story. While surely not as exciting, it would help portray the memoir’s true sense of a life history rather than a politics-only approach. Additionally, the war-centric sections of the book were thorough and quite detailed, telling much of the inner thoughts of Rumsfeld and others in the Administration, which was lacking in the first part of of the book. It was as though time served under Nixon and Ford was less intense and worth only a passing description.

Kudos, Mr. Rumsfeld for your dedication in putting this memoir together. While I can see that you toe the Administration line on a lot, I was at least able to get some thorough understanding on where you felt you were coming from, even if riding on a ship with an inept captain.