Rumsfeld's memoir: Was he the most destructive secretary of defense in U.S. history?

Military analysis.
Feb. 8 2011 4:30 PM

Know-It-All

Donald Rumsfeld may be even worse at writing a memoir than he was at being secretary of defense.

Donald Rumsfeld. Click image to expand.
Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld's memoir has a great title: Known and Unknown is a play on his famous remark that there are "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns." Apart from that, there's little to be said for this book, which stands to mark Rumsfeld as not only the most destructive secretary of defense in American history (a title already bestowed by many) but also the most mendacious political memoirist.

Some have already noted the tome's self-aggrandizement, its insistence that all the horrors and mishaps of George W. Bush's presidency were the faults of others—Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Jerry Bremer, Richard Armitage, even (a little bit) George W. Bush. But never Donald Rumsfeld or his longtime friend Dick Cheney.

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Many autobiographies exhibit this trait to some extent. It can even be  tolerable if it's joined to an engaging style or sage insights about broader matters. Rumsfeld's book has no such redeeming features. And even if it did, its distortions and lies (I use the term advisedly) are just too blatant to be countenanced.

Most shameless are Rumsfeld's attempts to deny the undeniable fact that he ordered far fewer troops to Iraq than his army's generals recommended. "In reality," he writes, "there was full debate and discussion, but there was no disagreement among those of us responsible for the planning. … Among [Gen. Richard] Myers, [Gen. Tommy] Franks and me, there was no conflict whatsoever regarding force levels. If anyone suggested to Franks or Myers that the war plan lacked sufficient troops, they never informed me" (p. 452).

This is playing word games. The key phrase is that there was no disagreement "among those of us responsible for the planning"—by which he apparently means statutorily "responsible." Myers was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Franks was the combatant commander; so they, along with Rumsfeld, were "responsible for the planning." It is extremely well-documented, however, that the senior officers who created the war plans engaged in endless disputes with Rumsfeld, who whittled down the troop levels again and again, over their objections. (For the proof, see Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor, Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, The Assassins' Gate by George Packer, or State of Denial by Bob Woodward, among others.)

A secretary of defense has the right to overrule his commanders; civilian control of the military is a hallowed constitutional principle. And in one respect, Rumsfeld was right and the generals were wrong: It did not take as many troops as the generals said it would simply to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime. However, the generals were right and Rumsfeld was very wrong on the much larger point of how many troops it would take to restore order and stability in the battle's aftermath.

Here Rumsfeld's error stemmed from sheer arrogance. Finding them excessive, he stripped away whole layers of support troops and logistics that the Army had built into the war plan. What he didn't comprehend was that these layers contained the vital elements for postwar "stability operations." The war plan, as Rumsfeld trimmed it down, ordered the columns of Army and Marine troops to dash straight toward Baghdad, bypassing the towns along the way, except to overwhelm the occasional pockets of resistance. This was a brilliant stroke, but no follow-on troops were allocated to occupy those bypassed areas—and thus to pre-empt the insurgency that grew up as a result.

"In retrospect," Rumsfeld allows, "it's possible there may have been times when more troops could have been helpful. … It is conceivable that several thousand more troops in Baghdad, where most of the media were located, might have at least kept the capital from appearing so chaotic, a perception that proved damaging throughout our country and the world" (p. 664, italics added).

Amazing. Rumsfeld still doesn't get it. Insufficient troops didn't merely create a perception of chaos; it led to a real breakdown. At the time Rumsfeld scoffed at reports of looters making off with a few vases from the Baghdad museum ("Stuff happens!" he notoriously shrugged, one of the few statements that he regards as a "mistake" [p. 477]). But the bigger problem was that dozens of weapons depots were left unguarded and, so, Saddam-loyalists and the insurgents-to-come made off with thousands of small arms, ammunition, and explosives, with which they killed U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians in the coming months.

He doesn't even acknowledge this fact.

Rumsfeld's distortions of the issue don't stop there. At one point, he denies that he did limit the number of troops on the ground. "With nearly a half million ground troops available if necessary," he writes, "this was not the 'light footprint' war plan some critics would later claim it was" (p. 438). This is incredibly dishonest. The key phrase here is "available if necessary." Yes, there were some half-million ground troops, including those that weren't sent to Iraq. He could have ordered them into battle. But he didn't. He sent 140,000. (The Army's initial request was 400,000.) It definitely was a "light footprint." Rumsfeld boasted as much at the time, touting it as vindicating his theory of "military transformation."

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