I Saw The Unknown Known

Many of the early reviews of Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known (which I saw just a little while ago thanks to iTunes) compared it to Morris’s The Fog Of War. The comparison is on the surface a natural. Both of these films are interviews with, and critiques of, secretaries of defense and their roles in controversial wars. The difference is that Robert McNamara, subject of The Fog of War, expresses regret and guilt over the decisions he made in Vietnam. McNamara reveals a sensitive and reflective mind, willing to probe how far his conduct during the Vietnam War took him from his ideas about how decisions should be made and how mistakes could be avoided. In The Unknown Known, Donald Rumsfeld shows no similar capacity. A man with little apparent interest in introspection but decades of practice in swatting away questions with breezy confidence, Rumsfeld never shows any hint that he regrets any part of his role in the Iraq War, in detainee interrogations, or in the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld’s refusal to own up to his mistakes went counter what many critics expected of a Morris subject after Fog of War, but it shouldn’t have. As I was watching The Unknown Known, I thought less of Robert McNamara and more of Fred Leuchter, the “execution expert” and Holocaust denier from Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, Jr. Morris took pains to demonstrate how badly both of these men misread reality, how massive their failures of recognizing fact and exercising sound judgment really were. Yet Morris never got either of them to admit to doubt that what they’d done was right.

I used to think that Leuchter was lying–that he’d seen the evidence of his foolishness, that he understood it, but that he wasn’t brave enough to accept it publicly. But over time, I’ve come to understand that simple cowardice isn’t the issue. People like Leuchter (and you and me) are brilliant at seeing the world as they’d like to see it, at rearranging facts, or ignoring them completely, so that their cherished rightness is preserved. Our minds, it seems, are at their most agile when they’re dismissing evidence of their own mistakes. So if Leuchter had seen the evidence of how wrong he was about the gas chamber of Auschwitz, I’m sure he would have easily found some way of convincing himself, if no one else, that, evidence notwithstanding, he was right all along.

So I think it is with Rumsfeld. In situations where his wrongness is, to use his phrase, a known known, he deploys the classic evasions and rationalizations you can find in Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrongwith which he can sustain an argument that even though what he thought turned out to be untrue, it isn’t fair to say that he was wrong. To probe Rumsfeld’s mind is to probe an endless array of defenses against the idea that he ever made a mistake. When one rhetorical battlement falls, Rumsfeld adroitly shifts to the next one, special pleading, weasel words, appealing to ignorance, until finally Morris, exhausted, has to move on.

In a way, Morris’s film left me with just a tiny bit of sympathy for Rumsfeld. In her book, Schulz compares the feeling of discovering you’re wrong to Wile E. Coyote’s feeling when he discovers that his feet are running on air instead of rock. I’m not sure whether the fact that he’s been dashing on air for ten years is one Rumsfeld’s known knowns or unknown knowns, but given how painful the recognition of error would be in his case, I can’t really blame Ol’ Rummy for keeping his legs pumping, his lips grinning, and his eyes resolutely not looking down, for as long as he can.

See The Unknown Known in theaters or on iTunes or on Amazon Instant. You’ll be glad you did.

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