Vanity thought #1020. The Uknown Known

I just watched a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld who is best known as an architect of the US war in Iraq, not the best title in the world. Still, he is a fascinating personality that deserves a detailed look.

He served in various branches of US government for nearly fifty years and directly served under three presidents. He started with Vietnam war and ended with Iraq war, living through many defining moments of American history. The documentary briefly goes through his life but its main point is to let him present his own view on what had happened. Instead of interviewing twenty people talking about Rumsfeld, it’s Rumsfeld talking about himself, nearly thirty hours of raw footage.

The delicious irony of this film is that the filmmaker and his subject are on absolutely opposite sides of the political spectrum and that both are aware of this mutual antagonism and they exchanged quite a few barbs in the course of their conversation.

Rumsfeld was mostly presented through his memos, he is asked to read from them and then he occasionally comments or answers questions. His memos are his trademark, btw, he produces hundreds of thousands of them and they fill an entire storehouse. He would spent most of his day with a dictaphone in hand and speak his mind. They are not his diary, they are not his journal, they are, in his own words, “working documents”, each one had and served a clear purpose.

The film starts with Rumsfeld reading his famous “unknown knowns” memo, which also featured in one of his press briefings during the Iraq war.

    Subject: What you know

    There are known knowns.
    There are known unknowns.
    There are unknown unknowns.
    But there are also unknown knowns.
    That is to say, things that you think you know
    that it turns out you did not.

This reads like some zen poetry and when Rumsfeld used it in an answer to some question from the press it quickly made news around the world. It’s not very complicated, though. He speaks of two categories – knowledge and awareness. We might be aware of things but don’t know them in detail, like DNA, for example – that would be the “unknown known” in Rumsfeld parlance. You combine known-unknown with aware-unaware and you get all these listed combinations. Simple, really. The last line is about things you think you know but you actually don’t – something we all should watch out for even in spiritual lives.

Anyway, all those memos were called “snowflakes” because they arrived on white paper, there are lots of them, and each one was unique.

It needs to be said that Rumsfeld is clearly a man of great, incomparable intelligence. I still remember watching BBC show “Hard Talk” featuring Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spinmeister. It was a similar situation to this documentary in that the host tried to nail down a man with clearly wrong beliefs and values and just couldn’t. Campbell always seemed to be two steps ahead of Tim Sebastian, the celebrated hard hitting host, he just outsmarted him on every front in every line of inquiry. In that show Campbell expressed his admiration for intellectual power of Rumsfeld and that’s when I first took notice of the man.

Question is – how could these people, clever as they are, back totally wrong views on such clear cut issues as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or prisoner torture? I believe I got my answer now.

Perhaps I should start with “neocon” label used to describe this war mongering faction of US politics. It’s just a tad short of calling people Nazis. Their ideology has been totally discredited and once you evoke “neocon” code word the conversation is essentially over.

Rumsfeld wasn’t asked about this in a film but I bet if he was he’d refuse to classify himself in such a way. He sees himself as an American patriot whose mission in life is to protect Americans from all kinds of danger. He assesses all kinds of threats, prioritizes them, and develops strategies to contain them. He describes Pearl Harbor as a failure of imagination (unknown unknown) – of all the possible scenarios American military planners anticipated this one was totally out of the blue. Rumsfeld sees his job as to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again.

Of course there was 9/11 on his watch but this should explain rather than negate all his subsequent policy decisions. Idealists among us would always hope for the best but it fell to people like Rumsfeld to prepare for the worst.

He could have assigned low priority to detaining “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, for example, but then he wouldn’t have been doing his job. It’s easy for people who do not carry any responsibility to offer best solutions in hindsight and disparage those who made wrong choices in real life conditions and Rumsfeld mentions this in documentary himself.

Time and time again he takes a dig at media, for example, for distorting the reality and blowing some parts of it out of proportion. Sometimes he explains why he thinks what he thinks and it makes total sense. The media, otoh, needs to present a news selling narrative and so their version makes total sense, too, as long as you are aware that they pursue different objectives.

At one point Rumsfeld is asked about Shakespeare – how come all his dramas were about personal failings of the men while Rumsfeld reduced political rivalry to people from different institutions having different perspectives, nothing personal. Come to think about it – who knows what Shakespeare would have written if he had CIA, FBI, UN, US, Iraq, world media etc to deal with in his dramas? Even politics weren’t institutionalized in his times, everything was personal.

Looking at Rumsfeld’s description of the events I see it more as a middle class failure to grasp the complexity of the situation coupled with their naive assumption that only their narrative is correct while all others are impossible. Rumsfeld isn’t part of a middle class, he see this failure for what it is – result of institutional media bias and prejudice. In his world, these middle class opinions matter very little, he can’t let his job be affected by half baked ideas of irresponsible people.

Does it mean that he is a man without faults? Not by any stretch. Despite feeling himself as being more aware of what’s going on and being more level-headed than general population he readily admits to making mistakes and not knowing all the answers. He expects people in his position to make such mistakes, it’s part of his life, his other duty is to make sure that costs of bad decisions do not outweigh benefits of good ones. It’s a very sober and humble attitude to the world around us.

At one point he was asked whether he thinks he can control the history or history controls him. He thinks about it for a second and then answers that neither is true. He failed to formulate it on the spot but what he probably meant that he is part of history, we all are, there’s no separation of controller and controlled. That’s another world view that unnecessarily antagonizes people, just like labeling them Nazis or neocons.

It’s easy to think in such black and white terms but the resulting mental picture would look nothing like the reality, just bear some resemblance. These easy to digest classifications make us feel smarter than we really are – we are unkown knowns ourselves.

Btw, there’s one combination there that didn’t come up until the very end of the movie – the unknown knowns where you actually know MORE about the subject than you are aware of. The initial reading is that you know less than what you think but you could just as well know more and not realize it. Rumsfeld pondered about it a for a moment, checked back with his original memo again, and said that the interviewer was chasing a wrong rabbit here – that is it’s a question for the sake of sounding clever rather than for illuminating the truth.

That’s a great conclusion – all knowledge must serve a purpose, learning things just for the sake of learning, or trying to figure out things just for the sake of understanding them, is useless. Rumsfeld looks at it from his Secretary of Defense perspective but we might just as well apply it to our spiritual lives – how many arguments we raise just for the sake of arguing? How many books we read just for the sake of accumulating information?

One more thing about Rumsfeld – when asked, at the very end, why was he even taking part in this documentary, he said that he didn’t know. Errol Morris, the filmmaker, later explained that he thought Rumsfeld was driven by vanity. Maybe, but even if it was so, he seemed to have been aware of that angle, too, he just didn’t consider it important enough to refrain from speaking at all – another wise decision.

If we stop trying to serve Kṛṣṇa just because we are imperfect, have ulterior motives, and we commit offenses all the time it wouldn’t do anyone any good. Imperfect or not, but we should always persevere, for the sake of our mission. If Rumsfeld can dedicate his life to serving his, why shouldn’t we be able to dedicate our lives to serving ours?


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