"Is it revisionism or an old man who speaks with the wisdom of age and hindsight?" asked historian Jen Rosenberg on the occasion of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's death in 2009. The fact that Donald Rumsfeld, another former defense secretary, speaks with neither in Known and Unknown makes his tour to promote the memoir ineffably sad.
Mind you that George W. Bush's defense secretary has his defenders, typically Fox News talking heads and neocons. These are people who continue to justify a war launched for unsupportable reasons that has taken 4,400 American and many tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, replaced one ruling thug with another, further destabilized the Middle East and gave the upper hand to Iran, a country that was and remains dangerous.
History already has judged Rumsfeld's stewardship harshly, and he certainly was the worst defense secretary since McNamara, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara, in turn, was the worst since Jefferson Davis, who as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce worked tirelessly for Southern interests and was instrumental in helping push the U.S. toward civil war.
In fact, Rumsfeld was the worst hands down.
Like Rumsfeld, McNamara was a control freak who thought he had all the answers, lacked the crucial element of common sense and surrounded himself with sycophantic acolytes. Like Rumsfeld, he presided over an unpopular war built on a foundation of false assumptions and outright lies. Like Rumseld, there was an amorality to his actions. And like Rumsfeld, he squandered the respect of his generals and admirals.
But without McNamara, there still would have been a Vietnam War, while there would not have been an Iraq war without Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld already was pushing hard for the invasion of Iraq before the fires at the World Trade Center and Pentagon had been extinguished on 9/11 despite not having a shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein was responsible in any way for the terrorist attacks. He therefore is single-handedly responsible for turning the U.S. away from the course it should have taken in fighting the so-called War on Terror, as well as lowering the U.S.'s credibility on the world stage.
Known and Unknown is not, of course, a mea culpa.
McNamara had a catharsis some 15 years before he died. That personal accounting took the form of In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, a candid reflection that exploded on the haunted members of my generation -- whether they be Vietnam era veterans like myself or antiwar activists -- like a long forgotten Claymore mine.
Rumsfeld may yet have his own catharsis, but that seems unlikely for a man who relishes combat and being combative for the sake of it, consequences be damned.Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images