Rummy Should Have Some Regrets
By Jared Crum '11, columnist
We can’t even do quagmires right anymore.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the Iraq War’s chief architects, has penned “Known and Unknown,” an 800-plus page memoir released last week. One might be forgiven for expecting atonement or an apology between its covers. For the cost of the Iraq War, estimated by economist Joseph Stiglitz at over $3 trillion, we might have fully funded Social Security for decades, or built thousands of schools or saved many parents from accepting folded flags at their children’s funerals on behalf of a grateful nation.

The expected apologies never come. Secretary Rumsfeld offers none for the costly deceptions and miscalculations that brought about and then worsened the Iraq morass.

Perhaps Rumsfeld wants to stay in character. The book’s front cover shows Rumsfeld in classic American cowboy mode, leaning against a fence, squinting resolutely, with gauzy mountain peaks in the background. Cowboys are all about brass and confidence. Admitting mistakes is not part of their repertoire. Seeing yourself as a doppelganger for “True Grit” hero Rooster Cogburn means never reexamining your premises.

Re-examining your premises, however, is exactly what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommended for people like Rumsfeld. McNamara is a picture of tragedy, a great man brought low by Vietnam. Unlike Rummy, McNamara had the grace — and guilt — to face his blunders squarely and address them for all to see.

McNamara, a California native, attended Berkeley, where an ethics class he adored stoked his enthusiasm for grappling with moral questions. He took his incisive mind to Harvard Business School and when World War II came, to the Army Air Forces. Evaluating bomber efficiency, McNamara drew upon a different part of his mind — not the ethics and morality part, but the coldly rational statistical part. His talent for management made McNamara president of Ford Motor Company and, in 1960, President Kennedy’s pick for Defense Secretary.

Vietnam unraveled the accomplished McNamara. He was a “whiz kid,” part of the “best and the brightest,” as Vietnam War chronicler David Halberstam called the allegedly brilliant men hired by Kennedy. Responding to JFK’s New Frontier public service appeal, they entered office brimming with enthusiasm, but also arrogance. As Vietnam devolved into a nightmare, McNamara, President Johnson and the foreign policy establishment hunkered down and refused to acknowledge the disaster that was unfolding before them. Privately, the defense secretary lost faith in America’s prospects for victory. Publicly, he kept face.

That all changed in the decades afterward. In 1995, McNamara released “In Retrospect,” a stunning admission of wrongheadedness and defeat. In the book’s signature quote, McNamara wrote of the Johnson administration, “we were wrong, terribly wrong.” He crucially admitted that the Vietnam project itself was a mistake and that America, the region and the world would have been better off without a resource-draining and prestige-tarnishing U.S. catastrophe. McNamara was a broken man in the days after Vietnam, the ethics and morality part of his mind denying him peace until he passed away in 2009.

If Rumsfeld feels as McNamara does, he hides it well, which is a tragedy, since the opposite approach is sorely needed. Work such as McNamara’s is almost never done. Public officials rarely admit to failure as publicly and candidly as McNamara did. They are often instead bullheaded, unrepentant and unreflective even when they have a myriad of reasons not to be.

More important, public discourse often lacks McNamara’s seriousness. We need thoughtful discussion of ethics and morality in the public sphere. We need honest reflection of one’s own deeds and the country’s deeds as well. Almost no public official is willing to think and speak frankly in public about moral difficulties of policymaking, even after leaving office. McNamara’s book and his starring role in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” wherein he calls on war-happy leaders like Rumsfeld to reexamine their reasoning for battle, are rare exceptions to a sad rule.

The rule desperately needs to be broken more often. Questions hang over U.S. projections of power around the globe: intervention in Iran, assassination of terrorists, drone strikes and the puzzle of Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires.

Rumsfeld missed his opportunity for real discussion twice. Before the war began, he and other members of the Bush administration deceived the Congress and the public. Rumsfeld’s book was his second wasted chance. He could have been a fast-forward version of McNamara: a former defense chief willing to admit his mistakes and ask the hard questions about American power only a few years after his boss left office and mere months after combat troops finally left the country in question. Rumsfeld could have sought redemption. Instead he chose ignominy.

It is possible the former Secretary of Defense walks around each day with the Iraq fiasco weighing on his mind and conscience. It is possible that in his inner life he is as wracked as his predecessor Robert McNamara was, but it is unlikely. The real walking afflicted are the family members of the good sons and happy daughters and best friends whose untimely burials finally awoke the inner outrage of a nation and ended the war. Perhaps for their sake, at least, Mr. Rumsfeld can still be redeemed, if only he would choose. It’s never too late to get a quagmire right.

Issue 15, Submitted 2011-02-16 00:47:35