“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
This is the famous (or infamous) Donald Rumsfeld rumination on the maddening uncertainty of the world, a quote that lies at the heart of the recently-released Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Known.” Rumsfeld adds the concept of the “unknown known” – times when we think we know what we are doing, but we don’t.
These observations are not merely bureaucratic rhubarb as many have claimed, but an important fact of public life. An unknown unknown can be brutal — akin to a “black swan,” something of which we have no conception or experience. The September 11th attacks, for example, were an unknown unknown.
The original quote was said in a Pentagon news conference, where Rumsfeld was in the process of evading reporters’ questions. In a New York Times opinion piece, Morris takes particular umbrage at Rumsfeld’s evasions. Of course, Rumsfeld’s evasiveness was just like every presidential and Pentagon news conference for the past 50 years. I eagerly await Morris’ criticism of President Obama for the same.
Morris’s anger at Rumsfeld is compounded by disappointment. In his previous interview of a former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War,” Morris had an easy, amenable subject. McNamara mostly melted on camera and offered a confession for the Vietnam War.
Rumsfeld was not about to be so easy. Rumsfeld doesn’t apologize to anybody. He refuses to surrender to the demand for simple-minded answers in a complex world. Rumsfeld gives hints and clues. Rumsfeld demands that his questioners work for their knowledge. He will not to give it to them straight and simple. Perhaps the film should be titled “The Sphinx.”
And herein lies the challenge for Morris. Since the apology is not available, Morris could either tilt at that windmill or really try to dig into the process, the how and why of war planning, the fundamental uncertainties and challenges inherent in a world of imperfect information where decisions are between the terrible and the more terrible.
Rumsfeld lived a life in politics and managing. To understand him and peel back the layers, the interviewer must be prepared and knowledgeable. He must be an active listener, alert for the clues, hints and purposeful provocations. Morris is simply out of his depth and the result is compelling, but incomplete. His film is a missed opportunity.
Unknown Unknowns and Unknown Knowns
The first clue for the audience that the subject is beyond the grasp of Morris is when Rumsfeld describes Pearl Harbor as the unknown unknown, Morris fatuously observes that all the clues were there. Rumsfeld practically explodes at Morris. Of course in hindsight everything is clear. That’s not the point. Pearl Harbor had never been experienced by any nation – that is an attack from aircraft carriers, which had traversed over 3,000 miles of ocean undetected.
Piecing together an unknown unknown is like having 10 pieces from a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture to guide you. There is no solution, only faint conjecture. We don’t know how to react since the event is beyond our comprehension. We are adrift and searching for a way to anchor ourselves.
Traumas like Pearl Harbor, September 11th and even the Kennedy assassination are searing because they so fundamentally change our perception of the possible. You remember where you were when the world changed.
But it is the unknown known that most needs to be explored. The notion that we think we know what we are doing, but we don’t. Unlike the unknown unknown, the unknown known is actionable. We possess the means and knowledge to find the right path. But we don’t. The question becomes, why do we persist in our unknown known follies?
How can Morris not understand that the unknown known characterizes nearly everything about the American experience in Iraq? This quote by Rumsfeld is the starting point for a real examination of the war, or rather from the point where the formal conflict ended and was followed by the insurgency and civil disorder.
If it is axiomatic that the peace is always more difficult to win than the war, then why was the unsettled political situation not predicted? Given Iraq’s history, why was the hostility toward occupying forces not anticipated? Given the volatile ethnic and sectarian mix, why was communal violence not expected? Rumsfeld admits that he did not expect the amount of POWs. Is this not an unknown known?