Errol Morris swings at Rumsfeld and misses in ‘The Unknown Known’

Keith Naughton | Public Affairs Consultant

“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?


Morris conducted over 30 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld. There was no press corps, no president to answer to. The opportunity for exploration was there. Did Rumsfeld serve up unknown known as a clue to Morris about his perspective on the war? Again, we don’t know since Morris failed to pursue.

Rendition and Guantanamo Bay

Instead of concentrating on the Iraq war and the insurgency itself, the challenges of managing the bureaucracy, and the frictions that exist in any presidential administration – all tragically unexplored topics on which Rumsfeld is clearly an expert – Morris detours into a lengthy segment about Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of captured terrorists and combatants.

Even in this segment Morris obliviously undermines himself. Morris presses Rumsfeld on the injustice of physically restraining captured al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. I supposed in the Morris world of security sociopathic killers would get a first-class seat with a steak dinner and complimentary headphones.

Morris goes on to highlight the evils of disorientation techniques, such as sleep deprivation and loud, discordant noises. Really? If loud music and lack of sleep are torture, then millions of Americans are being tortured on a daily basis.

Rumsfeld’s Dissonant Language

Rumsfeld’s use of language compounds the challenge in evaluating him. He uses language that is definitionally on point, but is jarring and upsetting to the audience (and Morris).

Rumsfeld calls the shock of Pearl Harbor, the unknown unknown, a “failure of imagination.” Technically accurate – having never seen such an event, we could not imagine it – but the word itself is a positive adjective. In associating it with an act of war, Rumsfeld offends our sensibilities. Is this pedantry by Rumsfeld or a purposeful provocation to make his point more impactfully?

Rumsfeld refers to the 20,000 authored memos as “snowflakes” — another jarring reference. How can one call a memo recommending war a “snowflake?” Yet, here again the term is revealing. Like snowflakes, no two memos are alike. Individually each may not amount to much. However, the snowflakes pile up and can form an impenetrable mass. Once again, Morris misses an opportunity. Has Rumsfeld reflected upon his “snowflakes” or does he see the irony in how they can collect into a mass that is an obstacle to understanding?

When Morris asks if the war was worth it, Rumsfeld delivers one last infuriating response: “Time will tell.” To Morris, this seemingly flippant response to what he believes was an unmitigated catastrophe is too much. But was Rumsfeld right?

To the Kurds, victims of periodic genocide and perpetual political suppression, the war was worth it. The Kuwaitis might also agree. Injured soldiers and grieving American families may disagree. The challenge in evaluating the war is a combination of perspective and time. We will never know what would have happened if Saddam Hussein was left to his own devices. It is possible Iraq will evolve into a productive, peaceful nation. It is possible the state will continue to founder and fail. Aiding the Afghans who fought the Soviets seemed like an unmitigated success in 1989. September 11th put that conclusion into question.

Rumsfeld does offer glimpses of his true self – which do not serve him well. He notes that Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay, continued the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has not sought repeal of the Patriot Act and generally followed Bush policy with respect to security issues. With a wide grin he calls that vindication. Rumsfeld would have better served himself if he had posed the observation as a question to Morris (if we made so many mistakes, why no change by the liberal Obama?). The follow-up answer is simple:  It is easy to throw darts when you are on the sidelines. Once you are the one with the responsibilities, you find the decisions are not so easy.

Whither Rumsfeld?

What of Rumsfeld, then? Was he prepared to explore the unknown knowns of the Iraq War? Could he have led us through the odd world of the Pentagon bureaucracy? Or was this project just a game for him?  Perhaps Rumsfeld never intended to answer anything and this was just a propaganda exercise. For those of us who would like to get to the truth of Rumsfeld and the Iraq War, we are left with only more questions. “The Unknown Known” is compelling, confounding and incomplete.

Errol Morris thought he could get an apology from Rumsfeld, but Rumsfeld was too tough a customer. Morris thought he knew what he was getting into, but he did not. And that was Errol Morris’ unknown known.

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