The Only Known Known: Rumsfeld, Iraq and the End of Both

Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo/DVIDS

By Scott Strgacich

On June 17, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, the war’s chief architect, died just two weeks later at age 88. 

Prepare for the impending onslaught of respectable opinion. Eulogies to a great, if flawed statesman who left behind a “complicated” legacy are no doubt in the offing. Chilon of Sparta once admonished not to “speak ill of the dead,” but the sage will have to forgive this writer for an exception to the rule. 

In 2021, hindsight compels even the most generous observer to evaluate Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a misguided factotum of the Bush/Cheney foreign policy acropolis. Through flawed logic and mixed motives, he pushed the United States into a costly, messy, and unnecessary war in Iraq. However, this description of the man still does not do him, nor his victims, justice. 

More than President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or any other figure of the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld can truly be credited as the architect of the Iraq War. Indeed, the dust had barely settled at Ground Zero and the Pentagon after 9/11 when Rumsfeld began his campaign to promote a U.S.-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 

In a November 2001 memo – about a month after American forces had invaded Afghanistan – Rumsfeld voiced the urgency of “building momentum for regime change” in Iraq. Along with details on how the strategic operations of a war in Iraq might unfold, the Secretary of Defense included a chilling section entitled “How start?” 

How does one start a war when the decision to fight precedes the cause? Donald Rumsfeld thought through some options.

Maybe Saddam Hussein “moves against Kurds” in the north. How about if the U.S. “discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” Or better yet, a “dispute over WMD inspections?” As an addendum to this, Rumsfeld helpfully reminds the reader of this memo to “start now thinking about inspection demands.” 

Wars can take time to contrive. Rumsfeld wanted to get the ball rolling and roll it would. Scaremongering on primetime news coupled with a national war fervor in the wake of September 11th made the task easier. In October 2002, Congress passed the AUMF (which would not be repealed until 2021). The war was now on the fast track. A month before the invasion, Secretary of State Colin Powell held up his infamous anthrax vial. The Bush White House had long before made up its mind on Iraq.

On March 20, 2003, Coalition forces from the I Marine Expeditionary Force and the U.S. V Corps thundered across the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border and into one of modern history’s bleakest episodes. 

A recounting of the war itself is hardly necessary. The graves it produced in the West and in Iraq still seem fresh. It is now embedded in the cultural memory of the early 21st century. The list of “accomplishments” is truly one to behold: the barbarous atrocities inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, the so-called “Torture Memos” (several of which were signed by Rumsfeld), the botched post-invasion reconstruction efforts, the ceaseless lies to the public, the widespread destruction of Iraqi cities, the deaths of 4,550 Americans and the deaths of some 290,000 Iraqis.

Arguably the greatest tragedy of Donald Rumsfeld’s long, winding road through the corridors of American power is that he died “surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico” according to his family’s public statement on his passing. Despite being pushed out of office by the president who led his war, Rumsfeld lived his retirement in peace, comfort, and wealth in the shadow of the world order he destroyed. 

Although the Iraq War ostensibly ended in 2011 with the formal conclusion of the U.S. combat mission, lives continue to be shattered by a succession of administrations. Just this week, U.S. forces launched air strikes in Iraq (and Syria) against the Iran-backed militia Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada. The strikes were met with swift retaliation from the armed group. 

The Iraq War rages on in new forms yet to be understood or defined, much as it was in the halcyon days of early 2003 when American M1 Abrams tanks rolled into Baghdad and statues of a dictator came tumbling down. The shadow of Rumsfeld’s war looms over the heads of the Americans and Iraqis who lived through it – who continue to live through it.

During February 2002, in one of his most infamous circumlocutions, Rumsfeld responded to a press question about the dearth of evidence for the administration’s claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. 

He stated “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Yet Donald Rumsfeld failed to acknowledge – or care – that there truly is only one “known known” in war: people die. All else is some species of “unknown.” 

They died in houses, in streets, in bunkers. They died by airstrike, by car bomb, by massacre. These are known knowns. We know them now. We will never forget. We know that many people died. We know now that they didn’t have to die. Let that be Donald Rumsfeld’s epitaph. 

Scott Strgacich is Realist Review’s outgoing Editor-in-ChiefHe received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2018. He writes on a variety of topics including U.S. grand strategy, arms control, Iranian foreign policyclassical history and medieval history. He currently works for the U.S. House of Representatives.

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