The Unknown Known
Errol Morris (2013)
The Unknown Known is the weirdest documentary I’ve ever seen. The subject is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his reflections on the disastrous War in Iraq. A third of the footage is archival and the other two-thirds consists of face-to-face interviews via a device director Errol Morris refers to as the Interrotron.
The film appears to have two goals: 1) to capture the essence of the major architect of America’s illegal wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq and 2) to allow him to reflect, in hindsight, exactly where things went wrong. As he expresses in the post-film discussion below, he fails on both scores. Morris totally fails to penetrate what Forbes describes as Rumsfeld’s “linguistic obfuscation.”
Unlike Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson), who expressed genuine regret over Vietnam in Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Rumsfeld maintains his management of the US war in Iraq was flawless.
The documentary is framed around the tens of thousands of memos Rumsfeld issued over the course of his career. There were so many of them that his subordinates referred to them as “snowflakes.” This approach works well because all Rumsfeld’s decisions around the War on Terror are reflected in specific memos.
The most consistent criticisms around Rumsfeld’s role in the Iraqi occupation were his failure to involve other members of the Bush administration in decision making and his failure to make specific plans for a post-invasion government. When Morris asks about these critiques of his job performance, Rumsfeld bats them away, as he did in many press briefings, with clever word play or by quibbling over definitions.
For example when asked about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used as a pretext for invading Iraq, he repeats the infamous line he gave reporters: “Absence of evidence doesn’t prove something doesn’t exist.”
Morris uses early memos to reconstruct Rumsfeld’s term in Congress (1962-1970) and his service in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administration. My favorite part of the film is an excerpt from the infamous Nixon White House tapes in which Nixon, Haldeman and Kissinger agree to fire Rumsfeld for being manipulative and untrustworthy.
As Ford’s Secretary of Defense, he strongly opposed détente, a policy started under Nixon to improve understand and ease tensions with the Soviet Union. As he expresses in one of his memos, the prospect of peace with the Soviets was making Congress and the American public reluctant to invest in defense infrastructure.
As the quagmire in Iraq caused George W Bush’s popularity to plummet, the President would sack Rumsfeld in December 2006 and replace him with Robert Gates, an official from Bush senior’s administration.
The title of the documentary is taken from an infamous example of Rumsfeld verbal gymnastics during a press briefing:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
In the clip below, Morris frankly discusses his own feelings about the documentary