Iraq War

Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld's "Gobbledygook" and the Twisted Logic that Led to Operation Iraqi Freedom


"The idea that people concluded President Bush made a terrible mistake by [invading Iraq], I think, is something that, over time, will be better understood," former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told American Public Media's Marketplace in May.

Rumsfeld can abandon hope that someday he'll be vindicated for his role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he is right in one sense: Eleven years after the U.S. invasion, we still don't fully understand the repercussions of Bush's "terrible mistake." Today, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is advancing through the country's northern provinces, slaughtering soldiers en masse, threatening to topple the Maliki government, turn the country into a safe haven for jihadism, and destabilize the region. Americans increasingly acknowledge a horrifying truth: 4,400 U.S. soldiers and as many as 191,000 Iraqis died so Iraq could become a more violent nation and a greater threat to the world.

Last April, Nick Gillespie sat down with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris for an extended chat about his fascinating new film The Unknown Known, which is a profile of Rumsfeld and an examination of the twisted logic that led the nation into a tragic war.

The original write up is below:

Donald Rumsfeld's "war crime," says Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris, is "the gobbledygook, the blizzard of words, the misdirections, the evasions…and ultimately at the heart of it all…the disregard and devaluation of evidence."

The former secretary of defense's complicated relationship with the truth is the subject of Morris' new documentary, The Unknown Knownwhich opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 4. The Unknown Known is an extended conversation with Rumsfeld, tracing his long career through the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush administrations, and focusing on his role in leading U.S. military forces into Iraq to fight a

Donald Rumsfeld in THE UNKOWN KNOWN ||| credit: Nubar Alexanian.
credit: Nubar Alexanian.

bloody and senseless war.

In the film, Morris engages in a verbal sparring session with Rumsfeld in an effort to break through the linguistic "evasions" and "gobbledygook" for which he's known.

The title of the film comes from Rumsfeld's response to a question by NBC reporter Jim Miklaszewski at a Pentagon news conference on February 12, 2002. When Miklaszewski asked Rumsfeld if there was any evidence that Iraq was supplying terrorists with weapons, Rumsfeld replied:

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.

The Unknown Known |||

In a four-part series in The New York Times titled "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld," Morris wrote: "Many people believe Rumsfeld's reply was brilliant. I think otherwise."

The Unknown Known is Errol Morris' 10th documentary feature. He's also the author of two best-selling books and the director of over 1,000 TV commercials. Much of Morris' work explores, as he puts it, "how people prefer untruth to truth" and how they're "blinded by their own spurious convictions."

Reason TV's Nick Gillespie sat down for an extended chat with Morris about The Unknown Known. They discussed, among other things, the difference between Rumsfeld and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whose complicated relationship with his own mistakes is the subject of Morris' Oscar-winning film, The Fog of War; Morris' take on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, which was the subject of his book, A Wilderness of Error; how Obama compares to Bush; his friendships with Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog; and why "we're all morons."

Gillespie conducted the interview using an "interrotron," a device Morris invented, which projects an interviewer's face over the camera lens. It creates the impression that the subject is looking directly into the eyes of the viewer.

About 41 minutes.

Shot and edited by Jim Epstein.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel to receive automatic updates when new material goes live.

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  1. Morris’ *Thin Blue* line helped free an innocent man, so I think he’s done some great work.

    But five years into the Obama administration, do we really need another Bush-baiting documentary?

    1. Yes, historians should just shut up about the Bush Administration. At least for 10-20 years or until we get another white GOP president.

      1. Not that I expect you to understand, but the point is that guys like Morris will NEVER do a documentary exposing the psychopathology of the Obama administration.

        10-20 years down the road (GOP president or not) we will still be lacking any real examination of the how awful this group of thugs and thieves were.

        And we’ll still get anti-Bush documentaries.

      2. Have I called you a disingenuous cunt recently?


        Well, you’re a disingenuous cunt.

    2. But five years into the Obama administration, do we really need another Bush-baiting documentary?

      We will need Bush bashing until a Republican is in the White House again. It’s very important that progtards have a Goldstein to hate.

  2. His apologia for Obama’s continuation of the Bush regime was also lame, extremely lame.

    1. His apologia for Obama’s continuation of the Bush regime was also lame, extremely lame.

      They all are.

  3. Jesus Fucking Christ on a crutch!!!!!!

    Lying in propagandizing war, while despicable, and possibly rising to a degree that might be criminal, is not a *war* crime.

    War crimes are particularly odious and indiscriminate acts against persons or property that volate the customs and treaties governing war making among so-called civilized nations.

    When you call deceitful propaganda a war crime, you are diminishing actual war crimes like the rape of Nanking as certainly as when you define a drunken tryst regretted later as a sexual assault you are diminishing what was done to the victims of forcible rape.

    Many of the Bush critics seem desperate to cloak their crimes with names that are utterly inappropriate, mainly because the Bush regime was not some outlier, but a particularly galling example of the lawlessness and deception emanating from the swamp on the Potomac.

    My guess is that those misappelations allow them to neatly avoid facing the abyss that the system is the problem and not some tiny set of scapegoats.

  4. I think this is a great documentary he’s done and it’s spot on.

    However, Morris is not without his blinders. Which is too bad because the guy seems wicked bright to me.

    He falls into the same trap: Obama is a saint, it’s just that he’s so bowled over by the Bush administration’s forever-powers that his hands are tied.

  5. I see no evidence that Iraq is a greater threat to the world than it was before. Now they’re just butchering each other. Further, Iraqi forces do seem to be holding to line and slowly pushing back the ISIS.

    1. Further, Iraqi forces do seem to be holding to line and slowly pushing back the ISIS.

      The ARVN is holding the line and will slowly push back the NVA soon.

  6. Rumsfeld deserves much of the criticism that he gets regarding the Iraq War. It was an unforced error of catastrophic consequence.

    Still, Rumsfeld should also be remembered as an early opponent to involuntary conscription … early as in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War.

    In his 5/2/67 Statement to the House Armed Services Committee, then Rep. Rumsfeld wrote “Military conscription is repugnant to a free society” with exceptions granted for dire circumstances like World War II. He condemned any system of involuntary service as inequitable unless all men are required to serve, without exceptions and deferments. He appended Milton Friedman’s arguments against conscription to provide “fuller explanation” of his opposition to the draft and other arguments for volunteerism.

    Compare that with the whole national service ideal of the progressive movement, as expressed by the likes of Ariana Huffington, Charlie Rangel, Rahm Emmanuel, Michael Smerconnish, and Stanley McChrystal.

    That which Rumsfeld found “repugnant”, modern progressives find to be a laudable ideal because slavery is cool when it’s practiced by the State.

    1. The Iraq War of 1991 was an unforced error and bad decision. The Iraq War of 2003 was merely finishing off and capping the damage from that decision at first. The nation-building and everything else after capturing Sadaam was an unforced error and catastrophic decision.

  7. I need a shower after just these few comments. You people are despicable. Where is the fucking libertarian site?

    1. Not a single comment in this thread at the time of your posting is supportive of the decision to go war, and in fact many called this war and what went up to it ” here are some quotes if you’re too tired to read through every thing,

      tarran, “Lying in propagandizing war, while despicable, and possibly rising to a degree that might be criminal, is not a *war* crime.”

      Paul.-“I think this is a great documentary he’s done and it’s spot on.”

      And while there are two comments praising Rumsfeld both of which make cogent point which you seem incapable of making.

  8. I do not like Donald Rumsfeld. I disagree with his politics, I disagree with his ideology. But he is a brilliant man. His statement about knowledge may be the single wisest thing anyone in his position has ever said. Just because Errol Morris has too small of a brain to understand it does not mean it is gobbledygook.

    1. Anyone who doesn’t understand the known known/unknown known statement is a fucking moron.

      Attacking Rumsfeld over his flaws, and they are legion, is reasonable. Claiming that a completely cogent and rational statement is ‘gobbledygook’ shows that you’re either an idiot or think that everyone else is.

    2. Rumsfeld’s epistemological statement is true, and those who presume to ridicule it only expose their own intellectual deficiency.

      However, Morris did make a reasonable criticism of Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown” statement. Rumsfeld offered this insight in response to a direct question about the absence of evidence that Iraq was linked with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The American public deserved a direct answer, and this response — despite its truthfulness and that fact that it was not gobbledygook — offered no evidence.

      If it was an answer at all, it was a confession that the Iraq War was based on hunch, a mere belief that Iraq might be up to unknown unknown bad things.

    3. I was about to post the same sentiment. I disagree with his policies, but that statement was brilliant. Even if you didn’t immediately understand it, anyone with a good grasp of English can understand it if they just took the time to parse it.

      It’s pretty amazing for politician to spout an insightful and fully logical statement like that off on the fly in response to a reporter’s question.

  9. Dunno folks. Finding a more plausible rationale for invading Iraq (oil! oil! oil! war profiteers! oil!…blah) in order to understand Bush’s real war aims makes more sense than going into this gobbledygook. At best, the question is whether Donald Rumsfeld had a longer job description than Jay Carney or Baghdad Bob.

    1. Id refine your statement that Iraq selling oil in Euros was the reason. Protect the petrodollar at all costs.

  10. Butts.

  11. Now that dude has a serous plan. Wow.

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