Donald Rumsfeld is dead at age 88 of multiple myeloma. He held many positions of power and respect in American institutions public and private over the past six decades, including naval aviator in the 1950s, Illinois representative in Congress in the 1960s, ambassador to NATO and chief of the wage-and-price-control-imposing Cost of Living Council under President Richard Nixon, and both chief of staff and secretary of defense to President Gerald Ford in the 1970s. In the private sector, he worked in senior management in companies including pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle (1977–85) and electronics firm General Instrument (1990–93).
But Rumsfeld's most intense impact on his country and world history, and what he will doubtless be remembered for when all the other details have faded, was his role as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush when the U.S. launched its wars against Afghanistan beginning in earnest in October 2001 and against Iraq starting in March 2003 that overthrew its dictator Saddam Hussein; that war alone left over 4,000 U.S. troops dead and over 31,000 wounded in action.
The War in Afghanistan, 20 years on, is perhaps finally sputtering to a close with little gained and much lost. The Iraq invasion also happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the U.S., but Iraq had nothing to do with that. Intervention was justified with rumors of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that were said to represent some threat to the U.S., but Rumsfeld was well aware we didn't really know whether they existed or not, and it seems after all they did not.
Rumsfeld already had placed his reputational weight before 9/11 behind the idea that the U.S. must do something to keep various imagined international foes from getting or having the sort of weapons we had, with the 1998 Rumsfeld Report. Rumsfeld was at least honest enough eventually to be doubtful about whether imposing the precious gift of democracy was a reasonable or worthwhile goal for invading. The invading was to be its own reward when neither WMDs nor democracy was a legitimate reason or excuse, in showing the world's bad guys they can expect the U.S. to go through any amount of trouble to topple them.
Attempts to topple bad guys in the Rumsfeldian spirit have continued to generate chaos and death in the Middle East ever since. Militias from Iraq, the nation Rumsfeld felt it necessary to ruin at nearly any cost, are inspiring the Biden administration to blow things up and kill people in the Middle East even to the week of Rumsfeld's passing.
Rumsfeld was intelligent enough to realize about a year in that the U.S. military occupation would take a long time, yet he believed that domestic critiques of his war policies were dangerous to the "ability of free societies to persevere."
After the GOP's bruising in the 2006 midterms, Bush finally let Rumsfeld go (though Rumsfeld insisted he tried to resign over the embarrassment of publicity surrounding abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.) While Rumsfeld always purported to be proud of his role in Congress as a co-sponsor and advocate of the original Freedom of Information Act in 1966, he tried along with his old associate then-Vice President Dick Cheney to keep some of the darker facts about U.S. shameful behavior at Abu Ghraib hidden.
Long after departing office, Rumsfeld remained unrepentant and belligerent about the U.S.'s past and future roles on the world stage, and in a Republican context that then had to pay lip service to spending, he insisted that spending on war and preparation for conflict didn't count.
Rumsfeld was a major figure in the expansion of American wealth and reputation toward war and instruments of war, from his 1970s days in the Ford administration as a voice for new nuclear weapons systems and against arms reduction talks through Iraq and beyond. He never had serious second thoughts in public, and despite the cost in lives and civilization to Iraq over the past decades, he always believed it was the right thing to do, despite likely costs of nearly $6 trillion before the lifespan of those we sent to fight it are over, and 134,000 dead Iraqi civilians.
Like most human beings, Rumsfeld had human qualities that made some admire, appreciate, or love him, including famously helping the wounded into ambulances at the Pentagon on 9/11. In the end, it's not his fault that a position like "secretary of defense of the United States" and its concomitant power to command lives, technology, and wealth toward personal and civilizational destruction and misery exist, and better or worse men in certain terms may have done better or worse things with that office's awful power. But it is worth remembering as he passes just how badly things can go when a man has that power, even a man with elements of conventional decency.
Bonus: Check out Reason's Nick Gillespie's illuminating interview with Errol Morris, who made a revealing documentary about Rumsfeld: