Book Review: Known and Unknown

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 9, 2011

There are a significant number of people out there willing to go the Krugman route, and not read anything written by Donald Rumsfeld. Heaven forfend that the 13th and 21st Secretary of Defense put forth arguments that might interfere with the preconceived notions of various critics. But if those people miss out on reading Known and Unknown, they’ll only be cheating themselves.

Agree or disagree with Rumsfeld, he’s written a very readable, very informative book that does an excellent job of revealing his world view, and telling the reader of the formative experiences that helped define that world view. Rumsfeld’s concerns regarding American involvement in Vietnam, and his stint as President Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East went a long way towards shaping his approaches to Afghanistan and Iraq as Secretary of Defense. His desire to keep the American presence as light as possible in both countries, for as long as possible, stemmed from watching the South Vietnamese and the Lebanese become overly reliant on the presence and work of American forces–so much so, that their own governments and security forces became dysfunctional in the process. Whether one takes issue with Rumsfeld’s opinion on these issues, it is very important to consider the background that helped form his thinking on the matter. As Rumsfeld himself states in his book, he was a “latecomer” to the idea of a surge, but he ended up supporting it, and he is readily forthcoming with his praise of the strategy, believing that it helped turn the tide on how the American military effort in Iraq was perceived here at home, and believing that it prevented Congressional Democrats from cutting off funding for the war. I supported the idea of a surge before Rumsfeld appears to have done, and my takeaway lesson from the Iraq conflict is that while a light and agile military force is desirable in order to triumph in the initial combat operations stage, the insertion of more troops and the adoption of a strategy commensurate with the doctrine spelled out in The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is probably the best way to go in fighting similar wars in the future. But in reading Known and Unknown, I certainly learned a great deal more about Rumsfeld’s thinking, which alone made the book worth reading. And in learning more about Rumsfeld’s thinking, I was able to appreciate his concerns more than I did prior to reading his book.

Of course, there is a great deal more to Rumsfeld’s career than his service in the Bush Administration, and we learn about his time in Congress, his stewardship of the Office of Economic Opportunity, his service as NATO Ambassador, as White House Chief of Staff, and as Secretary of Defense in the Ford Administration. Additionally, we learn a lot about Rumsfeld’s private sector career as a businessman and CEO. Whatever one wishes to say about the man, he’s lived a rich and varied life, and he writes compellingly about it.

Being a book geek, I am glad to see that Known and Unknown makes frequent use of footnotes and endnotes. I am also glad that there is a document repository found here for the general public to access. As mentioned here, Known and Unknown is not the typical, saccharine-filled political memoir. Rather, it is a book Rumsfeld was heavily invested in writing; references from the book populate his speech, which indicates that unlike many celebrity writers, he had a very hands-on role as an author. And given the Obama Administration’s reaffirmation of robust executive powers, along with the reaffirmation of the Administration’s reliance on Guantanamo Bay as a detention center, it would seem wise to consider what Rumsfeld thinks about the policies of the day. After all, many of those policies–crafted by him, and by his colleagues in the Bush Administration–are now being endorsed by the Obama Administration.

I suppose I am somewhat biased when it comes to this review; I have the same political leanings on many of the issues of the day as Rumsfeld does. He was nice enough to let me interview him. And I am friends with people on his staff. But none of that makes Known and Unknown any less impressive as a memoir.

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