In Rumsfeld’s ruins

Published July 4, 2021
The writer is a barrister.
The writer is a barrister.

IN the last days of June, Donald Henry Rumsfeld passed away in his sleep, surrounded by family in Taos, the vacation town he loved. At 88 years old, he had lived a full life. “May his memory be a blessing,” wrote one Congressman.

It was also in the last days of June, if a while ago, that an American soldier revealed to therapists that his platoon had raped a 14-year-old girl, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, before shooting her dead along with her mother, her father, and her sister in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Her body was doused in petrol and then set on fire. She would have been my age today.

When confronted with such horrors, the defence secretary had said, “We have arrangements so that our people are processed by our people.”

That was the most maddening thing about Donald Rumsfeld. Compared to overt morons like Bush and cons like Blair, a bureaucrat from Chicago gave new meaning to the idea that evil was boring.

“Stuff happens,” he said, in response to looting in Baghdad. “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war,” he said of fatalities in Afghanistan. “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t,” he said on the fall of Saigon.

The former defence secretary was unrepentant to the end.

It’s the sort of soundbite no comic book supervillain could get away with. Then again, this was all kosher after 9/11: Vanity Fair fawned over Rummy’s “oddly reassuring ruthlessness”. ABC News called him smart and charming. National Review ran his hatchet face on the cover under the title ‘The Stud’.

Most chickenhawks are made; Donald Rumsfeld was born. A 1932 baby, Rummy was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam. Having never seen war, he was all too happy filling Arlington cemetery with other people’s kids.

Ideally, he should have been diagnosed the very first time he flashed his empty grin in Congress. But Rumsfeld’s rise came at a low moment for the imperial agenda: traumatised by Vietnam and scandalised by Watergate, the right was reassured by a bright young Princeton grad that kept saying, again and again, “Weakness is provocative.”

Yet another testament to the fact that Ivy League education inflates credentials, overproduces elites, and largely serves as a vehicle for the transmission of social capital to the next generation, young Rumsfeld skipped his way into the cabinet. He sidestepped Nixon — the only man criminal enough to have seen right through him — and won over his successor, Gerald Ford.

As Ford’s chief of staff and then defence secretary, Rumsfeld proved a desk warrior par excellence. He outplayed bigger names (Kissinger), humiliated longer pedigrees (Rockefeller and the elder Bush), and pushed for bloodlust years ahead of its time. To that end, he also hired a loser from Wyoming called Dick Cheney, marking the start of a relationship that murdered a million Iraqis and thousands of Afghans a generation later.

When George W. appointed Rumsfeld defence secretary, the Bush dynasty’s servants were shocked (“You know what he did to your daddy,” said one). The Rummy-Cheney combine was back, with three decades of experience running Congress, the Oval Office, and the Pentagon between them. The Bushies didn’t stand a chance.

If there’s any lesson here, it’s that empire needs no excuse. As The Onion put it, the only weapon of mass destruction in Iraq was Rummy himself. For anyone awake, though, upending Saddam and pillaging Baghdad had always been on the cards: “There are no good targets in Afghanistan,” Rumsfeld said as early as Sept 12, 2001. “Let’s bomb Iraq.”

The other lesson may well be how vague words poison the truth. “Political language,” said Orwell, “is desig­ned to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Hence ‘un­­k­nown knowns’ and ‘unknown un­­kn­owns’, or how the absence of evidence wasn’t evidence of absence — mindless drivel for dressing up war crimes. His intel briefs dripped with crusader imagery, when a more accurate picture would have been Halliburton’s snout in Basra’s oil.

A flaming disaster at the helm, he was unrepentant to the end: his decision to disband Iraq’s army spawned IS and its sectarian butchers; his ‘shock-and-awe’ invasions were premised on the mass murder of civilians; his torture memos fuelled rape and sodomy in pits like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

But he was nonetheless able to transform a bloated military-industrial complex into a corporation of contractors, volunteers, and drones — the kind that native informants continue to weep for here. Thus, though neoconservatism is dead, the forever war model — invisible yet everywhere — has prevailed under three successive presidents, with no one to hear or care.

As Rumsfeld prepares to invade the afterlife, one wonders whether he’ll find the same forever wars he unleashed on earth. May all the families he destroyed, including Abeer’s, rest in peace.

The writer is a barrister.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2021

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