'The Unknown Known'

Simultaneously incredulous, deeply funny and unsettling in slow-motion, Errol Morris' documentary about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld turns him from a grumpy war criminal in to an the type of absurd nihilist who would fit in perfectly as a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

The title of Morris' film and the center around which it coalesces is drawn from a memo Rumsfeld sent around the time of the second Iraq war. Rumsfeld apparently sent thousands and thousands of these curt, cryptic memos to staffers and colleagues alike during his time at the Pentagon; this particular one focuses on known knowns (the things you know that you know), known unknowns (the things you know that you don't know), unknown unknowns (the things you don't know that you don't know) and unknown knowns (the things you don't know that you know).

Or at least that's what I think it was about. Not even Rumsfeld, a decade on, can quite make sense of his own "deep" thoughts, stumbling all over his own logic at one point during the film when Morris has him recite then attempt to explain what he meant in the memo.

In its own way, Rumsfeld's hazy recollection is a perfect metaphor for the way the United States dealt with the fallout of 9/11 and continues to deal with our actions subsequent to that attack, which is to say, we don't really deal with it at all. We've collectively shrugged our shoulders at the early part of the 2000s, as if to tell the world "it made sense at the time." We haven't done nearly enough to correct blunders that, at least in most cases, are understandable given our collective fear and panic. We are still rubbing our temples, trying to massage away our national hangover, wondering why we did what we did last night.

I don't want to stray too far from Rumsfeld, though. He should not be let off so easily, and Morris, simply by allowing him to talk and flash his creepy, uncertain smile over and over, places Rumsfeld squarely on the hook. Viewed with the rosiest-colored of glasses, he is the person most responsible for the shambolic war in Iraq that cost us billions upon billions (to say nothing of the devastating psychological damage). Through at best gross mismanagement, he is culpable for the abuses of enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. He is one of the principal causes of our lingering headache. If you have a worse opinion of him, adjust those assessments accordingly.

What's most interesting is why Rumsfeld was able to take us down this road. There's an empty moral relativism to everything he says and, by the sample of memos Morris buries us with through Rumsfeld's recitations and simply by putting his words on the screen, everything he writes. You get the sense Rumsfeld, armed with scores of platitudes like "unknown unknowns," could talk himself in to almost any sinister action. Morris repeatedly uses the imagery of a vast and empty ocean stretching on to the horizon as if to say this is the vast expanse someone like Rumsfeld -- absent a moral compass -- must fill up every day. No wonder, then, that things turned out like they did.

Evil, as I wrote in my review of The Act of Killing, is infinitely more banal than we often imagine. Rumsfeld is simply another data point proving this bit of personal wisdom -- affirming that bad deeds often arise out of moral center that has been drowned out rather than one that has been shut off or never even existed in the first place.