By Ben Burgis
July 01, 2021 "Information
Clearing House" - - "Jacobin"
Donald Rumsfeld just died at the age of
eighty-eight. Obituaries at outlets like the
New York Times and
CNN consistently mention the same memorable but
pointless bits of trivia. He was America’s youngest
secretary of defense (in the Ford administration)
and the oldest (in the George W. Bush
administration). He wrote so many memos about so
many subjects that they came to be known as
“snowflakes.” Arriving at the Pentagon in the 1970s,
the Times tells us, he became famous for “his
one-handed push-ups and his prowess on a squash
To see the full absurdity of this, imagine an
obituary of Slobodan Milosevic that lingered on
innocuous details of his office management style and
fondness for soccer, or an obituary of Saddam
Hussein that focused on how young he was when he
formally became president of Iraq in 1979 and his
favorite dessert in his Baghdad palace.
Rumsfeld served in a variety of positions in the
Nixon administration throughout Tricky Dick’s first
term. He left the White House in 1973 to become the
US ambassador to NATO, only to return after Nixon’s
resignation to become transition chairman and then
the White House Chief of Staff for President Ford.
He was Chief of Staff until 1975 — the year the last
American helicopter left Vietnam. In October of that
year, he became secretary of defense.
To put these bland facts into perspective,
remember that Richard Nixon ran on the absurd claim
that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in
Vietnam. As a matter of fact, as Christopher
Hitchens explains in detail in
The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Nixon and
his allies conspired to sabotage peace talks between
the United States and North and South Vietnam in
order to guarantee that Nixon would win the
Nixon’s “plan” was, at least in practice, to
slowly lose the war — but only after expanding it by
bombing and invading neutral Cambodia. During
Rumsfeld’s years at the Nixon and Ford White Houses
and then NATO, the American Empire was shooting,
dismembering, and quite literally burning alive vast
numbers of Vietnamese peasants in order to preserve
a corrupt and wildly unpopular US-aligned regime.
During this time, Nixon can be
heard on his White House tapes referring to
Donald Rumsfeld as a “ruthless little bastard.” It’s
worth taking a beat to think about what sort of
person would earn that kind of admiration from
Nixon, a man who illegally conspired against his
domestic political enemies and oversaw genocidal
levels of deaths in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
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To be fair, Rumsfeld spent the first year or so
of his time in the Nixon administration helping to
shut down programs to help poor people in this
country as the head of the Office of Economic
Opportunity. In several other positions, though, he
was directly involved with the imperial war machine.
That alone might have been enough to earn him a
stiff punishment if the standards the United States
applied to captured war criminals after World War II
were ever applied to American officials.
But Rumsfeld’s most significant personal
involvement in crimes against humanity happened
later, during his second stint as Secretary of
Defense. He oversaw the invasion of Afghanistan,
kicking off the longest war in US history.
The official justification was that the Taliban
government refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to
the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Consistently applied, the principle that harboring
terrorists is sufficient grounds for war would
license Cuba to bomb Miami. It would also justify
escalating any number of tense stand-offs between
pairs of nations around the world into all-out
warfare and chaos. But the whole point of being an
empire is that you get to play by different rules
than the rest of the world.
During Rumsfeld’s second year as George W. Bush’s
secretary of defense, when Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney,
and the rest of the gang were pushing for an
invasion of Iraq, the justification was even weaker.
Saddam Hussein, we were told, might use
“weapons of mass destruction” himself, or share them
with Al Qaeda at some point in the future. So it was
important to cluster-bomb, invade, and occupy the
whole country to make sure that never happened. Ya
know, just in case. Imagine if the rest of the world
got to play by that rule.
In an infamous
column that year at the National Review,
Jonah Goldberg made the bluntest version of the case
for invading Iraq, approvingly quoting an old speech
by his friend Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or
so, the United States needs to pick up some small
crappy little country and throw it against the wall,
just to show the world we mean business.” Warming to
the same theme around the same time at the New
York Times, Thomas Friedman
said that “these countries” and their
“terrorist” pals were being sent an important
message by the very unpredictability of the Bush
Administration’s warmongering: We know what you’re
cooking in your bathtubs. “We don’t know exactly
what we’re going to do about it, but if you think we
are going to just sit back and take another dose
from you, you’re wrong. Meet Don Rumsfeld – he’s
even crazier than you are.”
Here’s what the craziness of Donald Rumsfeld
looked like in practice for the citizens of the
“crappy little countries” the United States picked
and threw against the wall during Rumsfeld’s years
as Bush’s Secretary of Defense: a peer-reviewed
study published in The Lancet, one of the
world’s most prestigious medical journals, in 2006 —
the year Rumsfeld left office — estimated 654,965
“excess deaths” in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.
That’s 2.5 percent of the total population of the
country dead as a result of the violence.
This doesn’t, of course, take into account the
spiraling waves of chaos and bloodshed that have
continued to rock the region throughout the eighteen
years since the region was destabilized by the 2003
invasion. A similar story has played out on a
smaller scale in Afghanistan — where US troops are
still present and wedding parties are
still being bombed almost two decades after
Rumsfeld and his friends got their invasion.
And this counting of corpses leaves out the
heartbreak of families in these countries that lost
loved ones. It leaves out the millions of refugees
displaced from their homes. It leaves out the
suffering of people who had limbs blown off or had
to care for people who did.
And it leaves out one of the most gut-wrenching
aspects of Rumsfeld’s time in office: his and
President Bush’s open embrace of what they called
“enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what any
human being with a shred of conscience would simply
call “torture.” Suspects illegally detained on
suspicion of involvement in terrorism (or even
involvement in resistance against the invasions of
their countries) were tortured under Rumsfeld’s
watch in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the notoriously
lawless “facility” at Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere
around the world. Some of that was done under the
auspices of the CIA. But much of it fell under the
purview of Rumsfeld’s department of defense.
In 2006, Berlin attorney Wolfgang Kaleck filed a
formal criminal complaint against Rumsfeld and
several other American officials for their
involvement in torture. Needless to say, Rumsfeld
never had to see the inside of a courtroom in
Germany or anywhere else.
In that sense, and only in that sense, Donald
Rumsfeld died too soon.
Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor and the
author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for
the Left. He is host of the podcast
Give Them An Argument.
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