The haze of history: Errol Morris queries Donald Rumsfeld about fog of Iraq War

A 2013 study estimated that the second Iraq War cost the United States over $2 trillion. Tens of thousands of casualties include the deaths of almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers. The war is responsible for our increased use of enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, as well as the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and other facilities.

How we got into the war is one of the key questions behind The Unknown Known, a new documentary from Oscar-winning director Errol Morris. In the RADiUS–TWC release, Morris interviews Donald Rumsfeld, a former Defense Secretary who perhaps more than any other person can be called the architect of the Iraq War.

Speaking by phone from his office in Cambridge, Mass., Morris says that Rumsfeld cooperated fully with the project, agreeing to sit in a studio and undergo questioning with the director's Interrotron camera. Rumsfeld read selections from his self-described "blizzard" of 10,000 memos dictated during his career. He also read from a memo by Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes which authorized some enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo.

"If you want to pick out one central theme in almost every single movie I've done, it's self-deception," says Morris, whose titles include Mr. Death and Tabloid. In The Thin Blue Line, Morris' work helped lead to the exoneration of Randall Adams, who was wrongly convicted of killing a Dallas police officer. Morris won an Oscar for The Fog of War, in which former Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara tries to come to terms with the legacy of the Vietnam War.

Morris sees The Unknown Known as the third part of an informal trilogy that includes The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, in which he interviews Lynndie England, an Army Specialist who received a three-year sentence for her part in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

The director shot Rumsfeld in the same studio in which he filmed England, but with markedly different results. "I said to Rumsfeld when we first met that I was hoping to get from him an idea of why we went to war in Iraq. I said if you could do this, it would be an important public service. And he agreed.

"You look for depth," Morris continues, "you look for someone connected to history, and you find nothing. You find this infernal grin. Having made this film, I would have to say I know less about why we went to Iraq than I did going into it. And I think there's something very important to be learned from that."

In an Op Ed piece he wrote for The New York Times, Morris compares Rumsfeld to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, in particular his maddening self-assurance. "I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything," he wrote. "It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction, and behind the grin might be nothing at all."

Morris doesn't play "gotcha" journalism. He doesn't ambush subjects, he doesn't badger them on camera, and he doesn't draw easy conclusions. That can be a problem for viewers used to being told what to think.

"But I am telling people what to think," Morris argues. "They may choose not to think it. There's something I call the 'cloven hoof' model. It means that there are evildoers, they're aware they've done evil things, and our job is to expose them for what they really are—reveal the cloven hoof. But I think the problem is vastly more complicated and frightening."

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld delivers staggering opinions in a way that makes him seem completely oblivious of their meaning. The attack on Pearl Harbor was "a failure of imagination" on the part of the U.S. government. About the Vietnam War: "Some things work out; some don't. That didn't." In a press conference he tells reporters that the United States didn't assassinate any Iraqis: "We just killed some people."

Amazingly, Rumsfeld claims never to have read the "torture memos" prepared for the Bush administration because "I'm not a lawyer, what would I know?"

"What am I supposed to think?" Morris asks. "My films are trying to capture something about the world, about a person, about the complexity of that person. I'm sitting there and Rumsfeld seems blissfully unaware of himself. Absolutely unaware. Could I ever imagine coming up with answers like these? It's the ultimate emptiness, and to me that is the most frightening thing about this story."

In Morris's "cloven hoof" model, we seek out conspiracies to explain the world. "We love these pictures or images of evil incarnate because they give us comfort, they make sense out of the world, they isolate these people from us," he reasons.

"That's not to say we shouldn't blame these people. Should Rumsfeld be blamed for his policies? Of course he should. I don't want to give the impression for a minute that I don't hold Rumsfeld accountable or responsible for what he has done."

But Morris is grappling with a larger, more frightening issue than fixing blame. "For Rumsfeld, language is like gobbledygook. It's not Orwellian, it's something worse. Almost as if Rumsfeld wants to hold the world at arm's length, not just from the American people but from himself as well. If he can come up with the right words, the right definitions, the right nomenclature, maybe everything is just fine. The war is justified, the war is going well, we're vindicated. I mean he believes this stuff."

Central to The Unknown Known are examples of Rumsfeld's twisted logic. The title refers to a 2004 memo in which Rumsfeld dictated, "There are also unknown knowns—that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not."

"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said how brilliant they think the 'known knowns, the known unknowns'—how brilliant they think these distinctions are," Morris says ruefully. "But they are simply a way to justify anything. This so-called logic was disastrous for our country."

Does Rumsfeld believe what he says? Does he know the implications? At one point he describes meeting Saddam Hussein in 1983, observing, "He was living his image of himself, which was pretend."

"I'm sitting there," Morris remembers, "we're looking at each other, into each other's eyes, and I think I actually said, ‘Good grief.' I just held it, twenty, thirty, forty seconds, it was interminable. And I kept thinking, surely he's aware of what he's saying, that it could be construed as him talking about himself."

Morris even imagined a new syndrome for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: "Irony Deficit Disorder—the inability to hear irony, or the inability to see one's self."

Werner Herzog once said that the most important thing he learned about making documentaries from Morris was to leave the camera on. "For me, the story is often being told in the unexpected moments," Morris says. "The moments that ostensibly have no content but in fact become the real meaning of the film, like that grin of self-satisfaction."

Rumsfeld's unshakeable belief in his actions, his unwavering grin, anchor The Unknown Known. But they are also symptomatic of everything that transpired under the Bush administration.

"What happens when you live in a society that has never punished the evildoers?" Morris asks. "Where somehow they've been given a pass? How do these people see themselves?"

The director's approach here and in his other films runs counter to many documentaries. "I'm not documenting the date that troops rolled into Baghdad or Bush's appearance on the 'Mission Accomplished' aircraft carrier," he notes. "I'm asking the people who were involved to give an accounting. Often it's a self-serving account, a very strange, misleading account. But I sometimes call it history from the inside out rather than from the outside in."

When Rumsfeld delivers nonsensical pronouncements like "Absence of evidence is the evidence of absence," Morris doesn't want to let him get away with it. "I sometimes say the study of history is the study of the avoidance of history. Too often we just forget. And that forgetting, the failure to provide a reckoning, is probably at the core of all history."

Morris offers one final insight into the Defense Secretary. As a favor to Rumsfeld, the director agreed to interview his wife Joyce, even though he knew he wouldn't be using the material in the finished film. After they had done and she went back to the dressing room, Rumsfeld turned to Morris and said, "It's really nice to listen to someone who thinks before speaking."