Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and so many others killed in the wars he launched and in the torture cells he oversaw, Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully.
Taking over the Pentagon as secretary of defense for the second time in 2001, Rumsfeld was one of the leading neoconservative ideologues surrounding President George W. Bush who saw the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an opportunity to go to war. The Washington Post described a conversation between the not-yet president and not-yet secretary of defense in which Rumsfeld told Bush that US military power was needed to discipline the world. “I left no doubt in his mind but that, at that moment where something happens, that I would be coming to him to lean forward, not back. And that I wanted [him] to know that.… And he said, unambiguously, that that is what he would be doing, and we had a clear, common understanding,” Rumsfeld recalled.
War was on the Bush administration’s agenda immediately. On September 12, Bush would give his infamous “We will rally the world” speech, and Rumsfeld began crafting an invasion of Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. More than anyone else, Rumsfeld was the architect of Bush’s “Global War on Terror.”
Although the mainstream media didn’t report it right away, it quickly became clear that civilian casualties in Afghanistan were unspeakably high. The first survey of civilian casualties determined that the best explanation lay in “the apparent willingness of US military strategists to fire missiles into and drop bombs upon heavily populated areas of Afghanistan.… the critical element remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by US military planners and the political elite.” Rumsfeld, of course, was both.
EAT YOUR CLUSTER BOMBS, BOYS & GIRLS
Two weeks into the war, Rumsfeld’s press office grudgingly acknowledged that US bombers had indeed dropped cluster bombs, a now-illegal form of weapons, on the village of Shaker Qala, near Herat in western Afghanistan. The bombs killed nine civilians and injured another 14. But Rumsfeld’s office had a bigger problem than that. The cluster bombs were wrapped in bright yellow tape. And at the exact same time, Pentagon planes were dropping food packets for desperate Afghan refugees that were covered with identical bright yellow wrappings. Any famished child running to pick up what looked like a food packet ran a good chance of being blown up by a US cluster bomb. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, standing alongside Rumsfeld at a press conference, admitted that civilians might confuse the two, but said the United States had no intention of suspending the use of cluster bombs.
The Pentagon press glitches never got better. Rumsfeld kept journalists on a tight leash and largely out of frontline areas. His briefings never earned the Vietnam War–era “Five O-Clock Follies” sobriquet—not least because public support across the country remained high during the first months, even the first few years, of this first “forever war.” But outside US borders, the rest of the world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, was learning more and more about civilian casualties. One response from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was the establishment of the Office of Strategic Influence. Its official job included things like dropping leaflets advertising rewards for information on where Osama bin Laden might be hiding or radio scripts designed, in Rumsfeld’s own words, “to counter the lies that this was a war against the Afghan people or a war against Muslims, which it wasn’t.” The OSI was forced to close soon after its opening after an inconvenient leak to the press—but not before mainstream media outlets had a field day with the news. The New York Times headline was “New Agency Will Not Lie, Top Pentagon Officials Say.” Not The Onion—The New York Times.
AND ON TO BAGHDAD
For Rumsfeld, Afghanistan was never really the point. It was a gateway war, laying the groundwork for the real invasion that was possible as a result of the 9/11 attacks. War in Iraq had been on his agenda for years—and Rumsfeld put it on the table about 24 hours after the Twin Towers collapsed, in the early-morning meeting at the White House. He asked why the United States shouldn’t just go after Iraq right away. The only opposition was on the question of timing—the public was focused on Al Qaeda, so the war should start by going after Al Qaeda. Iraq could come later. No one among the top Bush officials seems to have answered Rumsfeld’s rhetorical question with the actual answer—that Iraq’s government had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11.
Rumsfeld’s interest in Iraq was long-standing. In early 1998, while the Republican neoconservative cabal that would staff George W. Bush’s White House and Pentagon was largely killing time in think tanks and making a killing in arms and related industries, the once-and-future secretary of defense was involved with the creation of the Project for the New American Century. PNAC’s founders included most of the key neoconservative ideologues who would, two years later, take back Washington’s reins of power—Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, and, of course, Rumsfeld. The goal of the project included pressuring then-President Bill Clinton to carry out regime change in Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Less than a year later, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, and regime change becomes official US policy.
Fifteen years earlier, in 1983, Rumsfeld had a more up-close and personal connection with the Iraqi leader—then Washington’s favorite to win the Iraq-Iran war that was devastating the young men and border communities of both countries. He went to Baghdad as the envoy of then-President Ronald Reagan, to arrange with Hussein how best Washington might make sure that Iraq, the weaker of the two sides, would win against Iran. The United States offered to provide arms, intelligence, and more—including material (which was indeed delivered) that became seed stock for biological weapons. Presumably by the time Hussein had become the US enemy du jour, Rumsfeld and his cohorts were counting on the American people’s short memory to make sure no one brought up the embarrassing meeting.
Somehow that didn’t work out so well. And as word got out during the run-up to the 2003 war that the secretary of defense had once shaken hands and talked nicely with this supposed monster, a few red faces emerged. As Al Jazeera described it, “An embarrassed Rumsfeld tried to salvage some mileage by claiming on 21 September 2002 in a CNN interview that he had during the 1983 meeting warned Saddam Hussein against the use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately for him, a US cable recording of his meeting with Saddam subsequently revealed he had said no such thing.”
War with Iraq, its physical and social infrastructure already shredded following a decade of Washington’s crippling sanctions, had nothing to do with 9/11. For Rumsfeld and his neocon colleagues, Iraq was a target waiting to be taken down. The reasons were both ideological and strategic—a crucial location for the projection of US military power, control of oil, the establishment of military bases; and destruction of a regional power challenging Washington’s and its Arab and Israeli allies’ hegemony in the Middle East.
It would be the critical success of the effort to transform US foreign policy from a kind of pragmatic imperialism often relying on fig leaves of multilateralism to an unlimited assertion of US power based on preemptive military force.
So within just a few months of the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its replacement by an imposed government of Afghan exiles vetted and chosen by the US-led coalition, Washington’s strategic military energy turned from Kabul to Baghdad. Rumsfeld was in his element.
First came the lies. Rumsfeld’s false claims justifying war in Iraq continued and escalated. The inaugural lie, of course, was the entire premise that Iraq’s government was somehow connected to the 9/11 attacks. Assertion was easy, and with a mainstream media largely unwilling to challenge even known lies, there were few questions asked. Then came weapons of mass destruction, uranium yellowcake from Niger, Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes that could “only” be used for nuclear weapons production. The deception at the UN Security Council, where the supposed good guy among the Bush war criminals, Secretary of State Colin Powell, got up and lied to the council, lied to the American people, and lied to the world about what the United States “knew” about Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs.
Rumsfeld was the biggest cheerleader for the war in Iraq. (Well, maybe. Hard to say if Wolfowitz or Cheney or one of the others might beat him out for the No. 1 slot. But Rumsfeld was right up there.) In September 2002, when the effort to win public support and UN authorization for war against Iraq was at its height, Rumsfeld received a memo outlining just how weak the case for war really was. It was an “inventory of what US intelligence knew—or more importantly didn’t know—about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” It went on: “We’ve struggled to estimate the unknowns.… We range from 0% to about 75% knowledge on various aspects of their program.” A later section acknowledged the weakness in the administration’s case for war: the false claim about a nonexistent Iraqi nuclear weapons program. “Our knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program,” it said, was “based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”
The document had been prepared by the director of intelligence of the Joint Chiefs, and Rumsfeld took some notes on it and sent it back to General Myers. “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD,” he wrote in the margins of the memo. “It is big.” What was big, of course, was the potential damage to Rumsfeld’s and his White House cohort’s propaganda campaign to support war against Iraq. As a result, neither Rumsfeld nor the Joint Chiefs shared the report with anyone else in the administration—not the White House, not the State Department, not anyone else.
After the lies came the scandals. Torture, from the beginning. First at CIA “black sites” in countries around the world that would promise—for a price—to keep silent about the hooded, shackled men brought into their territory to secret CIA-run torture centers. Then Guantánamo—turning the illegally occupied US naval base in Cuba into a harsh, isolated, and brutal prison. Then the prisons created by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which kept popping up across Iraq—Abu Ghraib (remember the photographs of Rumsfeld’s young men and women soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in 2004?) and Camp Bucca (where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, later the founder of ISIS, was imprisoned that same year by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon). Rumsfeld’s bureaucrats described torture in banal, regulated lists of “enhanced interrogation methods”—sleep deprivation, extremes of cold and heat, hours in painful stress positions, waterboarding.
Killing of civilians was a feature of Rumsfeld’s war in Iraq. Air strikes ostensibly aimed at “enemy” forces (whoever the “enemy” was that month or that year) somehow kept managing to hit funeral processions and wedding parties and markets. And children. Ground troops shot at anything, or anyone, that moved—including children. Special Forces kicked in doors, killing everyone inside—including children—and planted weapons to make it look like a gun fight. Almost no one was ever charged, let alone convicted, of a crime. On the rare occasion that some soldiers or Pentagon-paid military contractors did face charges for killing civilians, they almost never spent time in prison. The four Blackwater contractors finally convicted, one of first-degree murder and others of manslaughter, and sentenced to 30 years or life in prison, were soon pardoned by Donald Trump and released from prison. They had killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians for no reason in Nisour Square in downtown Baghdad in 2007. Including children.
THE COSTS OF HIS WARS
The human, environmental, economic, and social costs of Rumsfeld’s war in Iraq are staggering.
In Afghanistan at least 47,245 civilians and 69,000 security forces have been killed in the war since 2001. In the past five years alone, when civilian deaths and injuries from US and US-backed air strikes escalated, 40 percent of all civilian air strike casualties were children. One thousand, five hundred and ninety-eight children. Iraq Body Count has documented a total of 288,000 deaths from violence since Rumsfeld’s Iraq war began in 2003. Of those, from 186,000 to 209,000 deaths were of civilians. The numbers are all approximate. While Rumsfeld’s military made clear from the beginning that it would count every injury and certainly every death among US forces, tabulating Afghan civilians or Iraqi families killed in the wars was just not their thing. “We don’t do body counts,” he blithely acknowledged in 2002.
According to the National Priorities Project, Rumsfeld’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost $5.4 trillion and counting. If Rumsfeld and his Bush administration cohorts had decided to treat the 9/11 attacks for what they were, a horrific crime against humanity, rather than answering those acts with a global war, imagine what that money could have been used for instead. It’s almost the cost of the combined American Jobs and American Families bills now under consideration in Congress. Imagine: a green infrastructure and health care and jobs and education and a care economy. And all those hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis would still be alive.
Rumsfeld’s two-part legacy will remain key to understanding US history in the early 21st century. The first part will be the legacy of the lives destroyed by his wars. The second part will be the legacy of the extraordinary US and global movements against war, against empire, for justice instead of vengeance, that Rumsfeld’s illegal actions inspired. Those movements, along with the legacy of those lost to the wars, will far outlast his name.
The Onion, hours after Rumsfeld’s death, ran a headline “Weapon of Mass Destruction Found Dead at 88.” But “weapon” implies something that someone else uses or controls. Rumsfeld was responsible not only for cheerleading and propagandizing for war but for organizing, deploying, and commanding war as well. Somehow “weapon” isn’t quite right. “War criminal” will do just fine.