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The Archaeology of Delusion

The Unknown Known (2014), Written and Directed by Errol Morris —


Suppose I replace Moore’s ‘I know’ with ‘I am of the unshakeable conviction’?
Wittgenstein, On Certainty §86

Twenty-five hundred years of thinking about it and we are hardly closer to a definition of knowledge. We can’t even decide whether it should be a noun or a verb, metaphysical or metabolic, particulate or discursive. But at least we know this: the worst thing you can do, maybe ever, is confuse knowing with believing, with certainty. According to Socrates, and Plato on Socrates via Vlastos, knowledge is something which, and only which, survives repeated testing in the process of elenctic inquiry. Me using you as a whetstone. True beliefs and certainties, in contrast to knowledge, can be derived from other, lazier things, such as reputability, emotion, and ‘common sense’—things which also foment and harbor delusions.

In Socratic terms, Donald Rumsfeld’s use of a Boolean structure—known knowns / known unknowns & unknown unknowns / and unknown knowns—isn’t illogical, nor is it bad grammar. This apparently simple phrase lends a title to Errol Morris’s 105-minute documentary film, The Unknown Known, not for its ineffable wisdom, but because of the circumstances in which it was uttered. When Rumsfeld said it, and what if anything he meant by it. These words ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ have everything to do with why we went to war in Iraq in 2003. But instead of placing Rumsfeld at the center of the war narrative and watching him find his way out, the film excavates his words, lets him expose them, lets them expose him. The rhetoric becomes, in fact, more central than Rumsfeld. The language is broken open, its stratigraphy charted. The elenctic routines are short and seemingly productive, and yet, after 33 hours with Rumsfeld over the course of a year, Errol Morris knows less about why we went to war in Iraq than when he began. This failure to produce knowledge through elenchus is the film’s exquisitely inverse success.

Errol Morris: Are you saying stuff just happens?

Donald Rumsfeld: Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that aren’t planned for and aren’t fully anticipated, and things occur which shouldn’t occur.

It’s a request for a specificity. But Rumsfeld won’t go deeper, won’t make anything specific, and is careful not to slip into a register of culpability. His choice of words could denote either a witholding of regret or a natural moral obtuseness. This is a film, in the first place, about word choice. Rumsfeld’s scholastic word choices in the tens of thousands of memos he authored, and the same language used in post hoc analysis. Only differently. Very differently.

EM: Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?

DR: That is a vicious question. I’ll be darned if I know.

Rumsfeld wanted to do the interview, which means there was something he wanted to tell the world on camera. Morris wanted, actually, nothing more than a look inside the snowglobe—the crystalline world of a self-satisfied statesman who sent around so many memos that they came to be called ‘snowflakes’. Neither of them wanted an indictment. What Rumsfeld wants is the final, earthy, measured word on the subject of the language of his decisions. He doesn’t want to have his name associated with the sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib. Instead he wants us to know and be certain that his choice as a statesman in 2003 was between action and inaction, and that inaction is the worse of the two in explaining oneself in a post mortem. He wants, I’m sure, a platform to justify himself like Kissinger did in thousands of self-inflating pages. Naturally, then, Rumsfeld periodically thinks he’s in charge of the dialogue, which is just Morris using an old interviewer’s trick to get his subject to make his motives legible, even if remaining opaque is part of the motive. This allows us to see how Rumsfeld sees, sympathizes with, himself.

DR: They were mischaracterized as torture memos, and they came, not out of the Bush administration per se, but they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice, blessed by the Attorney General, the senior legal official of the United States of America, having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the United States senate overwhelmingly. Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did. I’ll chalk that one up.

Certain people have watched this film and seen a frustrating failure for Morris, in that Rumsfeld remains in command of his opacity, and doesn’t allow his defenses to be weakened in the pressure cooker of an interview. Refuses to allow his words to be hacked and twisted. Not delusional at all. Others will interpret this opacity and unwillingness to reflect as, itself, a weakness of character, one extended directly from rhetoric that buttressed the reasons for going to war in the first place. In the film I watched, there was no need for an antagonistic environment in order to obsessively cut through words. Faced with texts—his own texts—, Rumsfeld obfuscates, implies that nothing can be known. And yet he used this very same language to state his certainty that going to war was the best thing to do: on February 12, 2002, at a Pentagon press conference, various reporters inquired as to how Rumsfeld knew there were WMDs in Iraq, and that Saddam was supplying terrorist organizations with them. In response to such a question from NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, Rumsfeld replies with the known known, known unknown, etc. It was then pointed out that he wasn’t answering the question. What evidence, exactly? To which Rumsfeld in turn replied: ‘the absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence.’

DR: Things we know we know. Things we know we don’t know. Things we don’t know we don’t know. Things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

Morris may well have found the experience frustrating, but only, I think, because the responses were so glib and unrevealing, so anorexic. To arrive so easily at contradictions only to be given that self-satisfied, toothy rictus as a response. If Morris finds emptiness in these moments, as he has said, I won’t disagree. But I don’t think this subtracts from the philosophical tradition in which Rumsfeld operates: the putting oneself at the center of one’s faith, and thus above critical reproach. It may be an appropriate stance in military situations, and among statesmen who must remain morally impeachable in a tabloid world, but the trade-off for absolute certainty is, of course, the loss of self-doubt, and without doubt there is no armament against delusion. Facility, but no consequence.

ER: How do you know when you’re going too far?

DR: You can’t know with certainty. All the easy decisions are made down below. When you say, ‘how can you know?’ the answer is, ‘you can’t.’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see around corners, have our imaginations anticipate every conceivable thing that could happen and then, from that full array and spectrum, pick out the ones that will happen?

Rumsfeld told Morris off-camera that he didn’t like The Fog of War because Robert McNamara kept apologizing for everything when he had nothing to apologize for. McNamara went on the record because he believed, after much reflection, that while the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were acting in accordance with American principles and values, the decisions they made in Vietnam were wrong. He believed he owed it to future generations of Americans to explain that. In his Conradian introspection he reveals conflicts that draw long and oblique lines even to honesty with oneself. The Modernist dilemma. The twists and shallows up the Congo. Through it, McNamara does not, as Rumsfeld does, seek to maintain at all costs a sense of esteem for himself and America. The littlest delusion is in thinking Rumsfeld’s esteem or America’s can still be defended. And the greatest isn’t even that Saddam had no nuclear weapons. The war sparked by this bipartisan error killed tens of thousands of people and, as Saddam himself predicted, ‘lit the world on fire’. The arguments in defense of an error so colossal are the pearly substance delusions are made of.

DR: When you say, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ what you’re saying is that there is an absence of evidence about something, but you ought not to say that therefore that is proof that something doesn’t exist. It’s an easy thing to go from the first part of that in the wrong direction and say, ‘well, the absence of evidence means it isn’t there.’

The intentions hardly matter. Errol Morris claims he was searching for an answer to why we went to war in Iraq, for posterity. I think what he is really saying is that he is searching for a way to dismantle the language surrounding the reasons. Not breaking Rumsfeld, just his words. Looking down into them to see what, if anything, can be made to stand back up. The title of this film also refers, I think it hardly needs saying, to Morris’s greater career in empirical evidentiary discourse. Creating a visual elenchus for evidence in a world convinced nothing can be known due to the instability of language and the multiplicity of perspective. Morris’s career is Enlightenment-rooted, and this is certainly not the first of his projects to feature self-deception as a current. This one is about a man who never quite sees himself and what he’s done, what his policies, however ennobling and patriotic, have done. And reveals the fact that in spite of all the evidence, the beliefs remain intact. They didn’t have knowledge, in Socratic terms, yet they were certain.

DR: We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn’t any debate about it. It was thought to be the best intelligence available. How do you describe it when it turns out to be not accurate? Do you describe that as a failure of intelligence? … All I know is that the intelligence community persuaded the president and Secretary Powell.

The film clearly isn’t searching for vapor trails of introspection, such as those left by McNamara. The language which failed to define those choices is also the language, and logic, that no one, including Rumsfeld, seems to be able to, honestly, talk back to. We are distracted from the speciousness of the language by Rumsfeld’s own complacency. And we are distracted from his complacency by the—specious—power of his words. That circuit of distraction is the whole of his charm. This alone is worth more, now, than a confession Errol Morris knew he wasn’t going to get. And didn’t, actually, want. I don’t think this film can be watched another way.

EM (quoting the Schlesinger Report): ‘Although specifically limited by the secretary of defense to Guantanamo, and requiring his personal approval, given in only two cases, the augmented techniques for Guantanamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.’

DR: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.

The memos are more than prompts and pratfalls. They are texts against which the clarity of Rumsfeld’s post hoc narrative is measured. I don’t see a technique. I do see a man who believes, overall, in what he did in spite of an entire genre of literature saying, grossly, the contrary. Maybe that’s a kind of strength neither Errol Morris nor I can problematize. Rumsfeld’s blithe and hardly reluctant characterization of Vietnam, from the safe distance of 40 years—as something that didn’t work out—taken together with his grimly unimaginative response to the magnitude of the failure of the Iraq policy, and whether the decisions to invade Iraq are justifiable: ‘time will tell’. Is. And this is coming from a man who elsewhere says Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were ‘failures of the imagination’. And if he believes a lack of free market opportunities in Vietnam would mean we should have done more there to succeed, then clearly he hasn’t been to Vietnam recently.

McNamara was maybe a case of too much knowledge, not enough experience. Rumsfeld just the opposite. McNamara owned up to his failures in the service of far more than self-conclusion. Rumsfeld comes off as more Eichmann than Eichmann, as banal and bloodless as Hannah Arendt mistakenly saw him, [1] pushing memos in an office thousands of miles from the action, unaware of what he was doing and, now, edging his diminishing responsibility further with a homily about knowns and unknowns. The war didn’t start with Jim Miklaszewski’s request for evidence of WMD, but it might have. There were many within the US military asking the same question and receiving a similar non-answer.

Pam Hess: ‘The problem you have as a reporter is that you need facts. To really chase that rabbit down the hole—to take it apart—you need more information than we had.’

It was more than anyone had.

All this on and on about McNamara and it doesn’t even benefit your time with this film to have seen The Fog of War. Not only does the contrast made by McNamara and Rumsfeld falter, it distracts from the almost total difference in objective. This is not a follow-up to The Fog of War. In fact, Morris says he considers it to be more of a follow-up to Tabloid, another film in which the language routinely used to obfuscate meaning and feed self-protective delusions is broken down, into. It would be misleading to say The Unknown Known is a psychological portrait, even though much of its forecast is psychological. I think this is the most humanities-based, and least social, of Morris’s films, even Tabloid. It is not, then, a warning for posterity of the mistakes McNamara didn’t want to see repeated. Those have already been repeated. And will continue to be. Rumsfeld’s final comment, in closing the film, could have been appropriately ambiguous had it not been so disingenuous. It is the bedrock at which this archaeology of delusion ends, for even a semblance of the contradiction in self-reflection is out of reach. What Wittgenstein criticized in Kant, and drove Schreber to solipsism, John Berryman reacted to in the most painfully honest and un-redemptive of ways. Maybe, then, anything more than this film would be less.

Aware to the dry throat of the wide hell in the world
O trampling empires, and mine is one of them

— John Berryman ‘King David Dances’


[1] We now know, thanks to Bettina Stangneth, the author of Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, that Eichmann was more fanatical than banal after all.




  1. naomi pitcairn says:

    Very interesting take on delusion.

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