Book Review: Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy


A Rummy Way to Fight a War
A scathing look at the defense secretary who oversaw the Iraq conflict.

Reviewed by Bing West
Sunday, March 11, 2007; BW03

His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy
By Andrew Cockburn
(see it on

Andrew Cockburn opens his new book on Donald Rumsfeld by concluding that his subject was an insufferable disaster as secretary of defense, then goes on to provide dozens of anecdotes by way of proof.

In this slim volume, we learn that Rumsfeld saved a multi-billion dollar bomber program that was “incapable of performing its mission”; as a businessman with G.D. Searle Co., pushed sugar substitutes through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process even though scientists believed the fake sugar “contributed to several thousand Americans” developing brain cancer; plotted with Dick Cheney to form “a secret government-in-waiting” during war games in hidden bunkers; tolerated levels of opium production in post-Taliban Afghanistan that meant “millions of future heroin addicts”; sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib; procured tanks that had to wait “by the side of the road for the fuel truck” in Iraq; and ran a “reign of terror over the officer corps.”

President Richard M. Nixon is quoted as describing Rumsfeld in March 1971 as “a ruthless little bastard,” and reading Cockburn, one can only imagine what his exploits would be like if he had been taller. Hollywood might have cast Rumsfeld as the heavy who brought us global warming and penguin stew.

Page after relentless page, Cockburn hauls Rumsfeld’s stewardship onto the dock to flop and expire. The book traces his career from 1962, when he was a young congressman, and jumps back and forth in time to the present day. Cockburn describes Rumsfeld as a bully marred by hubris, a portrait previously drawn in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial. His Pentagon meddling antagonized general officers. To run post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, he chose the arrogant L. Paul Bremer, whose failures ensured “the ultimate doom of the American adventure in Iraq.” Rumsfeld’s dismissive put-downs antagonized the press. And so on.

Cockburn, who has written for major magazines, is right about the enormity of Rumsfeld’s failure in Iraq, but the book has fatal flaws. Throughout his jeremiad, Cockburn brandishes not a scalpel but a broadsword, holding both Rumsfeld and the entire U.S. military in contempt. In his opinion, the Pentagon’s failure to anticipate the need for heavily armored Humvees in Iraq reflected not human error but an “uncaring and incompetent civilian and military high command.” Having accompanied numerous American units in Iraq, I have witnessed our generals extending extraordinary care to their troops.

Cockburn’s critique lacks historical perspective about errors in war. After all, the gallant World War II assault against Iwo Jima claimed twice as many American lives in one month as have died in Iraq in four years. But while some historians claim Iwo Jima was a strategic mistake, we still don’t damn the leaders of the “greatest generation.” Similarly, the one thing the world can take to the bank today is that every American general will stand with his men.

Moreover, Cockburn accuses our soldiers of “immorality,” claiming that every Iraqi he met “was utterly convinced that the occupation was intrinsically corrupt” and that “determination to maintain the honor and standards” of the U.S. military “was, unfortunately, all too rare.” Rare? Tell that to the Iraqi civilians in Baghdad who routinely ask U.S. patrols for help, trusting our soldiers more than their own forces.

Because Cockburn didn’t persuade true insiders to talk, his book lacks in-depth reporting. He doesn’t address the central issue of whether Rumsfeld blocked requests to alter course in Iraq or whether there were any such requests. Nor does he explain why Rumsfeld, portrayed as nimble at avoiding blame, stayed at the helm as Iraq drove the Republican Party from power in Congress and divided the country as deeply as had Vietnam. Perhaps Rumsfeld stayed, as he repeatedly said, because he believed that the cause was noble and that the consequences of failure were dire.

Most critics complain that Rumsfeld bullied U.S. military commanders into placing too few “boots on the ground.” Cockburn argues, however, that more American soldiers in Iraq would only provoke more opposition and lead to more casualties. Because he views Iraq as insoluble and our institutions as execrable, Cockburn leaves the reader wondering if Rumsfeld’s actions made any enduring difference.

Now, more troops are surging into Iraq under a different strategy. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who recently took over as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is trying to set up the Iraqi government to succeed. It’s too early to assess whether the Iraqi imbroglio is a clash of cultures doomed from the start or whether Rumsfeld’s decisions were central to a slow failure that can be reversed with him out of office.

Because Cockburn has written with a razor, he has left room for more balanced books. It is doubtful, though, if any will revise his central thesis: Rumsfeld envisioned a quick victory in Iraq and a quick exit. Had he left office after the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan and before the Iraq fiasco, he would have been a national hero. But when the Iraqi insurgency portended a long war, Rumsfeld did not adopt a new strategy. He failed, and he remained too long in his post. ·

Bing West, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and a former Marine, is the author of two books on the Iraq War, including “No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.” He is at work on a third.


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