This story originally appeared in Jacobin on June 30, 2021. It is shared here with permission.
Donald Rumsfeld just died at the age of 88. 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 court.”
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 election.
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.
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% 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 18 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.