Brett Wilkins Military

The Only Tragic Thing About Donald Rumsfeld’s Death

As Daily Beast senior national security correspondent Spencer Ackerman wrote, "The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn't occur in an Iraqi prison."
[Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams

Donald Rumsfeld, the former
 U.S. congressman, aide to several Republican presidents, and two-time defense secretary whose torture-laden tenure and ruinous legacy were defined by his lies in service of an unending war that’s killed at least hundreds of thousands of people, died Tuesday at age 88.

By the time he was chosen as then-President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Rumsfeld had already been a Navy veteran, four-term Republican U.S. congressman, and adviser to former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—for whom he had served as defense secretary.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan repeatedly dispatched Rumsfeld as a special envoy to Iraq, whose brutal dictator Saddam Hussein was at the time an important U.S. ally. An infamous handshake between Rumsfeld and Hussein led to the transfer of deadly chemical and biological materials from the U.S. and allies to Iraq. Hussein subsequently weaponized the components and unleashed weapons of mass destruction on both Iranian troops—with the assistance of the Reagan administration—and Iraqi Kurds during the genocidal (pdf) Anfal campaign.

As Bush’s defense secretary, Rumsfeld—who served as CEO or chairman of companies including General Instrument and Gilead Sciences—recruited an inner circle of former corporate executives to oversee Pentagon operations, including Air Force Secretary James G. Roche (Northrop Grumman), Navy Secretary Gordon England (General Dynamics), and Army Secretary Thomas E. White (Enron). So great was the influence of the arms industry in the department during Rumsfeld’s tenure that one commentator described it as “Department of Defense, Inc.”

An ardent imperialist, Rumsfeld was a leading luminary of the neoconservative movement and a prominent leader of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose other members included Bush administration officials such as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and Paul Wolfowitz.

PNAC hawks—who envisioned and strategized regime change in Iraq and elsewhere even before 9/11—lobbied vigorously for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even though they knew the country had no connection with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. or weapons of mass destruction. When pressed on this last point, Rumsfeld offered perhaps his most infamous explanation:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

In the rushed run-up to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld dutifully disseminated Bush administration lies about Hussein’s nonexistent nuclear program, while laughably asserting that the Iraq invasion had “literally nothing to do with oil.”

The invasion of Iraq, at first called Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL) began in the dark of night with a Navy SEAL raid on two offshore Iraqi oil platforms. The New York Times—which parroted many of the administration’s Iraq lieshailed this as the first “victory in the battle for Iraq’s vast oil empire.”

Rumsfeld predicted a quick and easy war in Iraq. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he declared in November 2002 with cocksure miscalculation. Although former President Barack Obama officially ended the Iraq War in December 2011, U.S. troops are still stationed there today—and President Joe Biden bombed the country earlier this week.

When U.S. forces conquered Baghdad, one of the first sites they secured was the Oil Ministry headquarters. Meanwhile, the Iraqi National Museum, which housed priceless ancient artifacts spanning Mesopotamia’s 5,000-year history, was being looted. Thousands of statues, manuscripts, and countless other treasures, some of them among the oldest objects created by civilized humans, were stolen while nearby U.S. troops did nothing.

“Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld flippantly replied when faced with images of the looting. “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?'”

Thousands of U.S. troops would die during the course of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The latter were practically ignored by Bush officials. When Rumsfeld was asked why the public only hears about the number of American war dead and not about Iraqi casualties, he cooly replied that “we don’t do body counts on other people.”

Rumsfeld was also an instrumental figure in the Bush administration’s torture program. He signed off on torture techniques used by U.S. troops at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere—places where prisoners were sometimes tortured to death. He also issued a directive allowing torturers to withhold medical care to prisoners under interrogation who had injuries as serious as gunshot wounds. Later, Rumsfeld would require doctors to certify that detainees slated for torture were certified “medically and operationally” fit for abuse.

When the Abu Ghraib torture photo scandal broke, Rumsfeld—after outing the courageous soldier who exposed the abuse—lied about what he knew.

Gen. Antonio Taguba, author of an Army report (pdf) on U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, said he met with Rumsfeld and other Pentagon brass just before the defense secretary testified to the Senate about abuse at the notorious prison. Taguba, who had seen thousands of photos of detainee abuse, says Rumsfeld asked him if what was happening in the Iraqi prison was abuse or torture.

“I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum and said: ‘That’s not abuse. That’s torture.’ There was quiet,'” the general recalled.

Yet Rumsfeld testified before the Senate that nobody in the Pentagon had seen the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

However, a Senate Armed Services Committee investigation concluded that “Rumsfeld’s authorization of interrogation techniques… was a direct cause of detainee abuse.”

The senators additionally asserted that it was “unconscionable and false” for leading Bush officials to blame a “few bad apples” in the military for detainee abuse in order to avoid accountability.

While fighting a war purportedly meant to defeat terrorism in some parts of the world, Rumsfeld supported terror elsewhere. Pursuing allies in the so-called War on Terror, Rumsfeld courted dictators including Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov—who boiled political opponents alive—and the Iranian exile militants Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a State Department-designated terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report concluded that Rumsfeld let bin Laden escape in December 2001. The report also said Rumsfeld’s failures ultimately left Americans more vulnerable to terrorism.

It wasn’t as if Rumsfeld did not understand the real root causes of anti-U.S. terrorism. In 2004, he commissioned a task force to study the subject. It concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” The task force report cited “American direct intervention in the Muslim world,” U.S. support for dictators in countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and, most of all, “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Yet Rumsfeld remained an unrepentant cheerleader for war and empire until the end. Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the women-led peace group CodePink who famously confronted the former defense secretary over his war crimes, tweeted that “his legacy of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lives on.”

“Donald Rumsfeld was a merciless war criminal who presided over systemic torture, massacres of civilians, [and] illegal wars,” tweeted journalist and The Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill. “That’s his legacy and how he should forever be remembered.”

Daily Beast senior national security correspondent Spencer Ackerman wrote, “The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison.”

“Do not mourn the defense secretary,” said Ackerman. “Mourn his victims. There were nearly too many to tally, but his Pentagon refused to count anyway.”

Brett Wilkins

Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams.


  1. The tragedy is Americans are still in denial about their deep feelings for American warriors. The American people love war and sometimes secretly love their war criminals while hating them in public. Huge houses, private schools, unbelievable wealth and access for families defending America in the 20+ year profitable fight of terror. Winning, i.e not the other kind of losing.

    But it’s not about materialism at all – it’s really about love. Rumsfled knew, like Whitney Houston, that the greatest love of all is self love. Moreover we don’t need contempt and scorn as this might lead to bombing like when the US had to destroy Yugoslavia too.

    Perhaps Bernie Sanders (I, Lockheed Martin) can offer a statement of some kind on the passing of a great American mensch. The hope is to cataylize an epiphany or shift in thinking.

  2. Thank you for giving that piece of excrement an epitaph he deserves. I could not have said it better myself- I can only hope that Cheney lies in the same deep pit of hell with him, and that others like Bush and Obama and Rump join them very soon.

  3. Thank you so much for a brilliant article, well sourced, and totally Spot On.

  4. Donald Rumsfeld’s existence was unencumbered by the sometimes nagging and complicating effects of a conscience. In the centers of power that such individuals inhabit, a marriage of mediocrity, ambition, and sociopathic tendencies can result in a success story. And what a success Rumsfeld was. Yes, there were some awkward moments, but how one can take these things in stride when little that amounts to being human is present to sully the experience of power. One can’t make a war, after all, without breaking a few people. Incalculable suffering and masses of innocent people dead is not an unintended consequence of U.S. empire; it’s a overarching strategy. If there is a lesson to be learned from the sulfurous existence of someone like Donald Rumsfeld, it might be a broader awareness of how normal such technocratic monsters have become.

  5. “…President Barack Obama’s administration refused to prosecute former Bush administration officials implicated in torture and other war crimes.”

    Of course he did. Otherwise he would have left himself wide open for being prosecuted for his own war crimes.


    In March of 2003, Rumsfeld assured field grade officers that as soon as Baghdad had been captured, that it would be only “90 days and a wake-up” before American troops were returned to the U.S.

    According to Brigadier General Karpinski, during Rumsfeld’s Thanksgiving Day visit to Abu Ghraib in 2004, he spent 20 minutes with the troops, and more than two hours touring torture chambers in the building. Karpinski also claimed that all torture conducted in the facility by Americans troops and government contractors had received prior approval by Rumsfeld himself.

    In 2003, Rumsfeld purchased “slave-breaker” Edward Covey’s plantation, Mount Misery. Enslaved men from throughout Virginia were brought to Mount Misery for torture, to include “hobbling” by the infliction of compound fractures to their ankles. Such barbaric practices were legal at that time.

    In 2007, Rumsfeld lied under oath to the U.S. Congress regarding his knowledge of the circumstances of the death of Corporal Pat Tillman, U.S. Army Ranger. In 2004, the Pentagon explanation of Tillman’s demise falsely attributed his death to the Taliban, when he was actually killed by friendly fire.

  7. Anyone whom is mentally degenerate enough to laud a war criminal like Hermann Goering Rumsfeld is a fascist with a perverse fourth Reich mentality! So this vile liar, torture/murderer is a “mensch”? The yiddish word mensch implies a mans man, a hero of strength and character and neither the writer of the perverse accolade I’m replying to nor Hermann Goering Jr. are “mensch”!! Dreck is the word for the deceased and I rejoice in his being flushed away. …. “

  8. This article & these comments confirms Jimmy Dore’s assessment of Amerika as the Terror Capital of the World. With China waking up it will all end in tears.

  9. I posted this comment midmorning on 3.7.21:

    ‘This revealing article & the 5 comments comfirms Jimmy Dore’s assertion that America is the Terror Capital of the World’.

    At 15.14hrs UK time on 4.7.21 it has not been published……..Why noy ?

  10. Eternal credit to Brett Wilkins for this outstanding eulogy. It’s a press fit with Chris Hedges judgement of our operational character as sadism, as well as Adam Serwer’s new book (on Trump) ” Cruelty Is The Point.”
    All this sums to show that we’ve been cruel, brutal and barbaric for a good 20 years. [of course…]
    So rotten a house, so nakedly rotten, like the Surfside condos, will not long stand.

  11. paul wichmann,

    Point #1

    Openly racist, nativist xenophonia has been prominent in American politics since at least the 1850’s. Previous to that, it was manifested as a social movement intent on the overt genocide of indigenous people, and in the widespread tolerance for continued enslavement and marketing of Africans and their descendants. You might want to look up the Know Nothing Party when you find the time.

    In my estimation, this “rotten” foundation is still standing more than 240 years after its original corrupt construction, and furthermore, I predict that it shall remain intact far after our own timely demise.

    Point #2

    You should probably do a bit more research into the Surfside condominiums, comparing the timelines of multiple eyewitness accounts of the first collapse with the actual surveillance video of the event.

    1. Is everything have to be controlled demolition with you, Bradley? It seems a bit predictable for somebody as obviously intelligent as yourself.

      Can Occam’s Razor win this one?

      1. The laws of physics state that a body can only accelerate to free fall velocity when there is no resistance from below. Champlain Towers was constructed of 12 separate stories of concrete structural supports reinforced with rebar, yet it collapsed in a period of time nearly consistent with free fall velocity. The acceleration achieved can be easily verified by viewing the surveillance video.

        Considering these facts, Occam’s Razor actually points to a triggering event capable of removing all structural impediment prior to the initial collapse. Otherwise, there would have been delays caused by physical resistance. This would have increased the period of collapse by several seconds or more.

        Reviewing seismographic data from that night would be far more valuable, than say… contents of prepared statements read haltingly by local politicians, or the “analysis” presented by CIA-linked national news correspondants like Anderson Cooper who were rushed to the scene.

        Then again, anyone who swallowed the “Pancake Theory,” will pretty much believe anything.

      2. Moderator,

        You asked: “Ok, and motive?”

        Only those responsible for ensuring the building would meet no physical resistance in the collapse could answer such a loaded question, so why bother to request that type of speculation on my part?

      3. You are speculating, wildly based on amateur sleuthing. Where you draw the line is interesting. Motive is a key part of determining likelihood of otherwise unlikely events that can have many other explanations.

    2. What the ‘hell’ (while pardon this now very apposite pun in regard to D.R.) do ‘surfside condo’s’ have to do with Rumsfeld, Bradley Grower?; this given your idiosyncratic and irrelevant exegesis regarding Miami’s Tower via the pseudo vehicle medium of Occam’s Razor! Other than this, why is the faceless moderator seemingly egging him on? Are we to now assume on the basis of B.G.’s conspiracy theory insinuations, that ‘Rummy’ blew up the tower, McVeigh style, on his way out of ‘the building’ (an oxymoron surely); this after he believed he was being cheated after the confirmation of his appointment with Secretary for Evil, Lucifer? Nevertheless, and if anything, B.G. has violated the Occam Razor’s directive to ‘keep things simple’, while ‘more D.R. matter with less carp’, please!

    3. Moderator,

      There is no “speculation” in observing clear evidence that both of the Champlain Towers collapse events involved the same structure and took place in an approximately equal period of time. These facts indicate that like the planned demolition… there was NO RESISTANCE present during the initial condo collapse.

      Your verbal gymnastics, and subsequent attempts to steer me toward conjecture are duly noted.

      1. Moderator,

        What possible relevance would my being a structural engineer actually create? That information does not alter the video evidence, which clearly proves the first Champlain Towers collapse took LESS time than the actual demolition did. Therefore, any answer I offer would be just as irrelevant as any motive I might have conjectured in response to your earlier reply. The facts remain the same.

        Those who rely upon an appeal to authority, in order to acknowledge the existence of easily observable factual evidence, are generally far less interested in the evidence… and FAR more interested in discrediting the validity of any possible conclusions towards which it might point.

        I don’t claim to be the Pope, but I can count the seconds it takes for a 12 story building to collapse.

        Can you?

  12. “Racist, nativist xenophonia” was hardly the defining ontological motif of Rumsfeld’s life, Bradley Grower, while what were you hoping to achieve further to your atomised rant? If anything, Rumsfeld – and his evil twin Cheney – were/are the embodiment of apex United States ruling class power and corporate influence further to the pretend nonsense which the USA continues to delude itself about regarding it being a ‘democracy’. The careers of both Rumsfeld and Cheney (as well as their other neocon hanger on’s – with too, Obama, Biden and most other Dems also not escaping the room) were dedicated to nothing more than serving corporate interest, while they’ve only cared about race, creed or s.o. insofar as it relates to any impact it may have on their ability to have influence and make money!

    1. Marcus Adamson,

      The comment to which you refer was (as indicated in the post itself) a reply to paul wichmann’s comment of July 5, 2021 AT 7:35pm.

      Quoted here: “…we’ve been cruel, brutal and barbaric for a good 20 years.”

      I’m not certain how a person could conclude my response was intended to describe Donald Rumsfeld.

      Quoted here: “Openly racist, nativist xenophonia has been prominent in American politics since at least the 1850’s. “

      1. BG: If my critical acumen (still) serves me well enough, Paul Wichmann invoked the “surfside condo’s” reference as a metaphor rather than anything directly to do with Rumsfeld, while his more overt – but small – Hobbesian like assessment concerning the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ condition of post neoliberal American life nowadays is hardly sufficient in its fleeting exegesis to grant you the licence of launching into a free range conspiracy theory! But then, this is hardly unexpected nowadays given the interned Manichean consciousness that so many of your country persons (assuming that you are ‘a proud US patriot’ or at least – and unlike moi – an American denizen!) are ‘possessed’ by (Salem witchcraft inference fully intended!) further to the ‘mental boarding house bed sit atomism’ which now defines so much of that bleak cognitive landscape which your regrettably corporate serf tolling ‘citizenry’ now labour under – and this especially after the god forsaken Clinton’s sold out the Dem. party working class, with all of the Nietzchean ‘ressentiment’ fallout thereafter being marshalled on through its economic tundra wastelands by ‘Napoleon Trump’. Anyway, what I really now want to know is where were you on January 6th? – while don’t bother to reply given that my ripostes now cease with this “the rest is silence” riff, and this especially further to, as the great Gore Vidal would no doubt say, “I told you so”! Suffice to claim that at the end of your egocentric ranting – and just in case you missed Brett Wilkins’ intent – yet another duplicitous figure in the shape shifting form of William Jefferson Clinton might well have said to you in response, “It’s about Donald Rumsfeld, stupid”!

      2. Marcus Adamson,

        Your ad hominem attack, wrapped in a run-on paragraph of anti-American excess had been duly noted.

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