(Content Warning: war, mass death, brief mention of torture including sexual abuse)
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, architect of the catastrophic US invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, died last week on June 29 at the age of 88. His death marks a terrible loss for the United States and the world: not for the loss of the man himself, but for the missed opportunities to bring the man to justice. Our collective failure to make Rumsfeld face accountability for the incredible damage he orchestrated in Afghanistan, Iraq, the United States, and the world has reverberated through the Trump ascendancy, through the proliferation of QAnon and other nonsensical conspiracy theories, and through Biden’s continued expansion of the military budget — to say nothing of the now largely ruined countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other areas of the region touched by the American war machine. Donald Rumsfeld was the worst Secretary of Defense in American history: an unrepentant war criminal who lied to the American people and the world to justify war, encouraged the use of torture for interrogation, and who oversaw the destruction of two nations and the deaths of millions of civilians.
For the past 20 years, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan; it is by far the longest war this country has ever waged. Within a day of the September 11 attacks, US intelligence had apparently determined that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks (the evidence has never been publicly revealed). Within a month, the United States was invading Afghanistan, ostensibly because the Taliban regime in power there refused to extradite bin Laden (for lack of direct evidence). Soon, Rumsfeld, others in the Bush administration, and even major US media outlets would conflate the Taliban regime with the non-state terrorist group al-Qaeda, suddenly making a government that “harbors” a terrorist group into an enemy indistinguishable from such a terrorist group. But even as late as May 8, 2002, seven months after launching the invasion into Afghanistan, FBI Director Rober Mueller would testify to Congress that “we have not yet uncovered a single piece of paper either here in the U.S. or in the treasure trove of information that has turned up in Afghanistan and elsewhere that mentioned any aspect of the September 11th plot.” The decision to invade Afghanistan was concluded from inconsistent and ambiguous secret evidence which, even if they ultimately bore out to be true, were insufficient at the time to merit an aggressive invasion.
The official grounds for invading Iraq were even shakier. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, Rumsfeld was already seeking a way to use the attacks to justify an invasion of Iraq, a country which US intelligence was certain had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. Over the next several months, Rumsfeld would invent bizarre conspiracy theories and outright lies to create the impression that Saddam Hussein was in league Osama bin Laden (he was not), and that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (he was not, as attested by the American inspectors and the lack of any evidence found in Iraq). The real US interest in the country had always been oil; knocking out a major regional rival to the US ally Israel was a major bonus. On March 30, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq; when the US Armed Forces officially withdrew in 2011, the country was mostly in ruins and primed for the rise of ISIS/ISIL three years later.
Perhaps the most infamous aspect of Rumsfeld’s legacy, however, is his unapologetic enthusiasm for and encouragement of torture. An unknown number of victims were tortured in military prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere throughout his tenure. While CIA blacksites were also conducting unconscionable torture, Rumsfeld integrated the practice into the military, inventing the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.” Methods of torture included waterboarding, stress positions, sexual abuse, and more — methods meant as much to mentally destroy the victims as they were meant to dehumanize the victims in the eyes of American soldiers. Torture is widely known as an unreliable method of interrogation, and little usable information was derived from this program. Meanwhile, the institutionalized use of torture severely degraded the United States’ reputation on the world stage: how can a country credibly claim to stand for democracy, freedom, and justice when it systematically kidnaps, imprisons, and tortures people for years without due process or a trial?
The material effect of these invasions on the peoples on the ground cannot be overstated. In April of this year, the Watson Institute at Brown University reported that over 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians had died as a direct result of the War in Afghanistan; in 2020, the United Nations reported that the annual Afghani civilian casualties count exceeded 10,000 for the sixth year in a row. In Iraq, nearly 209,000 civilian deaths from violence have been documented since the invasion in 2003, including the unstable years following the American departure from the country. That figure does not include the untold numbers of civilians who have died as a result of the incredible amounts of radiation left behind by American uranium weapons or any of the attending catastrophes that follow a country’s destruction. And as for the United States, more than 4000 US soldiers and civilian contractors were killed in Afghanistan, and more than 4500 Americans were killed in Iraq. The War in Iraq alone has cost US taxpayers over $8 trillion. In Afghanistan, the number is roughly $2.3 trillion. And these numbers say nothing about the fatalities suffered by US allies, the tens of thousands permanently injured as a result of the wars, or the incalculable loss of cultural works, historical artifacts, and stable community.
But even beyond the incredible amounts of death, destruction, and torture Rumsfeld orchestrated upon these countries, he also wrought a largely underappreciated amount of damage on the United States homefront. Rumsfeld’s transparent lies about Saddam Hussein and Iraq were a clear precursor to Trumpian lies and “alternative facts.” The deep suspicion with which much of the American public views the major media outlets stems largely from the fact that the major news companies did not strongly challenge Rumsfeld’s lies but instead uncritically repeated them. Nor did either major political party strongly question him.
Have no doubt: Donald Rumsfeld was an unrepentant war criminal many times over who led the United States and the world down a delusional and horrifically violent path — one that we still mindlessly follow today. Despite the existence of the International Criminal Court whose very purpose is to prosecute those who commit such crimes as outlined above, and despite both American and German lawyers having prepared cases against him, Rumsfeld was never tried in court for any of his myriad heinous acts. Next week, by examining the International Criminal Court system and the status of the United States vis-a-vis the international community, we will address why Donald Rumsfeld escaped justice.
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“Afghan Civilians.” Watson Institute International & Public Affairs: Brown University | Costs of War. April 2021 (accessed 7 July 2021). https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/civilians/afghan
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Burgis, Ben. “Donald Rumsfeld, Rot in Hell.” Jacobin. 30 June 2021 (accessed 7 July 2021). https://jacobinmag.com/2021/06/donald-rumsfeld-obituary-iraq-war
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Packer, George. “How Rumsfeld Deserves to Be Remembered.” The Atlantic. 30 June 2021 (accessed 7 July 2021). https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/how-donald-rumsfeld-deserves-be-remembered/619334/
Wolffe, Richard. “Rumsfeld’s much-vaunted ‘courage’ was a smokescreen for lies, crime and death.” The Guardian. 1 July 2021 (accessed 7 July 2021). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/01/donald-rumsfeld-defense-secretary-lies-crime-death
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