The passing of Donald Rumsfeld this week brings many atrocities to mind, especially the long list associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There isn’t time to recount those here; but if there is an afterlife with any justice, they likely followed his shade into one of the lowest of the nether regions, like a screeching cloud of endlessly circling buzzards, talons extended.
But here I pass with bowed head the vast expanse of mass graves and torture black sites which are his more visible monuments, to linger briefly instead over one of his more abstract, but not meaningless crimes. This offense was not against flesh & blood, but did violence to language.
Because it was Donald Rumsfeld, and his claque, who while utterly failing to banish terror and bloodshed from the world they claim, did manage to definitively demolish all credibility and drain the value from the word & notion of “transformation.”
This destruction was not by accident, or what they then called (& dismissed as) “collateral damage.” Instead, think back to when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, acting against international law, the voices of most world religious leaders, not to mention all strategic logic. Rumsfeld, in his second long stint as U. S. war secretary, was the key architect, and (to his last day) its staunchest defender.
And the motto of Rumsfeld and his fellow planners was – well, let’s hear it from a military historian, Andrew Bacevich, who in his book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010), said truly of “Rummy” that
“His agenda upon taking command of the Pentagon [in early 2001] reduced to a single word: transformation.”
And what kind of “transformation” did Rumsfeld and his circle have in mind? His close lieutenant Paul Wolfowitz put it to Congress this way:
“The goal of [military] transformation is to maintain a substantial advantage over any potential adversaries. . . . If we can do this, we can reduce our own chances of being surprised, and increase our ability to create our own surprises, if we choose.”
Surprises, indeed. By May of 2003, President Bush was preening and boasting on the deck of an aircraft carrier about how, in the seemingly easy conquest of Iraq, “We have witnessed the arrival of a new era,” in which “With new tactics and precision weapons we can achieve military objectives without violence against civilians.”
That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated the meme in Washington:
“‘Iraqi Freedom has been one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.’ Victory in Iraq offered ‘proof positive of the success of our efforts to transform our military to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.’” Transformation had “allowed us to integrate joint operations much more effectively than ever before, thereby enabling commanders to make decisions more rapidly, to target strikes more precisely, to minimize human casualties, civilian casualties, and to accomplish the missions more successfully.’”
Speaking again to Congress, on May 6, Wolfowitz went even further: “The American people need and deserve a transformed Defense Department.”
Another “defense intellectual” cheerleader, Thomas Donnelly, declared that
“[T]he strategic imperative of patrolling the perimeter of the pax Americana is transforming the U.S. military . . . into the cavalry of a global, liberal international order. Like the cavalry of the Old West, their job is one part warrior and one part policeman–both of which are entirely within the tradition of the American military. . . . Although countless questions about transformation remain unanswered, one lesson is already clear: American power is on the move.”
“Countless questions” indeed; with, it turned out, very few answers. Soon enough — more surprises — the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan “transformed” into historic disasters. By the time George W. Bush left office, his own reputation in tatters, Bacevich notes that the whole war effort had become “redolent with deception, stupidity, and monumental waste.” And the enormous toll of death and destruction fell especially heavily on the civilians about whose safety, Bush, Rumsfeld and the others had claimed to be so transformationally solicitous. Bacevich’s verdict is grim, and undeniable:
“Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation initiative followed a similar trajectory and suffered a similar fate. What seemed ever so briefly to be evidence of creative genius–Rumsfeld prodding, cajoling, and lashing hidebound generals into doing things his way with spectacular results–turned out to be illusory . . . .
Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq intended to showcase an unprecedented mastery of war demonstrated the folly of imagining that war could be mastered. When he finally left the Pentagon in late 2006, Rumsfeld found himself running neck and neck with Robert McNamara for the title of worst defense secretary in U.S. history. The concept of transformation had become a symbol of the overweening arrogance and hucksterism that had characterized his entire tenure in office.”
(All above quotes from Bacevich; emphasis added.)
Like many others, during these years I watched with deepening horror as this grotesque drama of epic self-deception and massive devastation played out and dragged on for twenty years in Afghanistan, with yet more violence likely to follow there after our impending departure. Though I was personally safe from the bombs and waterboarding, maybe it’s a sign of my complicit citizen’s form of PTSD that “transformation,” the term its sociopathic architects made a brand name of this national madness, has ever since echoed in my ears like a shudder.
Furthermore, the heritage of “overweening arrogance and hucksterism” that Rumsfeld’s wars seeded into our culture only stood back and stood by when Bush and Rumsfeld were succeeded by the indictment-free Obama and his squeaky-clean cabinet. Then, as we are reminded daily, they came roaring back. This time they made a special target of words and truth, and proved beyond doubt that violence against language is far from victimless.
I’ve complained here and elsewhere about the fascination with the word “transformation” in my own small cultural backwater of Quakerism. It is still being endlessly repeated, like a sure summoner of the truly “spiritual,” by so many deemed, or self-described Public Friends. Few even suspect that it actually shows how much superficiality and counterproductive ignorance mar our thinking.
Perhaps that’s a verbal form of Rummy’s Revenge. Or another of his monuments, shadowing us like a tall, grotesque Confederate statue.
But here’s a memo to those circling buzzards: keep your talons sharp; Dick Cheney and some of his other “transformers” will be coming ere long; and it will again be your turn . . . .