Missiles of Outrage and Anger

In the early pages of his memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld described boyhood memories of an America struggling to come to grips with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One of those recollections was of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reassuring voice, its “formal, almost aristocratic tone” cutting across the airwaves. “Outlining the indictment against the Japanese Empire, he spoke slowly and deliberately,” Rumsfeld wrote. “Every syllable was carefully enunciated, as if the words themselves were missiles of outrage and anger. That gave him a singular quality as America heard for the first time the words that have now become so familiar to history: ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy…’.”*

Rumsfeld’s biographers have noted his preoccupation with Pearl Harbor. As Secretary of Defense, he repeatedly summoned the ghosts of that day in his efforts to promote US defense preparedness and ruthlessly assess the intelligence community’s performance. We don’t have to take Rumsfeld’s word for it, either, or that of his biographers. There’s a thick public record of the things he’s said, written, authorized and championed. His public output makes for a good baseline, but it’s only part of the picture.  Investigative journalism like James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (Viking Penguin 2004), fills in the gaps with much needed detail on closed door discussions and private deliberations.

Researchers take their chances when they look to memoirs for information about historical events. The New Yorker writer George Packer, in a hydrochloric 2010 review of another political memoir, George W. Bush’s Decision Points, made the somewhat obvious but nonetheless key point that “Every memoir is a tissue of omission and evasion; memoirs by public figures are especially unreliable.” The second Bush White House generated what must be a record number of tell-alls and insider accounts. Even speechwriters got in on the act, publicly staking claims to the carefully enunciated syllables and missiles of outrage and anger that are supposed to be exclusively Presidential, not claimable intellectual property.

I’ve been using memoirs to help reconstruct some of the things that were said and done before and after 9/11. I approach most of them with a degree of cynicism and distrust of authorial motive. Two of them, Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown and Douglas Feith’s War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism, stand out, for the simple reason that both books enable readers to critically evaluate the claims their authors make.  They do this by providing access to declassified papers and documents – the original source materials that, one assumes, corroborate what Rumsfeld and Feith were trying to convey in their respective accounts. Needless to say these will have been carefully selected, so it’s up to the reader to consider both source and context when reviewing the primary sources.

Both books came equipped with supporting websites stocked with digitized documents. Feith’s, at http://www.waranddecision.com/,  appears to have died of neglect at some point in early 2014. Some of those documents are reproduced in the pages of War and Decision, and readers can still get a sense of what the website contained if they know how to retrieve cached material on the web. Rumsfeld’s sources are in an entirely different category. The “Rumsfeld Papers”, at http://papers.rumsfeld.com/, contain thousands of digitized document spanning his entire career in government service, and more besides. In a video posted on the website, Rumsfeld speaks directly to visitors and encourages them to make up their own minds.

As an exercise in digital history, the Rumsfeld Papers website is superb. As an artefact of Rumsfeld’s time in governement, the collection is remarkably transparent. It’s an ironic oddity that won’t be lost on those who remember Rumsfeld’s caustic style or the level of effort he put into bureaucratic turf wars and “controlling the narrative”.  That irony is recursive, too. I’ve found the Rumsfeld Papers less useful as a window into Rumsfeld’s  thinking or that of the people around him – there’s that cynicism again – but quite good as narrative nuts and bolts. Some of the sources in the Rumsfeld Papers – the infamous “snowflakes” come to mind – are as invidual documents often sparsely detailed, and only provide new insights on an aggregate basis. But there are some real gems that provide a glimpse into the the stuff of internal discussions and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic labors, and they make it possible to trace the paths of ideas as they worked their way through the policy process.

*Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (Sentinel, 2011), p. 39.

A return to public writing…

A few years ago I suspended most of my public writing and online activity in order to minimise distractions, focus on building my business, and move my dissertation research forward. Aside from sporadic and intermittent tweets, almost all of my non-PhD writing has been for clients , and that’s the sort of work that nevers sees the light of day. I’ve shelved several book and other publication ideas along the way, with the intent to revisit them when time and schedule permitted. I’ve recently begun working in earnest on the dissertation, and as I make progress with it, I’m more comfortable with the idea of allocating some time and mental space to public writing. So here it is. Watch this space…

In Praise of Paper

Amid all the preoccupation with Big Data over the last few years, one might be forgiven for missing the telltale signs of a  low-key aesthetic return to (fixation with?) paper. It was there metaphorically, through apps that attempted to digitally capture the sensory aspects of paper-based media. But paper itself maintains its hold on the imagination, in part because of the kinds of communication and practices that it represents.

The Clinton Presidential library, for example, recently released tens of thousands of pages of previously withheld documents. A boon to historians, it recalls an era, according to former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, in which officials working in litigious Washington were dissuaded from keeping records, schedules, diaries and the like, lest those records become forensic grist.

That concern – not producing the petards of one’s own (or one’s colleague’s) potential future hoisting  – still exists. But “in their wonky way,” Shesol writes, the Clinton papers “demonstrate the basic human compulsion to write things down—to work out and test ideas on paper, to engage in debates and occasional snits, to record and transcribe and (in my own case) doodle, and, to a surprising degree, to let down one’s guard.”

There are worlds of fact and flavor contained in such materials. Their survival represents a form of historical transparency and accountability that is inherently valuable, not least because it seizes and preserves the essence of, in Shisol’s terms, “government at work”.

I think it’s fair to say that insofar as “paper” and “writing it down” can be understood euphemistically, they evoke an aesthetic and practical compunction that is fundamentally archival. They refer to the accumulation of historically valuable  document collections and preserving them for a variety of purposes.

In this case, “paper” and “writing” might equally be understood through a variety of framing lenses: as metaphor  – one thing understood in terms of another; or as metanym – the whole understood through reference to its parts.

It almost goes without saying that not all records are on paper, and that a good number of datum generated these days begin and end their lives as electrons. But it is interesting that with Big Data comes a sort of Paper Blindness – that if it is not available electronically, then it either doesn’t exist at all or isn’t worth the bother of finding.

That a significant volume of paper-based information never gets seen by ordinary human beings isn’t remarkable. There is simply too much for any one person to consume, or tranches of it are too contentious to touch, or are tainted by their provenance,  or are classified, and so on.

If there’s a concern in this, it’s that enhanced or amplified accessibility in some areas also closes down the space for it in others. One day our expectations of  vast troves of historically relevant material may be confronted with…. a void.

Some of that is accepted and acceptable practice. Some of it isn’t.

Physical documents are regularly winnowed from archival collections, lost to water, fire and termites, abandoned in mouldering heaps, forgotten in attics, set aflame in wartime, or – in the lived vernacular of government at work – too secret, sensitive, or scandalous to ever see the light of day.

This has always been true, and it is as true in places like Quetta or Kandahar as it has been in Washington and Whitehall.