Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rumsfeld’s weakness for literary non-fiction

For readers looking for rigor as well as fine writing, literary non-fiction is the fad of the moment. It takes real events and real choices and, with the gifts of the novelist, enriches what we can only guess. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reveals in his memoir Known and Unknown how far this form of communication has taken hold of Washington bureaucracy.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times provides the following extract from a memo addressed to Rumsfeld from a senior department official. It is responding to Rumsfeld’s request to know more about the “unknowns” underlying their alarm about Iraqi’s WMDs. Note the level of ignorant detail:

“It added: ‘We don’t know with any precision how much we don’t know.’ And continued: ‘We do not know if they have purchased, or attempted to purchase, a nuclear weapon. We do not know with confidence the location of any nuclear weapon-related facilities. Our knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence.’
“On biological weapons: ‘We cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi facilities that produce, test, fill, or store biological weapons,’ the report said, adding: ‘We believe Iraq has 7 mobile BW agent production plants but cannot locate them ... our knowledge of how and where they are produced is probably up to 90% incomplete.’
“On chemical weapons: ‘We cannot confirm the identity of any Iraqi sites that produce final chemical agent.’ And on ballistic missile programs they had ‘little missile-specific data.’”

In his heart and professionally, the author, Major Gen. Glen Shaffer, may have wanted Rumsfeld to conclude that the case for a defensive, quasi-legal invasion of Iraq was pure invention. However, as in real fiction, the memo left the reader’s faith intact. Its ignorance wasn’t casual. It was elaborate, precise, and internally consistent. It may even have included appendices—surely, there must have been something there.

The memo didn’t lie. It said that the “evidentiary base is particularly sparse.” Seminarians are probably fed the same caveats before they study the miracles in the New Testament. In their case, however, they are only suspending their own powers of reason, not a nation’s.

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