Donald Rumsfeld styled himself as the leader of a revolution in military affairs that made the Pentagon ready for quick, punchy interventions. In reality, he was one of the masterminds behind the Global War on Terror—the longest conflict in American history, whose interminable missions are now derided as the forever wars. Although he lived to the ripe age of 88, Rumsfeld didn’t outlast the wars he played so large a role in instigating. Two months before Rumsfeld’s death, Joe Biden announced a drawdown in Afghanistan. But the forever wars aren’t really ending. They’re just being disguised as more politically palatable enterprises, with military contractors taking the role of troops and drone strikes continuing in frontiers like Somalia.
Rumsfeld’s death provoked a scorching obituary from George Packer in The Atlantic. “Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history,” Packer argued. A fair enough verdict—but both the author and the venue deserve scrutiny. Packer and the current editor of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, were among the leading liberal advocates of the Iraq War. Both Packer and Goldberg were staff writers for The New Yorker, where their advocacy for the war helped persuade centrists and liberals who might otherwise have been more skeptical of Rumsfeld and their ilk. They were in line with New Yorker editor David Remnick, who penned a notorious pro-war editorial. Goldberg wrote in his infamous 2002 article “The Great Terror” that Saddam Hussein had “possible” ties to Al Qaeda. This claim rested on a single named source, a smuggler named Muhammad Mansour Shahab. Other reporters who interviewed Shahab, notably Jason Burke of The Guardian, found him to be a fabulist who told demonstrable lies.
Explaining in Slate in 2008 how he got the Iraq War wrong, Goldberg claimed he “didn’t realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be.” The incompetence dodge is also the subtext of Packer’s Rumsfeld obituary. Packer complains that Rumsfeld “believed in regime change but not in nation building, and he thought that a few tens of thousands of troops would be enough to win in Iraq.” The implication is that an illegal, immoral war sold on lies could actually have succeeded—if only it had been better planned.
In his new book Reign of Terror (reviewed on page 32), Spencer Ackerman casts Trumpism and authoritarian threats to American democracy as a case of the forever wars coming home. Ackerman notes that Donald Trump “recognized that the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext—the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations—was its engine.” Trump’s xenophobia and role-playing as a strongman who can save the nation from enemies at home and abroad is a byproduct of bipartisan support for murky, unending conflicts.
This destabilizing extremist logic was baked into the forever wars from the very beginning through the framing used by both liberal and conservative journalists. The trauma of 9/11 provoked reflections on national responsibility from only a few far-sighted observers like Susan Sontag. For most of the media, nationalist melodrama was the dominant genre, with the United States cast as the innocent victim of an attack motivated by pure malice. “They hate our freedoms,” George W. Bush assured a joint session of Congress in September 2001.
In 2001, UPI’s national political analyst, Peter Roff, approvingly compared Bush’s rhetoric about “evildoers” to the pulp bluster of fictional champions like Batman and the Shadow. “This is just the kind of hero America needs right now,” Roff enthused. “In times of great national stress like the Depression, World War II and now, empowering foes with great strengths rallies the nation to even greater accomplishments and sacrifice, bringing forth great leaders to rescue the country.”
Nor was Roff alone. Time said Bush was America’s “Lone Ranger,” while Newsweek said the president was a “dragon slayer” and “a boyish knight in a helmet of graying hair.” As Susan Faludi noted in her 2007 book The Terror Dream, “The media seemed eager to turn our designated guardians of national security into action toys and superheroes.” Faludi clinched her case by describing a memorable feature from February 2002:
A Vanity Fair cover-story photo essay featured Bush as a flinty cowboy in chief, sporting a Texas-sized presidential belt buckle—and assigned all the president’s men superhero monikers: Dick Cheney was “The Rock,” John Ashcroft “The Heat” (“Tough times demand a tough man”), and Tom Ridge “The Protector” (“At six feet three, with a prominent Buzz Lightyear jaw, he certainly has the right appearance for a director of homeland security”). Rumsfeld had “gone to the mat with al-Qaeda, displaying the same matter-of-fact, oddly reassuring ruthlessness.”
This type of macho nonsense not only sold the Iraq War but also contributed to a renewed militarization of American culture, which has provided the popular ideological rationale for the forever wars. It’s hardly an accident that the superhero genre came to dominate Hollywood in the era of the forever wars. Nor is it a coincidence that a demagogue could then rise to the presidency thanks to a public primed to fall in love with vigilante saviors. “I am Batman,” Trump told a young boy at an Iowa campaign event in 2015. All too many voters agreed.
In his scathing obituary, Packer upbraids Rumsfeld for a lack of introspection: “He never expressed a quiver of regret.” The same could be said of many media figures who built the ideological scaffolding for the forever wars—although not Packer himself, who did eventually express remorse. A few, like Judith Miller, suffered professional penalties. Miller lost her New York Times job over her now discredited reporting on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But it’s notable that her coauthor, Michael R. Gordon, kept his job and went on to employment at The Wall Street Journal.
The same principle of elite immunity that protects the architects of the forever wars also shields the media cheerleaders. Absent any penalties, there is no reason for anyone to change.