No other figure in my lifetime has embodied the vain, cruel, and ultimately self-defeating hubris of American militarism more powerfully than Donald Rumsfeld.
This is not only because he was a monster who steered the country into two unconscionable wars based largely on his romantic disdain for reason, his unwillingness to acknowledge any reality beyond that created by his own actions. That he was this kind of monster is true, of course, but it hardly made him unique in the US foreign policy establishment, of which Rumsfeld was a leading light for almost five decades.
Rumsfeld embodied the peculiar pathology of modern American militarism better than anyone because, in important respects, the All-Volunteer Force was a twisted object of his own invention. He wasn’t alone in devising it, of course. But the All-Volunteer Force came into being under Rumsfeld’s direction and, thirty years later in Iraq, reached its arguable apex on his watch, too.
The contradictions contained in the modern armed forces were also contained in the man who, from 1975–77 and again from 2001–6, directed it as secretary of defense. It is no coincidence that the epochal failure of the United States military in the twenty-first century was also the personal failure that will forever define Rumsfeld himself. The small man and the mighty army were each done in by the same insurmountable tensions, each impaled on the same sword.
Remaking the Military on Market Principles
It may feel strange to recall it now, but at the start of his political career, Donald Rumsfeld was, together with Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent opponents of military conscription in America. As early as 1966, when he was still a junior congressman from Illinois, Rumsfeld stood near the head of a coalition of conservative politicians and ideologues who, in the words of historian Jennifer Middelstadt, “incorporated the military into their larger view of small government and free market principles.”
This coalition’s lasting contribution to American society, Middelstadt argues, was “the redefinition of the military as a market institution.” And to people like Rumsfeld, the draft, by creating social pressures external to the free market, stood in the way of that darkly idealistic project.
This isn’t to say that the military Rumsfeld fashioned was self-interested in the way a corporation is; it wasn’t purely motivated by profit, although at times its preoccupation with cost efficient expansion and heavy reliance on for-profit subcontractors made it seem to be. Nor does it mean that Rumsfeld’s military was a straightforward and unencumbered weapon that could be wielded freely by the planners of American capital (although again, sometimes that seemed to be the case).
Rather, Rumsfeld’s military was a “market institution” in the sense that it became an instrument of labor market regulation and a site of unrestrictable elite discretion. Rumsfeld opposed the draft not because it was a horrible crime — a cruel and frivolous practice that deformed entire generations by wasting countless thousands of lives — but because, from the perspective of capital, conscription in fact insulated the military from the discipline of market society.
Much like abolishing the welfare state was meant to free capital from socially imposed inefficiencies, ending the draft was meant to liberate the security state from the effete indecision that Richard Nixon, Rumsfeld’s mentor, thought to be the defining characteristic of Great Society liberalism. Like the elected leaders who opposed the Vietnam War, conscripted soldiers were to Rumsfeld amateurs — and their unruly clamoring at the gates of power during and after the war presented an intolerable counterweight to the discretion of strong-handed state planners, who were too frequently forced to limit their own power by humoring soldiers’ demands for influence and relief.
Rumsfeld confirmed as much decades later, in 2003, as he prepared to invade Iraq with a fighting force he regarded as more reliable. Speaking in opposition to a draft restoration bill (authored by two Democrats, New York’s Charles Rangel and Michigan’s John Conyers), Rumsfeld said that conscription sucked “people without choices . . . into the intake” of the armed forces, who “then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States.”
Conscription during Vietnam had been a political liability and a waste of money: “It took an enormous amount of effort in terms of training,” Rumsfeld said, “and then they were gone.”
When veterans groups responded with outrage, Rumsfeld apologized for the inarticulacy of his comment but not its content, saying it “reflect[ed] a view that I have held for some time: that we should lengthen tours of duty and careers for our all-volunteer forces.”
In Rumsfeld’s vision — shared by Friedman and many others — a military disciplined by the strictures of the free market was a stronger, leaner machine, unencumbered by excessive costs and eminently responsive to elite direction. But the contradiction contained within free market ideology was amplified tenfold by its application to the American military. In the absence of a draft, the armed forces had to entice soldiers to enlist — and this meant competing with private employers for human inputs, skilled and unskilled, in the marketplace.
Terms of military service are arduous: besides the obvious moral problem of becoming a soldier, there is also the time away from home; the lengthy periods of training; the absolute submission to a command structure empowered to order your arrest; the looming possibility of irrevocable personal destruction. To attract recruits, then, required the extension of social benefits systematically denied to the rest of American workers.
This resulted in a package of entitlements and subsidies that Jennifer Middelstadt calls “the military welfare state”: childcare, health care, housing, higher education, preferential credit, spousal payments, and many other such collective goods became the carrot that replaced the stick of conscription.
To create an institution of elite discretion, whether it be an army or a corporation, requires the extension of privilege to at least some of the clamoring masses; this is the price a leader pays for limiting his subjects’ freedom. Rumsfeld and his cohort knew this, understood it in the visceral way a boss knows his workforce must be durably reproduced through adequate wages, but at the same time loathed it with a kind of passion that could never yield to reason.
When Rumsfeld was appointed secretary of defense for the first time in 1975 by Gerald Ford, the first challenge he faced was a national effort on the part of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) to unionize the armed forces. The AFGE’s unionization drive took place against the backdrop of a campaign waged by free market fundamentalists like Friedman to eliminate the military’s welfare functions entirely.
Friedman, together with an influential cohort that included some generals, felt that the emergence of a “nanny state” military in the years after World War II had de-rationalized the armed forces by imposing external inefficiencies. This nanny state, according to Friedman and others, not only alienated the white middle class by enrolling large numbers of “non-traditional” enlistees in military careers, it also distracted officers at all levels from their fundamental task of planning and waging war by instead forcing them to administer bloated welfare bureaucracies.
AFGE’s short but explosive unionization drive forced defense department administrators like Rumsfeld to answer a fraught question: To what extent was war-fighting in the national interest a job? More to the point, to what extent could it be regulated by legislation or, worse, collective bargaining?
Rumsfeld struck a balance between denying the applicability of civilian labor standards to military careers and maintaining the unique and irreducible worthiness of military service. In this way, he conceded that soldiers were entitled to special rewards not available to civilian workers, while also asserting that military managers could not be constrained by the kind of regulations that bound civilian employers.
He railed against the AFGE’s proposal that soldiers were analogous to other categories of federal employees. “Can a combat infantryman possibly be compared with a computer programmer?” he said in 1976. “It is insulting and demeaning to compare a combat soldier, on duty call for 24 hours a day and potentially subject to death or injury, with a ‘9 to 5’ civilian.”
For the All-Volunteer Force to function like a corporation, as Rumsfeld intended, the people enrolled within it would need to remain in a state of coerced suspension — they would have welfare without rights.
Paying Soldiers What They’re “Worth”
But he just couldn’t help himself. Together with the rest of the conservative coalition he embodied, Rumsfeld persisted in his efforts to more perfectly integrate the military into the market — generally by eroding the military’s welfare functions through privatization and the reallocation of personnel dollars toward expenditures on armaments and technological upgrades.
His final act as Ford’s defense secretary was to warn that the Soviet Union was on track to become “the dominant military in the world” and propose an American military budget that included enormous increases in total military spending, including increases to pay rates and pensions entitlements for active duty and retired soldiers — a concession to generals who, in the words of one historian, “worried about a future Army potentially composed of mostly undereducated recruits from low socioeconomic levels.”
But just one year earlier, Rumsfeld’s 1977 budget had cancelled an allocation of almost $150 million to the armed forces’ pension fund in favor of new aircraft and missile system expenditures.
A few years earlier, during his 1975 confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld had outlined his theory of military spending by anticipating contradictory trade-offs such as these. Addressing a Senate Armed Services Committee that included figures like Barry Goldwater and Patrick Leahy, Rumsfeld said that “there is no question that the United States is misserved” by raises in soldiers’ pay and benefits if this “results in the drying up of funds needed for weapons and for the defense capability of this country.”
“The danger is that society might think we can have it both ways,” Rumsfeld continued.
We cannot. Either we pay the people what they are worth and in addition have the funds necessary for the weapons systems that are a fundamental part of our national capability, or we don’t. But there is no free lunch. […] When Congress made the decision to move toward an all-volunteer force I am afraid what happened was people thought they could have it both ways.
Rumsfeld’s disdain for rank-and-file soldiers was like the disdain of the nineteenth-century mill baron, disgusted by the need to pay out scrips for use in the company store: he acknowledged the existential need to reward his subjects, yet he also repeatedly challenged and whittled away at those rewards.
Over Friedman’s objections, Rumsfeld was passed over to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980. He took a lengthy sojourn from public service, entering the private sector to become a pioneer of the shock doctrine during the 1980s and 1990s. But even in Rumsfeld’s absence, the tension between extending special rewards and cutting personnel costs continued to drive a contradictory process inside the defense department.
As Middelstadt documents, the military welfare state was buffeted by repeated waves of strategic defunding and privatization in the decades before the War on Terror, and a paternalistic ideology of individual resilience and social superiority came to dominate military culture in response.
Even from the moment of its inception, then, the military’s system of preferential rewards for soldiers was always under assault. Generally this assault was expressed ideologically, as a kind of paranoid concern about the supposed feminization of the armed forces.
“The Army is becoming too involved in social rehabilitation services,” wrote Rep. Robin Beard (R-TN) in an influential 1978 study that compared the armed services’s welfare functions to “babysitting” and special education. “Is the Army a fighting machine or just another social institution? It can’t be both.”
This kind of criticism, which was widespread during Rumsfeld’s term as defense secretary in the late 1970s, was based on the military’s perceived weakness in the face of adversity, which conservatives like Beard and Rumsfeld chalked up to poor leadership and the softening effects of mass welfare dependence.
But even under Reagan, as civilian entitlements were slashed with abandon, the military’s welfare functions were preserved, in part because soldiers and their spouses were able to mobilize an ideology of Christian family obligation compatible with Reagan’s folksy, rugged austerity. While even liberal Jimmy Carter had earlier expressed grave concerns about the size of the military’s social budget, under Reagan’s direction, total expenditures on spousal and other benefits continued to grow. In 1984, in a proclamation declaring April 17 to be Military Spouse Day, Reagan wrote that military spouses, “as parents and homemakers . . . preserve the cornerstone of our Nation’s strength — the American family.”
With Clinton in office, the old criticisms took on a new resonance as a special contempt for the president swelled across the military command hierarchy. Clinton had shown weakness in Somalia and Rwanda, they felt, and his excursion in Kosovo, according to a 2006 New Yorker article, had made military officers “deeply skeptical about what they called ‘operations other than war.’”
That officers attributed the supposed bloat and inefficiency of military welfare spending to Clinton, and not to Reagan, illustrated the irrationality of their critique — according to Middelstadt, budget restructuring in the 1990s in fact “resulted in a historically unprecedented transfer of military support services from the public to the private sector.”
George W. Bush appointed Rumsfeld as defense secretary for a second time in 2001 to spearhead the de-Clintonization of the armed forces. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Rumsfeld “the right man for the job in this new century.” Rumsfeld, for his part, affirmed that his highest priority was to “strengthen the bond of trust with the American military.” And to Rumsfeld, strengthening that bond of trust meant deepening the relationship between private actors and military support services.
The Public-Private Partnership War
This management strategy was expressed most obviously in the Iraq War, during which nearly every aspect of the war-fighting effort, from the spectacular to the mundane, was organized through networks that confounded state and private sector distinctions.
In important respects, in fact, the US’s invasion of Iraq was the first war waged entirely through public-private partnership. If Rumsfeld’s overriding objective was to integrate war-fighting into the free market, then the invasion of Iraq, as disastrous and uncontrollable as it was, was something like his utopian ideal.
There was some irony, then, in Rumsfeld’s infamous comment that “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” Uttered at a staging base in Kuwait in the first year of the Iraq War, Rumsfeld was responding to soldiers whose questions suggested that, in Iraq, elites like himself might have mismanaged the business of war. “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills to find pieces of scrap metal . . . to armor our vehicles?” one enlistee asked. “Why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?”
The resounding applause to his question carried with it a flurry of other, unspoken, questions. Why were their Humvees so insufficient?, the soldiers wanted to know. Why were they denied the armor needed to withstand the blasts of roadside bombs? Why had vital supplies like food rations and bathing soap been entrusted to unreliable contractors? Why were commanding officers so unprepared to organize a coherent counterinsurgency operation? And why were so many soldiers ordered outside the wire to die — blown up through the flimsy floors of those bullshit Humvees — just to haul diesel for generators that only powered Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon on their forward operating bases?
Rumsfeld’s response was predictable and inelegant: “This is a matter of physics, not a matter of money. For the Army, it’s not a matter of desire. It’s about production and capability.” He concluded with the phrase heard round the world: it resonated in Kuwait and Fallujah and Kabul and in the dozens of places on every continent where US soldiers wondered about their leaders’ interest in preserving their safety. Rumsfeld, who in 1975 had told a Senate subcommittee that to expect both adequate pay and advanced weapons was asking for “free lunch,” now told a crowd of men and women in desert camouflage, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
In the end, he had no way to justify himself, nor did he feel he had to. The military was in and of the market. He governed it as an executive governs a company — with absolute discretion, responsible above all for ensuring efficiency and maintaining control. If he accomplished this through mutually beneficial partnerships with private companies, that was his prerogative. Any shortcomings to this strategy were the result of market conditions, not management deficits — and, as in all labor disputes, those unsatisfactory market conditions were as much a burden to be borne by the laboring class as by the employing one.
After all, no one had forced the soldiers to be there. They were market actors, too, Rumsfeld seemed to remind them, and they had made their choice. Could they say the same about their brothers, their cousins, their friends back home? To the extent that the disgruntled soldiers in Iraq had anyone to blame, Rumsfeld suggested, it was not elites, but other, more idle, members of their own social station.
This austerity-minded disregard for the human cost of soldiering translated into Rumsfeld’s wartime policy-making, as well. Even as congress members, generals, military planners, and others insisted that millions of dollars of additional allocations were required to prop up the already failing war effort in Iraq, Rumsfeld became famous for what the New York Times called his “wait-and-see approach.”
For years, as the conflict dragged on, Rumsfeld stubbornly held out hope that territorial victory and troop draw-down were imminent. Neither of these things occurred with him in the Pentagon, of course, but his intransigence did help to establish the pattern of widespread stop-loss deployment (through which soldiers were compelled to remain on active duty even after their terms of service expired) that, for many service members, defined the horrifying experience of fighting in Iraq.
Just as, in Rumsfeld’s warped view of history, “Clintonization” threatened a return to the effeteness of the Vietnam era, so too did the cowardly weakness of the American people threaten the war effort in Iraq. His message to soldiers was condescending but direct: If the army isn’t big enough, if it isn’t strong enough to accomplish what elites demand, don’t look to the elites for answers. Instead look to those around you who haven’t yet joined the brotherhood of arms — and ask them why not.
Much to the detriment of our society, this message resonated on the home front, as well. This was part of the strange horror of being young and American during the early years of the War on Terror. You had to watch your peers being killed or maimed or stop-lossed over and over again in an incoherent war that could promise no positive result. Meanwhile, the secretary of defense himself was standing before the country with his characteristic smirk and announcing that, if you hadn’t yet enlisted, this whole colossal failure was your own damn fault.
The American Public Is to Blame
The obvious contempt Rumsfeld felt toward soldiers cannot be separated from his position at the top of a command hierarchy that empowered him to act without reproach or limitation. From the crest of that hierarchy, he administered a rogue corporation that insisted on the social superiority of its own workforce — browbeating an entire country into reflexive routines of awe and deference that were, for soldiers, their own kind of welfare entitlement — while also wielding that special status like a cudgel.
Through this sleight of hand, Rumsfeld and his partners deflected responsibility for the catastrophe of the war away from elites like themselves and onto an American populace, soldier and civilian alike, that they regarded as their laggard, effeminate partner in progress.
This was what he did when he busted the AFGE’s unionization drive in the 1970s; it was what he did in 2003 when he insisted that the burden of reproducing the war effort be shifted away from his office and onto individual soldiers through stop-loss deployments; and it was what he did throughout his career in public service, each time he insisted upon the executive’s inalienable right to direct war-fighting without any challenge or question from those whose lives were on the line.
Rumsfeld will forever be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s great privatizers — and for good reason. He spent his life attempting to integrate the military into the free market by strategically defunding its public components. The flood of private sector interests that rushed in to profit from the holes left by the receding state were not a side effect of this process, but rather the organizing principle of Rumsfeld’s whole program.
Many have pointed out that Rumsfeld himself, as well as figures like former Halliburton chairman Dick Cheney, seems to have accrued personal financial rewards through the Iraq War. But Rumsfeld’s privatization agenda was more than just a ploy to enrich his friends and political backers.
It was also a pure expression of his pathological and condescending worldview, the lie he repeatedly told himself and all of us throughout his life in public service: that wars are fought willingly by free societies; that national violence can be mobilized through the neutral and nonpartisan infrastructure of the market; and that empire and domination are the natural outcomes of a self-interested people’s aggregated personal decisions, each of which is fundamentally inviolable by an entity such as a government or the United Nations.
What we might call privatization was, for Rumsfeld, only the outcome of an inevitable and irrepressible wave of war emanating from the natural self-interest of the American people — a kind of market-driven momentum that he, together with other elites, could direct and manage, but never be held responsible for.
It is undeniable now, in hindsight, that Rumsfeld’s public-private military was always a utopian projection rather than a feasible objective. The devastation Rumsfeld’s experiment wrought for Afghanistan, Iraq, and for the many thousands of Americans sent to fight there will continue to be felt for generations to come. The Guardian eulogized Rumsfeld as a man who “arguably did more damage to the US’s military reputation than any previous secretary of defense.”
But even that criticism fails to capture the abiding darkness at the core of Rumsfeld’s legacy. As the hagiographies remind us, Rumsfeld was both the youngest and the oldest defense secretary in American history. He straddled either side of the All-Volunteer Force; as a young man he presided over its inception, and as an old man he helmed the hulking ship as it was inevitably dashed against the rocks.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accomplished nothing, even according to the strategic criteria of the US security state. If we take anything from Rumsfeld’s legacy, it should be that war-fighting cannot be managed by executives nor integrated into the supposedly smooth operations of the self-regulating market. The men who tried that, Rumsfeld among them, produced a quantity of death and suffering that has been unmatched by any other group of political leaders this century. We are still living in the vile and treacherous world that they produced.
Rumsfeld has died just in time for the Fourth of July, a holiday whose pageantry seems each year to reauthorize the utopian delusion at the core of the All-Volunteer Force. This year, surely, we can expect somber moments of silence and dramatic twenty-one gun salutes for the former defense secretary. But when we remember Rumsfeld, let us also remember the undeniable lesson of his life in power: Wars cannot be mastered, nor streamlined, nor contained. They can only — and must — be prevented.