A Message for Rumsfeld

On Wednesday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with the troops at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base to grip and grin, take questions and fill them in on the war so far. The troops were gathered photogenically in what CNN called the living and dining area of the base and what looked like a big cavernous hangar, which happened to have a jet parked in the background.

It was billed as a town-hall meeting with American airmen, and it reminded me of what Richard Brookhiser once said of presidential campaigns, that it’s the outside story—the public statements and speeches, the things voters can see and are meant to see—that tends to be more interesting and important than the inside story of who said what at the meeting.

*   *   *

Mr. Rumsfeld’s appearance gave rise to some thoughts, mostly about him.

He has of course, since Sept.11, emerged as a singular presence in the war. At first it was startling: all that interestingness wrapped up in such blandness. Mr. Rumsfeld looks like the competent mayor of a midsize metropolis, or the savvy CEO of a midlevel company. Gray hair, gray suit, silver-rimmed glasses. He looked the other day like a beige and silver guy in a tired red tie.

And yet these days he seems, as leaders go, a natural. Much has been written about his skills, and though the amount of interest being paid to him is inevitable—he’s a WASP wartime consigliere, an interesting thing in itself—a lot of it misses the point.

As a communicator he’s clear as clean water. He seems ingenuous. He talks with his hands. He’s thought it through and knows a lot and tells you what he knows. At first you sense his candor and clarity and enjoy it without realizing it. Then you realize you must be enjoying it because you’re still listening. Then you sense that his candor and clarity are in the service of intelligence and clean intentions. You find yourself following what he says, following the logic and the argument. Which makes you ultimately lean toward following him.

He’s Bushian, but he seems more interesting than George W. Bush, and not only because he is more experienced, an accomplished veteran of past governments. (He was first elected to the House 40 years ago; the first time he was Defense Secretary was in 1975, when he was the youngest ever.) He has a certain merriness, which is a good thing in a war leader when it is not a sign of idiocy, and it is a knowing merriness. Mr. Bush in contrast has comic, joshing moments, and Dick Cheney has genuine wit.

*   *   *

Mr. Rumsfeld, like Mr. Bush, uses plain words to say big things. He can use plain words because he isn’t using words to hide. He can afford to be frank, and in any case it appears to be his natural impulse. He can afford to be frank because we are at war, and part of winning is going to be remembering that we’re fighting, and why, which is not easy when there’s so much on sale at the mall. Part of Mr. Rumsfeld’s job is to tell the American fighting man and woman, and the American people who pay for the defense establishment, what is going on in the war, and how, and where, and why, and what the future holds. It’s his job, in effect, to be blunt, to increase consciousness, and to enhance our determination while damping down pointless anxiety. It’s a delicate dance, and yet he doesn’t seem to be dancing.

*   *   *

When asked by an airman how long the war will last, Mr. Rumsfeld said that question is quite close to him because every morning when his wife wakes up she asks about Osama. “Don, where is he?” He tells the airmen, “There’s no way to know how long. It’s not days, weeks, months; it’s years for sure.”

Asked if the U.S. military will wind up occupying Afghanistan, he calls that “unlikely,” but says the U.S. wants to help Afghanistan build and train its own army. He foresees “a military-to-military relationship.”

It’s clear when he speaks, and because it’s clear you can follow it, and because you can follow it you consider following him.

This as we all know is not always the way with leaders. Usually people like secretaries of defense and secretaries of state and United Nations representatives say things like this: “We have to remember, Tim, that the infrastructure of the multinational coalition in conjunction with the multilateral leadership entities inevitably creates potential for a disjunction of views that requires cooperation, coordination and cohesion from member states.”

Some of them talk like that because they’re hopelessly stupid and are trying to hide it. Some of them are just boring. But a lot of leaders talk like this because they don’t want to communicate clearly. They want instead to create a great cloud of words in which the listeners’ attention and imagination will get lost.

They’re not trying to break through with thought, they’re trying to obfuscate. They are boring not by accident but by design. Because they don’t want people to understand fully what they’re doing. Because they know what they’re doing won’t work, or is wrongheaded, or confused, or cowardly, or cynical, or just another way to dither, or will more likely yield bad outcomes than good.

We should all try to keep this in mind when we watch “Meet the Press” and someone is being especially boring. Henry Kissinger once joked that the great thing about being famous is that when you’re boring people think it’s their fault. But it’s almost never “their fault.”

Anyway, instead of giving a dull, windy and dissembling answer when asked about the war coalition, Mr. Rumsfeld cut through to the heart of it. He said it exists to do a job, and the job, not the coalition, is what counts. “You have to let the mission determine the coalition, you don’t let the coalition determine the mission.”

So that’s the key to Mr. Rumsfeld: candor and clarity plus specificity, and all of it within a context of a war that itself, so far, makes sense and is just.

*   *   *

Mr. Rumsfeld offered one answer that, while demonstrating a grasp of the question’s many different layers, failed to capture something that probably needs capturing.

Asked by an airman what the armed forces are going to do to retain experienced personnel, Mr. Rumsfeld spoke of pay raises, spare parts, morale—“every one of you has to know that you’re needed.” He said we need a military command that has enough imagination to see who’s good at what and make sure they’re assigned to it.

All good as far as it went—pay and parts and a psychological sense that one is noticed and appreciated are key, always. But so is something else that one senses has gone by the boards the past decade or so, and it has to do with the whole mysterious tangle of motivations that leads a man (or woman) to join up to defend his country. The thing that make him take as his job protecting the strangers who are sometimes ungrateful countrymen; the thing that tells him to put himself in harm’s way and live the loneliness of the job; that tells him to risk his life so that my son and yours can sleep peacefully through the night. The whole mysterious tangle that leads them to join is also, in part, what leads them to stay. And to my mind it comes down to sissy words like love.

“Only love will make you walk through fire,” it was said of the firemen of New York on Sept. 11; only love will make you enter that cave in Afghanistan, too. We just don’t call it love. We call it a solid job and a good pension system.

The other day I got a letter from a guy in the army in Bosnia, telling me about his duty there and including an essay about the Christmas party the troops at his base threw for the badly damaged children in an orphanage west of Tuzla. Friends and relatives of the American troops had sent wonderful gifts for each of the hundred or so children; the children in turn had dressed up in paper party hats and put on angel wings and sung songs and recited poetry. When it was over, the American soldier thought of something his history teacher back home in Michigan had taught him. You cannot escape history, the teacher had said, for history is not what happens in books, history is what will happen to you.

The American thought of how history had smashed the lives of the children in the orphanage. And then he thought of how history, in the form of “the treasure and sweat of America’s finest” had also given those same children a new chance “to grow in peace.” It was American troops acting through history who had done that.

It was clear from what the soldier wrote that his spirit and intelligence were engaged not only in the fight in Bosnia but in protecting Bosnian children, and therefore Bosnia’s future. What that knowledge did to his pride and sense of mission was obvious. He didn’t use the word love—he is a soldier—but that’s what he was writing about.

Last summer I went on a U.S. Army Web site, a recruiting site actually. I’d gone there because I wanted to write something about Medal of Honor citations, and I wanted to read them. I found to my surprise that when you go to a U.S. Army Web site what you mostly see is how much money they pay and how they’ll put you through school. That’s good and needed information, but there wasn’t any of the deeper meaning of serving—no history of the U.S. Army, no Medal of Honor citations, no essays from Bosnia. It was all slogans and salaries. It was all about pay. Which recruitment specialists apparently think is the prime motivator for joining up. Surely it’s part of it, but it couldn’t be all, and if it is we’re in trouble. An army runs on its stomach, Napoleon famously said. But it fights with its heart and its spirit and soul.

Mr. Rumsfeld (U.S. Navy, 1954-57) seems the kind of leader who would appreciate this, and give it some thought. Maybe there are things that can be done to remind the world—and the members of the armed forces—who they really are, and have been, and can be. It may be in part a whole mysterious tangle, the motivation of the men and women who fight for us, but Mr. Rumsfeld better than most could probably see that it’s addressed with clarity and candor.