By Anindya Bhattacharyya
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This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
Andrew Cockburn, Verso, £17.99
Issue 315

One of the most pleasing aspects of the thrashing the Republicans suffered in last year’s elections to the US Congress was seeing Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s defence secretary and chief architect of the Iraq war, getting unceremoniously dumped.

The fact that Rumsfeld is now permanently out of power might make this new biography by Andrew Cockburn seem less than politically urgent. But it would be a crying shame if people overlooked this meticulously researched and thoroughly addictive little book.

Andrew Cockburn – the elder brother of Patrick and Alexander – has done a sterling job in putting together pretty much everything we know and a good deal we didn’t about Rumsfeld’s ignominious career.

What emerges is a transfixing portrait of a man whose vanity and venality are matched only by his ruthless careerism and serial incompetence.

Unlike most political biographers, Cockburn says little or nothing about Rumsfeld’s family background or personal life. Instead we are led step by step through his political career, from his 1962 election as a Republican congressman, through his rise and fall under Richard Nixon’s administration, his return to high office under Bush, right the way through to the disaster of Iraq.

On the way we are treated to a series of hair-raising interludes. These include Rumsfeld’s stint as chief executive of the pharmaceuticals group GD Searle – during which he used his political connections to ram through federal approval of the artificial sweetener NutraSweet, despite solid scientific evidence suggesting that it could trigger brain tumours.

Rumsfeld’s creepy obsession with disappearing off to take part in nuclear war simulation games for the Pentagon is also revealed. Cockburn quotes an official involved with organising these games: “Rumsfeld always wanted to move to retaliation as quickly as possible. He was one who always went for the extreme option.”

The sections on Iraq and the “war on terror” are full of extraordinary revelations. Cockburn provides detailed evidence about how Rumsfeld not only authorised torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib – he personally micromanaged it, issuing instructions from his Pentagon office as to how particular prisoners should be treated.

But the most striking aspect of Cockburn’s account of Rumsfeld is the portrait it paints of a US elite composed of thoroughly corrupt individuals who absolutely loathe each other. Marx famously described the ruling class as a “band of warring brothers”. The levels of venom that the super-rich Republican hawks sling at each other are truly eye-popping.

Cockburn is a master of the pacy, racy, all-guns-blazing style of muckraking US investigative journalism, and this book is a ghoulish pleasure to read from start to finish. Some reviewers in the mainstream press have suggested there’s something not quite right with kicking a man who’s down with quite such evident ferocity and glee. But Rumsfeld is such an appalling creature that it is our inescapable moral duty to gloat at his downfall.

Reading this book is by far the best means of doing this.

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