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WASHINGTON - An anti-war protester with a mask of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stands in Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) office on Capitol Hill March 19, 2003. The demonstration, organized by Code Pink, was intended to hold Congressional leaders responsible for Iraqi and American deaths in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

Mount Misery: And Behold A Man Transformed Into A Brute

Abby Zimet

When Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully at home this week at the untender age of 88, his family lauded "his extraordinary accomplishments" and "the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country"; his heedless former boss and enabler cited "an exemplary public servant and a very good man." Those living on Planet Earth, however, eviscerated the murderous brute and "ardent imperialist" who fellow-warmonger Henry Kissinger once called, likely with a foul whiff of envy, "the most ruthless man I ever met." Arguably this country's worst Defense Secretary and the architect of "the biggest military fiasco in U.S. history," which is going some, Rumsfeld will forever be known as the "dreary war criminal" whose lies, errors and boundless hubris begat the 2003 invasion of Iraq in search of imaginary weapons of mass destruction that killed,  maimed, tortured and traumatized hundreds of thousands of people. Along with inveterate hawks like Cheney and Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld had a ruinously flawed story and he stuck to it, reality or inhuman cost be damned, from Vietnam as a vital front against Communism to Iraq as a testing lab for a facile war of smart bombs, electronic intelligence and few troops on the ground; he was so bound to his narrative he even banned aides from using the word "insurgents." In truth, the "man without a plan" who "apologized for nothing, learned nothing" was wrong within hours of the first plane  hitting the Twin Towers - choosing to go after Hussein not Bin Laden, predicting a war of six months tops when on Friday, 20 years later, the last U.S. troops left Bagram Air Base - and he never stopped: "Wherever the U.S. contemplated a wrong turn, Rummy was there first, with his hard smile."

Most horrifically, his shameless cheerleading for the grotesque torture of prisoners at Gitmo and Abu-Ghraib - complete with infamous torture memo and macabre demand that prisoners be "medically and operationally" fit for their abuse - marked his "brief, bloody reign of terror"; it also helped ensure the catastrophic, global, ongoing repercussions of his "baffling, harebrained and ultimately bloody choices," including today's record number of refugees. Almost as evil, the "consummate dissembler," when confronted with his fatal blunders, either repeated the lie or embellished it: Iraq had the weapons, you can count on it, and he knew where they were. His other response to any challenge was to offer banal bromides: Stuff happens, freedom is untidy, you go to war with the army you have, there are known knowns and unknown unknowns. As to his "integrity," he couldn't even be bothered to sign his name on over 1,000 condolence letters to the shattered families whose sons, daughters, husbands died in his blithe wars; a machine did it for him. "He expressed not a quiver of regret," writes George Packer. "He must have died secure in the knowledge he was right all along." And when he did, a righteous bitter world, still mindful of his crimes, did not mourn. Many responses echoed The Onion's savage tone: "Weapon of Mass Destruction Found Dead At 88." "On behalf of the thousands in Guantanamo who lost years of their lives, I hope you taste a bit of the hell they lived," read one. Another: "You fucking ghoul. I hope it hurt."

"In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, published the first of what would become three autobiographical accounts of his life," began Rachel Maddow, seemingly incongruously, on her Wednesday show on MSNBC. She recounted that in his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave," and his next, My Bondage and My Freedom, one of the most harrowing periods Douglass describes in his own incalculably hard life was a year he spent "when I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery," after the man who owned him decided he was "incorrigible and needed in effect to be tamed." He was sent to a Maryland plantation owner named Edward Covey, who Maddow said "enjoyed the execrated reputation" of being a first-rate "slave breaker." Covey's brick manor and farm were called Mount Misery. At painful length, Douglass describes Covey's "most brutal chastisement" in 1833 and 1834: endless, bloody, severe whippings with sticks or cowskins, random beatings into unconsciousness, labor "up to the point of my powers of endurance," from dawn until late at night, in heat, cold, snow, hail: "The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights were too long for him...I was completely wrecked, changed and bewildered, goaded almost to madness...combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought, I am a slave, a slave for life." Douglass' writings, as well as his fearless, ceaseless, eloquent advocacy, helped galvanize an American abolitionist movement that ultimately led to the end of slavery. It also documented for posterity the grievously low time in his life when Edward Covey tried to break him at Mount Misery.

Fast-forward to June 30th, 2006, exactly 15 years before the date of Maddow's show, when the New York Times published a frothy feature titled Weekends with the President’s Men about St. Michael's, a burgeoning resort community in Maryland where many D.C. pols and fat cats were buying second homes. The piece prompted some debate because it revealed the exact address of one senior government official. The kicker: The home was Mount Misery. The official was, yes, Donald Rumsfeld. He bought it for $1.5 million in 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq, as a weekend retreat. "He liked to have the Chinook helicopter drop him off at the slave breaker's home where Douglass was tortured," noted Maddow, eyebrow raised. "He could relax there." "Would you want to live there yourself?" she then asked of the sumptuous getaway of the War on Terror's mastermind, summoning the lurid juxtaposition, its hellish battle between slave and slave breaker emblematic of "the darkest, most violent days of this country's past." "Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast, have that be your home? Who would do that?" In 2006, that thorny question sparked a play - "a comedy of enhanced interrogations" - a Wikileaks look at the property, with its surveillance camera embedded in the entry's birdhouse, and a thoughtful piece by Ian Finseth in the Baltimore Sun suggesting the failure to turn Mount Misery into a museum or memorial to what transpired there "represents a lost opportunity to do right by history" - especially, he argued, in a story about race and power, black history. The blasphemous presence of Rumsfeld, reflecting "an administration whose power is based on intimidation and on the subservience of others," was an added, awful sin unto itself. "You have, dear reader, seen me humbled, degraded, broken down, enslaved and brutalized," wrote Douglass in 1845. He goes on, eerily presaging Rumsfeld, "And behold a man transformed into a brute!"


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, thinning the carrots, hauling too much water, experiencing true if ragged community, and writing. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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