In ‘Donald,’ Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott turn the tables on an architect of George W. Bush’s wars

November 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 8, 2014

Donald, a 2011 book co-written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, is one of the first novels centered on a key figure in the presidential administration of George W. Bush. (I know of one other — American Wife, the 2008 novel by Curtis Sittenfeld that fictionalizes the story of Laura Bush.) Donald, I would guess, is likely to be one of the strangest novels ever to be written that centers on a key figure in the Bush administration.

It’s not that this novel, which is told from the perspective of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is fantastical in execution; to the contrary, the story unspools in realistic fashion.

Instead, the odd thing here is the premise. One night, Rumsfeld is kidnapped from his Maryland home by covert operatives. He is detained and interrogated in a series of settings — first a residence that appears to be near his own house, then in a prison camp in Afghanistan or Iraq, and finally in various prison facilities located at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It’s never revealed who has ordered Rumsfeld’s abduction (presumably it’s someone in the Obama administration), and we only get tantalizing hints as to why the action might have been ordered. On occasion, Rumsfeld is grilled on the details of a lunch meeting with an apparently foreign oil executive whom Rumsfeld calls “the petrochemical asshole.” Once, an interrogator suggests that Rumsfeld has been detained in order to produce evidence that might lead to the indictment of Bush or his vice president, Dick Cheney.

But most of the time, it’s not clear whether the people running the detention and interrogation machinery even know why the man who shaped and previously oversaw this shady realm has been subjected to its stresses, privations and degradations.

“I’m losing myself,” he says. This is what they want! To parade a madman past the madding crowd for a public denouncement! Or maybe they believe he will pass through madness and emerge completely tame on the other side? “No one’s in charge, are they?” he asks Dee. “You’ve forgotten why you’re here.”

“I’m here to serve my country.”

“Good girl,” Donald says.

At the heart of Donald is this possibly unanswerable query that the authors have an unnamed young bureaucrat pose to Rumsfeld himself:

“You should have been a source of restraint,” the kid says, his voice dipped and thick now. “And you were not a source of restraint. You should have been. You used to be. I want to know why.”

The anonymous man seems to be referring to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, when the Bush administration suddenly began grappling with the issues of how best to approach the task of capturing and questioning alleged enemy fighters and terrorists. It was at this juncture, of course, that the administration determined that it would be acceptable to abuse and torture prisoners.

This short book — it’s 110 pages long — contains a number of pleasures, some of them unexpected. As much as one might be inclined to despise Rumsfeld, who helped lead the United States into a costly and (many say) unnecessary war in Iraq, one can’t help but sympathize with his plight. Then again, this sympathy is balanced against the knowledge that countless others have been subjected to the same terrifying experiences as Rumsfeld because of Rumsfeld. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the bureaucrat get a taste of his own medicine.

And there’s this delightful scene wherein Rumsfeld sides with his captors in an amicable debate with an older soldier who dislikes his duties:

The old guard’s name is Grady. A veteran of another era, another war, also complicated. “Hell, I think those same rules should apply,” Grady says. “Prisoners are prisoners. I don’t agree with half this stuff at all.”

“There are bad people in this world,” he tells Grady. “There’s evil and mischief.”

“Yeah,” Grady says. “But all of you? I don’t see it. Either you should be sent home or you should be treated like POWs. I know y’all can’t be guilty.”

“Most, though. Trainers, bomb guys, bombers, bodyguards, financiers, recruiters, facilitators, researchers, video makers, writers, cooks, babysitters, farmers. United in their commitment to fight off free societies and cause the deaths of innocent men, women and children.”

Rather perversely, Rumsfeld takes pride in seeing people do their jobs well, even when their purpose is to grind him down. And the former secretary of defense feels outrage when guards and interrogators violate approved detention and interrogation guidelines — when they stray from the reservation, as Rumself himself might put it.

Martin and Elliott portray the former defense secretary as a man who believes — who knows — that our unreconstructed brutish primal impulses lurk just beneath surface of the civilized veneer that people display to the rest of the world. Early in the book, Rumsfeld assesses a young woman: “There’s a little war in the girl, maybe from her father, or maybe because every beautiful girl has glimpsed the natural state of man, at least the part that would rape her if it could.”

Moreover, this Rumsfeld is a man who thinks he can handle any situation, or at least figure out the right way to attack it. Rumsfeld knows that he won’t win every battle, but he’s confident that he’ll win most of them — and most of the ones that really count. That self-assurance comes through in this interrogation scene:

[I]t occurs to him that if they are going to change direction they should do it now. Don’t wait until you’re talking about some petrochemical asshole in the mountains. Now.

“Jolman.” He tries to imagine he’s on the phone. Jolman can’t see me. He can only hear my voice. “Let me just say that when we’re finished here today, you’ll know everything I know about whatever you want to know. That’s a promise. I don’t make them often. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Although the specter of torture overshadows everything in Donald, the thing itself is glimpsed more at the edges than seen head on. Occasionally, Rumsfeld sees or hears guards assaulting other prisoners. After he’s slapped in an early questioning session, he thinks, “the insult slap was legal, technically. Open handed, fingers spread apart, initiated from twelve to fourteen inches away.” Later, Rumsfeld is put in “stress positions” — once he’s forced to stand in a hunched-over position, due to his shackles, and once an interrogator slams Rumsfeld’s head against a wall and forces him to support the weight of his body with his head and neck. Once, he starts to suffocate due to the hood he’s forced to wear over his head when he’s moved between different facilities.

Still, Donald is not torture porn, and these episodes aren’t designed to cause the reader discomfort. Once again, Rumsfeld is surprisingly game about the whole ordeal, taking these degrading experiences in stride. This troubled me somewhat: Did the authors downplay Rumsfeld’s pain because it made them uneasy to contemplate, or did they do so because they genuinely believed that he (or at least their personification of Rumsfeld) would react the way he does in the book? I’m still not certain which of these explanations is correct.

I had deeply conflicted feelings about the protagonist of this novel. I wanted Rumsfeld to suffer for his sins because he had sinned, because of the pain he had caused others. I also wanted him to escape suffering because some of the agony he helped inflict was so brutal that it no one should be forced to experience. Part of me also hoped to see Rumsfeld gain control of his situation, simply because it would be such an unlikely accomplishment. (This is a huge part of the appeal of movies that feature illegal capers, such as The Heist and Ocean’s Eleven.)

Ultimately, Donald reminded me of the writing of the acclaimed British science fiction author J.G. Ballard in the way that the story — especially the ending — turns toward the allegorical without stinting on detail, or sacrificing credibility, as tales often do when they eschew realistic narratives. (In particular, I thought of Ballard’s 1987 novel The Day of Creation.)

Although I enjoyed Donald, in the end, I can only recommend it half-heartedly. It’s a clever book, but it lacks a certain heft — in the physical sense, but, more importantly, in the metaphysical sense. As well crafted as it is, and as pleasurable and fascinating as it can be to read, Donald reminded me of some kind of high-level thought exercise. It’s interesting, but it just doesn’t engage fully with the issues at hand or resonate with the larger world.

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