Eugene Jarecki takes questions seriously. An earnest student of history and precise thinker, he asks questions for a living and answers them with care. His 2002 documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, found the former Secretary of State guilty of crimes against humanity, but also symptomatic of his era. Jarecki’s new film, Why We Fight, winner of the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, extends and deepens such analysis, examining the social, economic, and political systems that drive U.S. war-making policy.
You call Eisenhower the “hero” of Why We Fight. Is the significance of his Farewell Speech partly a function of its timing, the ways that TV affected his image?
You could say it this way: How many times have we heard that the quality that made the difference between Nixon and Kennedy for that election was Kennedy’s tanned complexion and camera-friendly appearance? Even though Eisenhower’s speech is profoundly important, it’s a little bit ignored, as we in this society often attribute significance to an event more for its media-oriented, formal qualities than for its substance.
Yet Eisenhower had a good relationship with the press.
Eisenhower gave more press conferences than virtually any president we’ve had. He was very active in informing the fourth estate about his decision-making and his thinking. He saw the press as a conduit to speak in his very “talking Kansas” way to the American people. And this raises another problem, the current myth that Republicans own the copyright on war. They don’t. A disproportionate number have been run by Democrats, the same Democrats who disappointed their constituents by failing to stop the war in Iraq. I mention this because the candidacy of John Kennedy was driven by the military industrial sector and sought to embarrass Eisenhower as a kind of old school thinker who was, among other things, soft on the Soviets. So here you have a war hero looked like a dove because of a young upstart who was talking hawkish talk about the Soviet Union.
In large part, that led Eisenhower to say that there are forces operating here that are getting too big for even someone like myself to control. That’s when he said this famous phrase in the Oval Office, “God help this country when somebody—potentially John Kennedy, potentially George W. Bush—sits at this desk and doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.” Kennedy used to embarrass Eisenhower about the “Missile Gap,” the idea that Eisenhower had allowed the U.S. to fall behind the Soviet Union in missile development. I spoke to Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, and she said that in fact, Eisenhower knew that we were ahead of the Soviets, but that the only way he knew that was that he was flying secret U2 spy missions over the Soviet Union, and he couldn’t reveal it. So he had to sit on his hands, unable to defend himself, while Kennedy impugned Eisenhower’s stewardship of the national security.
Wasn’t the PT-109 story part of the Kennedy campaign as well?
It very much was. But looking back now and seeing Kennedy as the military-industrial candidate flies in the face of the inclination Americans have today to see Republicans as the seat of war. And the moment one liberates oneself from that kind of simple preconception, one realizes this is a bipartisan problem, a systemic, societal problem. When Eisenhower talks about the military-industrial complex, he is not a conspiracy theorist, but a keen observer at the policy-making table, who is warning us of the way that a society, even with the best of intentions, can lose its way.
That is a party-blind issue, and the forces that drive America to war don’t care who’s president. If you look at the micro, there may be peaks and valleys where defense spending goes up or down, or our global posture becomes a little more peaceable or a little more bellicose. But what you see over time is a consistent rise in the pressure exerted by the military-industrial sector and a correlative growth of our global footprint and our willingness to use force to galvanize that global footprint.
What’s striking now is how cynical these choices seem. The film shows there’s a moment when it was “the right thing to do” to look after the world. Now that seems abandoned.
That’s what Eisenhower tells us, absolutely. A society can go awry. We started out as a republic, the idea being to break off from an empire and, among other things, avoid the errors of past empires. After winning World War II and seeing a world bleeding from the ravages of totalitarianism, American policy-makers thought, “Who better than ourselves to shepherd this hurt world?” And so it made sense to take a more global role.
But in the years that have followed, that role has only increased, until today the United States has 860 military bases in 130 countries. Combine that with our economic, political, and cultural influence, and it’s an imprint of unprecedented scope. It doesn’t matter how we got here, for good reasons and bad: we are here. And that compels each American—what Eisenhower called the “alert and knowledgeable citizen”—to take stock of the challenges of empire and say, “Okay, this is a country we care deeply about, and if it’s lost its way, what is its new way? How can we proceed in the world in a way more consistent with its founding principles?”
There has been a slippery slope, starting with that raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. With that symbol, the troops were sending a signal about our struggle to define ourselves as a nation. Today, when an American soldier raises a flag somewhere in the world, it sends a signal of our willingness to impose definition on others. That is a sea change in the history of the country, and none of us can ignore that and be true to the work in progress that the founding fathers created.
And as soon as U.S. troops placed the flag on the Saddam statue, someone associated with the military’s PR noted it, and the flag came down.
We live in this referential culture now, where everything is a reference to something else. But bear in mind that the Iwo Jima moment also occurred, and then was restaged for the camera. And so, it was ever thus.
How do you see race and racism working in your analysis of imperialism?
Western nations traditionally dominated nonwestern nations beginning in the 15th century. As the heir to the legacy of power established by those western nations, the United States has continued the power dynamic of dominating less advantaged nations through economic, political, and military means. And though here at home we have sought to foster instruments of democracy, we have been willing to undermine those when pursuing our interests even at the expense of nonwestern peoples.
Let me add two other ideas. One is that the United States was born of racist aggression, the decimation of the Native population and enslavement of Africans.
But I would argue that the arrival to these shores of Europeans and their immediate willingness to dominate the existing less advantaged people here makes us part of that legacy. So yes, the christening ceremony itself was characterized by the same dynamic of abusive power and gives a glimpse of what’s to come. Now, we’ve become more polite. We had the black slave experience, and though we sought to redress the wounds of that experience, that legacy remains and it is not easily unlearned.
The second part is that these “less advantaged peoples” are more often than not people of color: how is that built into the system, the ability to dehumanize someone who doesn’t look like you?
What is it that caused us to end slavery? We know it was a more complicated story than the good will of Mr. Lincoln, that there were also serious considerations about the impact that slavery was having on this country. There was no impulse to end abuses of people of color overseas. Had it really been a matter of humanitarian concern, we would have equated the end of U.S. slavery with the end of institutions of human subjugation in which we were involved elsewhere. But we didn’t, because there was no lobbying group who saw the needs of those overseas as affecting the state.
Lobbying brings me back to cynicism. And here’s an example: in the State of the Union Address, Bush notes suddenly the U.S. addiction to oil. No one believes he’s just noticed that.
Yes, it’s so perverse. I stood up in front of the European Parliament a few years ago to show [The Trials of Henry Kissinger], and I gave a critical assessment of a number of conflicts in which the U.S. was involved. And at one point the French delegate, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, scolded me. He said, “Your criticism of your own country is so discrete to your own country, that it is in its own way a form of nationalism. You ignore the possibility that the rest of the nations represented in this room also are ethically challenged. You seem to think that’s the special province of the United States. If anything, the United States has been the battleground, where democracy has seemed possible. And so perhaps the special tragedy is that when democracy in the United States is in peril, so goes the world.”
I do focus unduly on United States, because I love America, I show tough love to America, as any parent would a child if that child were addicted to something. And this country has gotten to the point where we are essentially dependent on the forces of militarism. We have so atrophied most parts of our national life and diverted the resources therefrom to the military instrument that we have an overdeveloped right arm and the rest of our body is falling away. It comes to seem that the military is the solution to all problems, and in fact it is. Because when the floods come and you have no infrastructure, send in the Guard—unless they’re overseas. We’ve taken the money from the schools, but young people can be educated through the Army. This is what Eisenhower foresaw when he warned of the danger of becoming a garrison state.
Eisenhower argued that any complete definition of national defense must include education, health care, and infrastructure. He built the American highway system out of defense department money. And his understanding goes further. If you allow private interests and corporatism to run rampant and trample the delicate flowerbed of your democracy, you will end up in a situation where the public loses faith in their government. At that point, you lose your last line of defense, you see the recruitment figures shrinking.
And Eisenhower’s understanding came from experience in the field.
Understand that Eisenhower had a pacifist mother, that he was born in a Mennonite household, and she was shocked when he went to West Point. He forced himself as a commander to witness the gore and the gravity of the battlefields of Europe, and wrote a certain number of letters home to next of kin, taking responsibility for his decision-making. And that gave him a sense of how serious war policy-making is.
Do you attribute Colin Powell’s appeal to a similar gravity?
One of the signs of a society tilted toward militarism is that the only people who have credibility to talk about war wear uniforms. Somebody called at one point for the withdrawal U.S. forces from tv studios, “retired potbellied generals,” as Gil Scott-Heron called them. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study, in which they found that in the two weeks leading up to Colin Powell’s appearance at the United Nations, of 396 programs on the major networks dealing with the impending war, three featured voices that were anti-war. Those same mainstream networks adopted the Pentagon’s name for the war, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as their logo, the name for their coverage and branding. It’s one thing for the Pentagon to use such a euphemism, but it’s another for the fourth estate to adopt that indiscriminately. In a state-controlled media, how would it be any different?
Here’s the thing: when you get to a point where you have armchair generals in Washington who have never heard a shot fired in anger, think-tankers advocating hawkish policy, we almost long to hear the sobriety of a battle-hardened, thoughtful military men. Mr. Powell did himself a great disservice by living out the fullness of the contract he once signed to serve the powerful. And he failed to recognize until too late that there is an order which it is the soldier’s duty to disobey.
How did you approach the film: you had an argument to make? A question you were asking?
I had an inquiry before I started, which was implicit in the title, qualified by the question: If Frank Capra asked why we fight today, is Dwight Eisenhower’s answer pertinent? We wanted to talk to people across the American spectrum, professional and political. When we started out making the film, there was no war in Iraq. When the war happened, you couldn’t ignore it. And that meant you deal with people’s stories. When these started to emerge, it changed the film. You couldn’t figure out at a given moment, was it an analytical film or a human film? Ultimately I hope it’s both, dealing with hearts and minds.
Can you talk about three overarching stories in the film: William Solomon, Wilton Sekzer, and the two pilots?
I think Wilton is a soldier who has fought to defend his country, then worked to defend his city, then experiences an unimaginable loss on 9/11 and feels the impulse of violent revenge. And he comes to learn that there may be a higher wisdom than the initial impulse. His capacity to evolve in that way is one of the most inspiring personal influences I’ve ever absorbed, because he is more open to self-reflection than I am at my relatively young age. He represents the most evolved wisdom I the film.
William represents the least evolved. He is joining the Army at a time of war. He has lost his mother, he has mounting bills, and faces the grip that so many young people face in the inner city. Some viewers see him as joining out of necessity, an example of America’s poverty draft. But while they think the film shows him making a bad choice, I don’t. For someone like William, the military is the best game in town. And that raises the larger question: What kind of society are we living in when the best opportunity for a young person is to take a job that might cost the life of himself or of another? The military is like the mafia, who come to a young person and say, “You want a roof over your head? A little bit of pocket money? I just need you to do a job for me.”
William thinks through some difficult questions on camera, with frighteningly little information.
Though he is deeply reflective, he is naïve about all that awaits him, all that Wilton learned in the battlefield. But when Wilton entered the military, it was a matter of duty. As he says, “When the bugle calls, you go.” William never mentions a thing about fighting for his country. What he mentions is what the military appeals to, the “opportunities” the military can provide. So he’s on the least informed end of the film’s spectrum, notwithstanding his intellect.
And in the middle, between those two poles are the pilots. They understand the challenging moral dilemmas that service poses; whether they agree with an order to not, they obey it. They are still comfortable enough with that role that they obey without engaging in the kind of deep thinking that Wilton does. So those three sets of characters represent a range of evolved thinking, across members of our military family.
And as pilots, they have a certain remove from their targets, granted by increasingly advanced technologies.
We showed the film at West Point. The cadets collectively gasped at two moments in the film that civilian audiences don’t notice, both having to do with William. One is the scene where William is told he might become a pilot some day, and given his level of education, age, and less than straight-laced persona, the cadets all knew that was a cruel ruse. Later, when he’s glancing through a brochure of helicopters and points out one he’s been told he might be able to fly in the service, they gasped again, because that helicopter had been discontinued two years before this scene was shot.
Do you see a way out of all this?
Yes, I do. I’m optimistic because I’m not overly preoccupied with the present.
A decision that’s a function of not being in a war zone?
Yes. But there’s a tendency in our society to forget history. It’s the long story of many dark chapters, followed by enlightenment. We are living in a dark chapter and the majority of people feel it. What happens in the darkness, I think, is people wake up, become concerned and frustrated, and look for answers. Usually, when their voice rises to the point of being heard, it is too late for many people. It certainly looked to the black South Africans that they would never overcome their white oppressors. For the colonists, triumph over the British empire must have seemed a tall order. And it must have seemed to the French that they would never eject their tyrant.
These are violent overthrows.
They don’t always have to be. For Nelson Mandela, everything was bloody except the revolution. He figured out, through the strength of reason, decency, charisma, and a devotion to democratic principles, that violence begets violence. If you look at the prelude to the Iraq war, 30 million people marched in protest before a single shot was fired. If you compare that to the Vietnam war, about 13 Quakers marched down Fifth Avenue and nobody even heard them.
People will say, “But it didn’t stop the war.” But this is a long-term struggle. Someone once asked Zhou En Lai what he thought about the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied. We are only a small blip in the tension between the basic altruism and basic avarice of the human being. It’s all of our mandate to find a sustainable and decent way to go forward. And we can only do that if we keep our eye on the struggle.
I take comfort from a strange place, in the lies we were told to go into this war. The extent of those lies underscores that it was against our better judgment to go to war in Iraq. I trust the good intentions of the public. If that means we have to endure a dark stretch of time, revolutionary change takes many forms. We adapt. We learned that we could not turn to the usual source of information, the mainstream media, because journalism is prey to the same forces of runaway corporatism that Eisenhower was warning against. And so the public looked elsewhere, to documentaries, to the blogosphere, the internet, satellite radio, or papers they’d never read before. That’s a very inspiring phenomenon. That’s not good news for CEOs of major media organizations, but it’s very good news for anyone who cares about democracy. Because it says that no matter what you do to democracy in the halls of power or corporate America, you can’t take it from human beings.