Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address 17 January 1961
I think we fight because basically not enough people are standing up saying, “I’m not doing this anymore.”
—Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Why We Fight
Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary poses its title as a question. This even though and because the phrase, Why We Fight, is drawn from Frank Capra’s rousingly sincere propaganda WWII series. As Jarecki’s film reminds you, these newsreelish films laid out reasons for the going to war, most often based in the enemy’s intrinsic evil and the Americans’ basic integrity.
Jarecki’s film digs into that set of assumptions, not just to question the reasons for going to war in Iraq, but also to investigate the business of war generally. Taking as its point of departure the phrase that Dwight Eisenhower so famously used in his 1961 Farewell Address, “military-industrial complex,” the movie builds a case against war, both as industry and ideology.
It makes this argument plainly, but in a way that seems even-handed. Including a range of interviewees, from Gore Vidal to Richard Perle; Dan Rather to John McCain; former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson to Anh Duong, whose family left Vietnam just before the fall, and who now runs the Navy’s Indianhead Explosive Center, developing massive weapons. The documentary constructs an unusually tight narrative, assembling a series of assessments and variety of viewpoints in order to leave you feeling quite chilled by its end.
Using a typical compilation documentary strategy, Why We Fight draws from newsreels, military films, recent tv footage, original interviews, and now familiar pronouncements (Harry Truman’s description of the atom bomb as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history,” which is followed by Ike’s grandson, John S. D. Eisenhower, recalling that his grandfather wished the bomb had never been invented; Dick Cheney asserting, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction”), in order to lay a groundwork for interrogation. The film makes no bones its stand against the “complex,” usually understood has having three components—the military, the government, and the arms industry—and now, according to historian Gwynn Dwyer, also including a fourth, the think tanks that conjure and perpetuate policy. At the same time, the movie challenges the status quo, not to blame any single administration, party, or era, but to question the steady slide (or build-up, depending on your perspective) into militaristic presumption (the U.S. must be the sole superpower, and so, maintain its military at the risk of all else, including education, medicine, and non-arms-oriented technologies). The movie lines up a series of “truths,” presented by diverse thinkers, and then worries about how and to what ends they are disseminated and deployed.
Some of these truths are obvious or at least well-rehearsed, like the problem of blowback or questions arising from the no-bid Halliburton contracts (the stunningly cavalier treatment of which the Center for Public Integrity founder Charles Lewis sums up in his pithy observation, “We elected a government contractor as vice-president”). Others are comprised of connections the film makes plain: U.S. concerns over Iran lead to support of Saddam, the U.S. need for oil presents overriding “interests” in the region, the lack of a military draft both sustains a myth of a “volunteer” army and creates crisis in long-term imperial planning. Indeed, military recruiting tactics come under fire by Defense Department analyst Franklin Spinney, who notes that the “Army of One” campaign and other strategies “appeal to [recruits’] self-interest and then put them in situations that demand self-sacrifice.” Such a system, of advertising, or cultural conditioning, is flawed in its inception.
At times, the film deploys its own tactics, including Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” playing over images of carnage, or the intermittent appearances of young William Solomon, an Army recruit who joins up after his mother dies and he’s feeling lost, as well as retired New York cop named Wilton Sekzer, who lost his son in the World Trade Center and over the course of the film, describes his changing perception of the war on terror. At first, he’s gung-ho for payback, believing that the Iraq war will fill that bill. He begins an email campaign to have his son’s name written on a bomb to be used in Iraq, even feeling triumphant when he learns this little bit of memorializing has been achieved, and then expresses his profound sense of betrayal and “hurt” when President Bush renounces (in a seeming throwaway sentence responding to a reporter’s question) his claim that the war has anything to do with 9/11. Stunned, Sekzer wonders aloud about the extent of the lies that went into making the war, or beyond that, establish national pride and identity. As his eyes well up, you can only imagine how this Vietnam war veteran is thinking back on his own experience as a young man.
The film returns to some other speakers more than once, including the unnamed pilots who initiated the shock and awe campaign in 2003 (declaring the precision of their targeting, even as this has proved not to be the case), the American Enterprise Institute’s William Kristol (extolling the importance of that think tank’s pre-9/11 report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”), and Pentagon whistleblower Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who describes her own trajectory from being career military to her decision now, never to let any of her children join the military to “help the U.S. pursue an imperial agenda.”
Each of the interview subjects has an individual story, as well as a particular investment in and stand on the broader story of the military-industrial complex. Why We Fight situates some against others, so their stories collide in ways that support its primary arguments, but it maintains a rigorous structure toward that end. While it’s probably speaking to many converted viewers, it’s also asking questions for and of other viewers. These questions are genuine and profound, they go to the heart of how the U.S. works as a self-interested “nation” (whatever that term can mean) and an ideological force.