We are on the side of decency and democracy and liberty.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Eisenhower Talks to Fighting Men at the Front”
It’s a very addictive environment, if you don’t always continue to keep in your forefront, right in front of your eyes, that you are there as an American citizen and you’re there for a specific purpose and you’re not there to tolerate the sadistic or otherwise animalistic tendencies that humans often exhibit in extenuating circumstances as combat is, especially ground combat.
— Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, commentary, Why We Fight
The Pentagon, for many years now, since Vietnam, worked extremely hard at shaping news and how the media reports that news.
— Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Why We Fight
Seated in his Washington office, Senator John McCain ponders the position of the U.S. vis-à-vis the rest of the world. “Where the debate and controversy begins,” he says, “is how far does the United States go, and when does it go from a force for good to a force for imperialism.” Watching this moment in Why We Fight, director Eugene Jarecki and his DVD co-commentator, retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, are struck by its succinct evocation of the question that drives the film: why does the U.S. fight? As Wilkerson rephrases, “This is the tension that’s existed since World War II: how far do we go and when do we begin by the distance we’ve gone, to violate our own being, our own tradition, our own custom, our own values, our own democracy?”
Wilkerson, Vietnam war veteran and former chief of staff to Colin Powell at the State Department, has spent the past year asking himself similar questions, often in public. Following his retirement in 2005, Wilkerson has spoken out against the war in Iraq and especially, the run-up to the war, as supported by the intelligence community and the administration. Concerning his own participation in the Secretary’s 2003 speech before the U.N., Wilkerson says he “participated in a “hoax on the American people, the international community, and the United Nations Security Council.” While his observations throughout Why We Fight are of a piece with this regret, he also, on occasion, provides an instructive counterpoint to Jarecki, as his insistence on individual accountability complicates the director’s already multifaceted indictment of the “system.” (As they watch footage of Congress, Wilkerson asks, “Is the system unstoppable or should someone admit responsibility and vote against a weapon that’s unnecessary out of date or otherwise too costly?”)
That’s not to say they don’t share basic assumptions, including an absolute admiration for Dwight Eisenhower, whose warning against the “military-industrial complex” serves as the documentary’s intellectual and moral point of departure. While Ike claimed for the U.S. an essential decency, he also anticipated it corruption, if citizens — as well as industry and government representatives — did not maintain “vigilance.” They both see the “Bush Doctrine” for so-called preemptive war as “more of an extension of the past than a complete departure from it.” As Wilkerson notes, “Preemption is nothing new, it’s in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, you are always looked at in international law… as being right to defend yourself. The question arises when you do it more… in a preventative way, that is to say, you suspect that powers are gathering.”
To examine how such suspicion came to galvanize the current war, the film compiles clips from newsreels, military films, recent TV footage, original interviews, and familiar pronouncements (Harry Truman’s description of the atom bomb as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history,” John S. D. Eisenhower’s recollection that his grandfather wished the bomb had never been invented; Vice President Cheney asserting, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction”), in order to lay a groundwork for its interrogation of war as industry and ideology.
This interrogation is premised on history, even as it considers the Iraq war specifically. The documentary provides a range of views on “why we fight,” organized so they seem juxtaposed even as they lead to conclusions shared by Jarecki and Wilkerson, that war is a function of insidious arrogance (technological and cultural) as well as ignorance. The talking heads include Gore Vidal (whose allusion to “the United States of Amnesia,” Jarecki notes, “always gets a laugh” from audiences), as well as Richard Perle, Dan Rather, Susan Eisenhower, former CIA consultant and Blowback author Chalmers Johnson, and Anh Duong, whose family left Vietnam just before the fall and who is now a leading expert in bomb design, running the Navy’s Indianhead Explosive Center (Wilkerson notes, “I find it moving that you chose an American-Vietnamese, one who has her history to present this particular point in the movie, it’s got an irony for me in it,” as she recognizes the U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam).
Why We Fight – Eugene Jarecki Interview
Alongside the “experts,” the film includes several “personal stories as well, including William Solomon (recruited after his mother dies and he’s left without financial or emotional recourse, he inspires Jarecki to ask about the “poverty draft,” which Wilkerson feels would be best addressed by “some form of national service [that] should be required of every young person in America”). The film is more pointed in its critique of military recruiting tactics, including commentary by Defense Department analyst Franklin Spinney, who says the “Army of One” campaign and other strategies “appeal to [recruits’] self-interest and then put them in situations that demand self-sacrifice.”
An especially compelling story arc in Why We Fight focuses on retired New York cop 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.” A Vietnam war veteran, Sekzer describes his initial understanding of military service: “You grow up saying, the bugle calls, you go. Well, as time went on and we found out this whole Gulf of Tonkin thing was B.S., nobody was really attacked, so you say to yourself, ‘That’s really crap, man. Why did somebody lie to us?'”
His changed thinking about the war in Iraq is also linked with lies. Following 9/11, he began an email campaign to have his son’s name written on a bomb to be used in Iraq; soon after, however, he felt betrayed and “hurt” when President Bush renounced (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. Viewing this moment, Jarecki says,
When I see these images, what frightens me most is the way that Wilton’s grief, and the grief of so many Americans, seems to have been sort of hijacked, in a way, used and manipulated to launch a war that as we now know, there were plans to launch that war before 9/11 occurred.
Such plans were circulating, the film shows, in various places, including the American Enterprise Institute’s now infamous document, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” released in 2000. (William Kristol asserts, “I think most Americans don’t want to police the world but I think most Americans understand that if we don’t at least help police the world, then no one’s going to.”) The manipulation needed to put such ideas into practice alarmed Pentagon whistleblower Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski. Her trajectory — from career military to such keen disillusionment that she now declares she will never let any of her children join the military to “help the U.S. pursue an imperial agenda” — prompts Wilkerson’s observation, “She was caught in the center of this ruthless aggressive pursuit of the neocon vision… She saw this up close and personal, with the heart literally beating in her ears.”
This “vision” is illustrated repeatedly in the film. While watching footage of air shows and defense contractors’ shows (with a muzaked “Tiny Bubbles” playing in the background), Jarecki observes that militarism has become “a part of everyday life, something that people go to the way they might go to the circus.” This normalization of the military, adds Wilkerson, results in an ongoing “national security state.” To support this state, the film argues that a fourth component has been added to the three usually recognized as comprising the “military-industrial complex” (the military, the government, and the arms industry), the think tanks that conjure policy.
In concert with this development, Wilkerson laments the lack of field experience among decision-makers, and further, the ways that advanced technologies create what he calls “techno-warriors.” He says, “They are the kind of warriors who frighten me because of their distance from my war, which is the mud marine, the grunt, the instrument who confronts the realities of war every day of his life that he’s in combat.” He sighs, observing, “I sometimes think many American leaders in civilian clothes would love to have Doberman pinschers whom they could release on eth world and then put back in their cages. They don’t like the Dobermans to have PhDs and question their decisions.”
While Why We Fight speaks to viewers disposed to distrust the government, it also asks questions for and of other viewers. Such questions go to the heart of the U.S. self-image, as self-interested nation and ideological force. A harrowing montage Jarecki describes as “critical of the human cost of the war” includes shots of dispossessed Iraqi children, U.S. troops, and a Marine shooting and killing an unarmed Iraqi in a mosque on Fallujah back in November 2004. Jarecki worries the montage is too difficult to see. But Wilkerson says every American should have to watch such footage, “day in and day out… would stop war altogether. Because it is really, truly a grievous business.”