Why We Fight

Inspired by a speech given by President Eisenhower, this film by Eugene Jarecki explores the military industrial complex in the U.S.

By:Elise Nakhnikian
    "To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experience," said Sen. Robert Byrd on the floor of the Senate just before the U.S invasion of Iraq. "On this February day, as this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war. And yet this chamber is for the most part ominously, dreadfully silent. You can hear a pin drop. Listen." As he speaks, the camera filming Byrd pans around the chamber, and we see that it is almost entirely empty.
   In the showing I attended of Why We Fight, that clip was eerily resonant — and not just because it underscored the movie’s point about how Congress has abdicated its Constitutional power to decide whether the U.S. goes to war. With only about a dozen people in the Montgomery theater on opening night, Byrd might have been addressing the film’s absent audience as well. And that’s a pity, because this thoughtful and disturbing movie, which won the American Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, deserves to be seen.
   Seeing how little heat Why We Fight is generating in comparison to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 may be an object lesson in the power of hype and personality, since director Eugene Jarecki does not appear in his own film and his comments are deliberately nonpartisan and measured when he flacks it in interviews. Then again, maybe it just goes to show that a skillfully propagandistic movie sells better than one that cautions against propaganda.
   About why the U.S. goes to war — not just in Iraq but in general — Jarecki’s film was inspired by a farewell speech given by President Eisenhower shortly before he left office in 1961. Eisenhower, a Republican who knew the military intimately, having served as a general during World War II, was alarmed about the rise of a "military-industrial complex" in the United States. This unholy alliance of the military and defense contractors had grown out of a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" that had became institutionalized during World War II and the Cold War. "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," he warned. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
   Like Edward R. Murrow’s alarms about the dangers of fear-mongering and the erosion of civil liberties in last year’s Good Night, and Good Luck, Eisenhower’s words have as much urgency today as when they were spoken, and Jarecki uses them liberally. Excerpts from the president’s speeches are salted throughout the 98-minute film, and a granddaughter and a son (who looks startlingly like him) elaborate on his concerns.
   The director’s thesis is that the tail — the armaments industry created to protect America from attack — is now wagging the dog, as Eisenhower had feared. We’ve become a militaristic society that practices a form of "economic imperialism," maintaining military bases around the world, unseating or propping up foreign leaders depending on whether they are amenable to "free trade" with American corporations. We also spend billions of dollars on increasingly elaborate weapons and support services, which are supplied by a network of defense contractors that have become a permanent — and powerful — part of our economy. As this self-perpetuating system grows, it crowds out other priorities such as education and health care. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," says former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson, "and Americans have not been vigilant."
   Jarecki, whose brother Andrew directed Capturing the Friedmans, didn’t invent that view of our foreign policy, but he makes a strong case for it. He weaves together the stories of two Americans caught up in the Iraq war with archival footage and interviews with subjects ranging from an illiterate Iraqi shepherd to powerful U.S. policymakers.
   Nearly everyone provides his or her own answer to the question posed by the title. Those with the power to send us to war tend to have polished responses at the ready ("We have an obligation to spread democracy and freedom through the world," declares Sen. John McCain). But those who might do the fighting, or see loved ones or neighbors go off to fight, are less certain. Jarecki, whose man-on-the-street interviews reveal a refreshing faith in the average citizen, told PBS that almost everyone he asked gave the same answer — "freedom" — to his question at first. "So I’d ask another question," he added. "And right away you would discover… that right beneath that veneer of ‘freedom’ that we’ve all been taught to feel — and we all do feel and want to feel — there are doubts."
   Jarecki interviews some intriguing people, including the director of the Baghdad morgue, who reads from a long list of mostly civilian war casualties; the two young pilots who bombed Baghdad on the first day of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," who are still jazzed by the memory, and a middle-aged American bomb factory worker who says she’d "rather be helping Santa make toys." He also talks to retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who became disillusioned with the military after watching a group of men from a think tank move into the Pentagon to create the case for invading Iraq, ignoring the intelligence that she and her colleagues knew to contradict many of the assertions they made.
   The military-industrial complex, the film notes, had three legs in Eisenhower’s day: the military itself, the contractors who supply it and members of Congress, whose self-interest calls for protecting the jobs created by the contractors. Now there’s a fourth leg: the think tanks that craft the foreign policy that leads us to war — although, as Kwiatkowski points out, they have "zero accountability to the voters."
   Woven through the movie and giving it much of its heart are the touching stories of two men, Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer and Vietnam veteran whose son died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and William Solomon, a guileless young Army recruit who seems convinced that enlisting will solve all his problems.
   Jarecki clearly sympathizes with and respects the men and women who fight our wars, whose sacrifices register as a tragic betrayal of their patriotism and trust by their country. "If you join the military now, you are not defending America," says Kwiatkowski. "You are helping certain political leaders to pursue an imperialistic agenda."
Rated PG-13. Contains disturbing war images and brief language.