Why We Fight
Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki's documentary about American militarism, may borrow its title from Frank Capra's World War II morale-building series, but the film is anything but glib or ironic. The intent is straightforward: an investigation into the causes of war as waged by the U.S. in the last sixty years. Taking off from President Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech (in which he famously warned us against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex"), the picture attains a remarkable depth of detail and insight, making strong connections between the business of war and the geopolitical forces feeding into it.
It's clear that Jarecki has a point of view--and it's decidedly critical of the history of American military adventures up to and including the current one. Neocons like Richard Perle and William Kristol have their say, but most of the interviews and archival clips lead to the conclusion that American foreign policy is designed to protect corporate interests, of which the military itself is a part. The argument is far-reaching, extending from the Cold War through Vietnam and other foreign interventions, to the Gulf War and Iraq .
It's worth noting how Jarecki goes about making this case, because it contrasts with the more common polemical style typified by Michael Moore. Aside from questions of style, tone, and cinematic ability, Why We Fight adopts a rigorous approach emphasizing systems, ideas, and institutions rather than personalities. Jarecki doesn't focus narrowly on Iraq and the Bush administration, and even where he does, he avoids attacking Bush or Cheney as if the problem were just bad people in power. The ad hominem approach to political debate (which seems to be even more of an addiction in the right wing than in liberal circles) is ultimately a barrier to full understanding. Why We Fight shows that both Republican and Democratic presidents have lied to the public about the reasons for war, and that the executive branch's preemption of war-making powers from the Congress started long ago, as part of the development of a permanent war footing after World War II. It examines many aspects of the same, including the military itself, the weapons contractors, and the "think tanks" that now determine policy rather than elected officials responsible to the people.
Jarecki alternates the historical investigations with clips designed to show the perceptions of ordinary Americans about war and how their beliefs have become less connected over the years to the real reasons for war. When people are asked "why do we fight?" they commonly answer "for freedom." But the meaning of "freedom" has become increasingly abstract and elusive, identified with American prosperity and economic dominance rather than truly democratic ideals, and the people being interviewed become more and more skeptical as the film proceeds.
The film revolves in cycles, with a framing device of a bombing mission on the night before the beginning of the Iraq War, intended to take out Saddam Hussein's headquarters, building in tension until the gut-wrenching results near film's end, involving the deaths of children. We also return periodically to an interview with retired NYC cop Wilton Sekzer, who lost his son on 9/11. Sekzer's thirst for revenge, based on the belief (subtly fostered by the administration) that Iraq was involved in 9/11, ends in painful disillusionment when he hears the President admitting that there is no link. The interplay of truth and propaganda, reality and nationalist illusion, is a primary theme of the film, and it's achieved without voice-over explanations or special pleading. The implications of Eisenhower's speech, for instance, are brought out through interviews with his son John and granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, and no one could be more eloquent, reasonable, or measured than these two, which makes their statements all the more devastating.
Why We Fight is one of the most comprehensive political documentaries of recent times. Brilliantly edited, it makes a strong case that the military-industrial complex is threatening our freedom and well-being as a nation. I think it's telling that the film appeared only briefly in theaters (it was gone after only a week in my city), whereas Fahrenheit 9/11 broke box-office records (admittedly in an election year). I've always maintained that there's a place for passionate polemic in documentary, but it's unfortunate that movies presenting a wider and more insightful view of our situation, such as Why We Fight, don't get the attention they should.
©2006 Chris Dashiell