The theme of Eugene Jarecki’s thoughtful yet hard-hitting documentary, Why We Fight, is inspired by President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech, in which he warns against the rising danger of militarism as an economic system and a mindset:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence economic, political, even spiritual is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
We segue from old black-and-white footage of Ike inveighing against militarism to the present-day embodiment of precisely what he warned us against: Sen. John McCain burbling that the U.S. government “is the greatest force for good” and therefore “we must spread democracy and freedom throughout the world.” One of the great benefits of this film is how badly McCain, who is getting ready to run for president, comes off in it: his hypocrisy in embracing Eisenhower’s thesis, while bloviating about the need to intervene everywhere, exposes him for the massive fraud he is.
The scene shifts to John F. Kennedy declaring that we will “pay any price, bear any burden,” and on to LBJ, Ronald Reagan, the Great Pantsdropper (“America is making a difference” by invading Kosovo), and our present Boy Emperor (“our cause is just“), all glorying in America’s role as the imperial hegemon with a heart of gold, the global lawgiver and policeman all rolled into one with neoconservative smarty-pants Bill Kristol averring that “we fight because it’s necessary and it’s right.”
It isn’t all talking pundit-heads, however: On Sept. 11, 2001, Wilton Sekzer was on an elevated subway train coming into downtown New York when the car made an abrupt turn around the bend and the passengers were suddenly confronted with the sight of the World Trade Center on fire. Sekzer, a retired NYPD officer, clearly remembers his first thoughts as if they were etched in fire on the inside of his brain, and he details his mental narrative here and throughout the film as a kind of personal link to the catalytic event that started the Iraq ball rolling. As that ball begins to careen out of control, there is a sadness in Sekzer’s eyes, a pathos to his story, as he tells it, a look of bewilderment on his face and a growing anger. He describes his anger at the sight of the burning building, and his hope processed as certain knowledge that his son, who worked in the Towers, had somehow gotten out of there.
Alas, that certainty soon crumbled, and Sekzer was swept up in his anger to demand vengeance visited on the head of the nearest target: it didn’t matter. Only revenge mattered.
Why We Fight utilizes an impressive array of analysts I would say “talking heads,” but the phrase doesn’t do them justice in order to make its case that a misguided war in Iraq was made possible by a systemic disorder of American democracy. Most striking is Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire, two of the most comprehensive recent studies of militarism and interventionism, whose analysis framed in a historical context and informed by a healthy skepticism of ostensibly idealistic motives trips off his lips with impressive facility.
9/11, says Johnson, “provided a group of people deeply committed to the expansion of the American Empire the opportunity to implement plans they had been laying since 1992.” This was, in short, a “grand plan” for nothing less than global hegemony:
“We are the New Rome. That’s their strategy: on 9/11, they began to implement it.”
Kristol, who, along with Perle, here represents the neocons, would politely demur, protesting that what he wants is “benevolent world hegemony,” as he called it in a famous essay. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is shown making the case for war with Iraq, while Perle chimes in with a bold declaration that American foreign policy after 9/11 rightly shifted in “a radical direction.” He clearly believes that isn’t a bad development. Well, yes, says Kristol, but it would have happened even without 9/11 and that really is a doubtful proposition. George W. Bush was elected to office promising a “humbler” foreign policy, and it is hard to imagine how he would have made the leap from humility to hubris quite so easily, if at all.
It was “a huge leap,” as former Pentagon analyst and retired Air Force Col. Karen Kwiatkowski says in this film about the administration’s post-9/11 focus on Iraq: “A manufactured leap, in order to implement a very calculated and pre-developed foreign policy.”
This quantum leap either backward or forward, according to your ideological predilections into a new doctrine of preemption, which claims the “right” to attack any nation, anywhere, at any time, and for any reason. It is enthusiastically endorsed by McCain, Kristol, and Perle, and symbolically celebrated or, rather, dramatized by a duo of Air Force pilots who personally participated in the first bombing strike of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and breathlessly relate how great it was and how privileged they felt to be participants in this historic event, “the liberation of a people,” as one of them solemnly intones. We are then jerked abruptly back to reality by the sardonic Professor Johnson, who reminds us that the Bush Doctrine is not really new: it is, instead, “an extreme statement of what has been in the works for a long time” really, he says, since World War II.
One of the best features of this narrative is that it gives the viewer a sense of historical perspective without indulging in boring lectures, and does it, furthermore, in a visually dramatic manner. Joseph Cirincione, a foreign policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, takes us back to the Eisenhower era, when, he says, the American Empire had come to maturity and the military-industrial complex began to dominate our political culture and our foreign policy. Gore Vidal contributes his perspective on this time when he was a young man by pointing out that Eisenhower opposed the decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though 99.9 percent of the military fighting in the Pacific at the time were for it because they thought half a million of them would have to die unless Japan was forced to surrender in this way. What they didn’t know, says Vidal, is that Japan had been trying desperately to surrender, but we i.e., the malevolent pygmy Harry Truman wouldn’t let them. We did it to “show off,” says Vidal, but “Eisenhower hated the bombs.”
We weren’t just “showing off” for the sake of beating our chest, but to show the Soviet Union we meant business. The Cold War era meant that the militarization of American society occasioned by World War II was to be made permanent: there would be no real demobilization. American forces, as the war ended, were everywhere: the idea of “benevolent global hegemony” was in the air, waiting to be formalized into a policy paper or a State of the Union address.
The question “What are we fighting for?” is asked throughout this film, and the answer, by the end, is all too horrifically apparent, but on the way there we are treated to an entire panoply of American opinion. A trip to Karen Kwiatkowski’s home town, way out in the boonies somewhere red-state territory for sure turns up a surprising variety of answers, ranging from “Freedom!” to “Hell if I know.” Why We Fight, as Karen points out, is the title of a famous series of World War II propaganda films directed by Frank Capra that sought to mobilize the country, and there was a consensus back then that the war was not only necessary but also just. Not today, however, and Jarecki’s film weaves together a tapestry of voices, ranging from shrill neocons like Perle to author Gwynne Dyer, who avers that we’re fighting to make the point that “the U.S. is the country that must be obeyed.” “The question is,” says Sen. McCain, “where is the line between being a force for good, and imperialism?” I suppose it is useless to point out to the senator that virtually all imperialists see themselves as a force for “good.”
Why We Fight is not a film in the Michael Moore mode of in-your-face propaganda, but is all the more effective in that it lets all these voices speak for themselves. Juxtaposed next to Professor Johnson’s thoughtful analyses, Bill Kristol comes off as rather facile, and the snickering Perle, one of those historical actors who seems typecast in his role, comes across as frankly villainous.
Jarecki takes another step back and we are suddenly looking at this whole process of fighting overseas crusades from an historical perspective: a Cold War propaganda film informs us that our homes could be destroyed “Right now. Right now!” and that the only answer is “strength,” while a muscular arm helpfully demonstrates this simple principle. We are back to Eisenhower’s 1950s as his present-day descendants John S. D. Eisenhower and Susan Eisenhower explain how the flow of cash into “defense” industries lays the groundwork for the military-industrial complex. We get a few more lines from Eisenhower’s farewell address, as we segue into shots of an air show where militarism and entertainment meet and merge. Then a few statistics: the U.S. spends more on the military than all other categories, and, furthermore, spends more than the combined total of the top 10 other military budgets in the world. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is shown saying that the numbers have reached a level where they are almost meaningless, and one tends to agree, albeit for different reasons.
At this point, Sen. McCain pops up again, insisting that Eisenhower was right: “His prediction came true.”
Well, uh, yes thanks, in no small part, to warmongers like Mad Dog McCain.
As one of the most belligerent of the neocons’ allies in Congress, McCain has never opposed U.S. military intervention anywhere in the world for as long as he’s held public office. Here is a man for whom “boots on the ground” is the answer to practically every foreign problem confronting the U.S. From Kosovo to Iraq to wherever the next stop is in the neocons’ mad war dance, McCain can be counted on to beat the drums for war, which is why his 2000 presidential campaign had the full backing of Kristol and the more radical neocons. And now he has the utter gall to solemnly proclaim himself an Eisenhower Republican and an avowed enemy of the military-industrial complex.
A key sub-theme of Why We Fight is the business of militarism, and this is dramatized in a series of interviews, shots of military trade shows, and a visit to Raytheon. We’re given the public relations spiel by a Raytheon spokeswoman, but reality breaks in when an ordinary worker says: “I’d really rather be helping Santa make toys.”
Speaking of Santa Claus, this is precisely the role the U.S. government plays in relation to military contractors. These guys are the active element that keeps the military-industrial complex (MIC) running like a well-oiled treadmill; and, since Eisenhower’s day, the MIC has become an enormous edifice, one that relentlessly and quite profitably perpetuates itself almost like an living organism. The trick in the militarism business, we are told by a Defense Department analyst, is to over-promise the benefits and lowball the costs of any new defense system and then spread around the campaign money to as many congressional districts as possible. Chalmers Johnson notes that the B-2 bomber has parts made in so many different congressional districts, if you discontinued it you would have even the most liberal members screaming bloody murder. An economic-political force is built up by the MIC that makes the momentum of militarism practically unstoppable.
The rush for contracts, the interaction of government and industry, the “revolving door” Sen. McCain decries all this as “corruption,” yet fails to point out that it is part and parcel of the policy of aggression for which he is one of the primary spokesmen. There is much focus on Halliburton and Brown and Root, two of the main pillars that hold up the infrastructure of Empire. Perle says targeting Halliburton is “outrageous.” Why, he says, it is ridiculous to believe that the vice president would pick up the phone and use his office to influence the choice of military contractors. Chalmers Johnson retorts that everyone knows who the vice president is and knows of his relation to Halliburton. It is here pointed out that the entire idea of “contracting out” support services and other functions of the military to private contractors came up during Cheney’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. “We elected a government contractor as vice president,” says one analyst. McCain agrees that “it looks bad.” “Overcharging is bad.” He is then told that Cheney is on the phone, and, like a chipmunk staring into the headlights, lamely excuses himself from the interview. This is bound to get a horse laugh out of the audience, as well as contribute to the vice president’s growing reputation as the most despised public servant since Rasputin.
Kwiatkowski a libertarian advocate of small government makes the point that, when it comes to making the decision to go to war in Iraq, we commoners employ a different cost-benefit analysis than, say, a member of Congress. A decision to go to war may cost an ordinary mother or father their son or daughter, while a vote against war may cost a politician plenty of bigtime campaign contributions and office perks. Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity follows this up with an astute observation: the financial and political elites have become essentially the same thing. While Karen comes from the libertarian “Right,” and Lewis comes, from all indications, from the “Left,” their analysis of how this works converges rather neatly. A government elite is using the U.S. military to empower and enrich itself at everyone else’s expense and it isn’t pretty, as the Iraq war is showing us every day.
The film deals with the military in two separate narrative threads: one involving two Air Force “Top Gun” types, who fit the Hollywood-ish image of a glamorous militarism smiling optimists, handsome, and very presentable and who nonetheless protest that “we’re normal people just like everyone else.” On the other end of the spectrum, we have some clueless dork, a low-level recruit from, it looks like, New York City and environs, a cipher with no direction, no ambitions, a blank slate waiting to be written on. His mommy died, and now he needs a new parental figure: he finds it in the military. “You fixed up my life real good,” he tells the recruiter.
The film begins to focus on Iraq when it comes to the subject of lying in wartime: we are shown old footage of LBJ lying through his gritted teeth about the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident. Sekzer says: “You never thought anyone would lie. The bugle calls, you answer.” Then he found out about the lie behind the Gulf of Tonkin. It wasn’t necessary to lie, he says. But of course it was otherwise, Congress and/or the American people wouldn’t have bought into that war. That’s why they bother to lie as they have in every war for the last 50 years, as Lewis points out. Periodic orgies of military intervention, Lewis says, are “a ritual that we have been seeing for decades.” It’s basically “economic colonialism.” We just “go in and have free trade and free markets. What’s really going on is we want our companies to get rich in your countries.”
Just as the invasion of Iraq never had anything to do with “democracy,” so, too, “free trade” and free markets are just the ideological window-dressing for a policy of imperialistic mercantilism, in which the military forces of the most powerful nation on earth have essentially become tools of certain corporate and political interests.
Another key point made in this film is the essential role played by the pro-war thinktanks, such as the Project for a New American Century, founded by Kristol. Kwiatkowski tells the story of how the Office of Special Plans brought in people from a “very narrow range of think tanks” to think up talking points justifying the rush to war. “Things were strange from the very beginning.” Yes, and the lies were thick and fast in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, a process Kwiatkowski has done much to shine the spotlight on. Kristol downplays this factor protesting that we shouldn’t “overemphasize” the role played by PNAC in lying us into war. Dwyer makes the point that, while Eisenhower named three components of the MIC Congress, the defense industry, and the military itself a fourth one has lately come to be important, and perhaps even decisive: the pro-war thinktanks, the nonprofit repositories of the War Party’s ample largess.
I didn’t intend to do a blow-by-blow analysis of this incisive and very well-made documentary, and I won’t go into any more detail I don’t want to ruin it for you. I just want to add one thing, however, and that is an answer to Perle, who, at one point in the movie, snarks:
“One of the sillier ideas is that American policy has been hijacked and once they’re out of there we can go back to the way it was before. It’s not going to happen because we’ve changed as a people.”
If I were Perle, I wouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch. What is increasingly clear to many Americans is (1) our foreign policy has been hijacked, and (2) that the hijackers are on their way out of power, and, perhaps, on their way to a jail cell (at least in Scooter Libby’s case). What’s more, this film and the popular anti-interventionist sentiment it will inform and reinforce is part of a nationwide reaction against militarism that is just beginning to gather momentum. If we take this country back from the gang that lied us into war and is even now scheming to gin up more wars then Why We Fight will have played what may turn out to be a catalytic part by making the victory of Eisenhowerism over neoconservatism possible.
(Why We Fight is now showing in New York and Los Angeles and will be in theaters nationwide beginning Feb. 10.)