Director Eugene Jarecki has put together a wonderful, moving and important film that examines the modern American military machine and the modern American militaristic mindset.
His film is the 2005 Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Award-winning Why We Fight. The title of the film recalls Frank Capra’s World War II films — popular movies that promoted, eulogized and helped mythologize America’s participation and sacrifice in that war. We fought in World War II for many reasons, but mostly it seems, because we believed.
Why We Fight carefully illustrates how our beliefs, our national character, our shared view of ourselves as Americans have changed since World War II. Jarecki utilizes President Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech of January 17th, 1961. In this speech, Ike warned of a growing military-industrial complex, and its possible negative impact on our democracy and our republic. As the late Colonel David Hackworth used to remind me, Eisenhower spoke of the dangers presented by military-industrial-congressional complex.
Eisenhower advised there was a "…danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite." He reminded us, "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. He said,
…we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
I had read, but never before actually watched Eisenhower’s farewell speech until I saw Why We Fight. Those who are today manning the ship of state in Washington, D.C., like people my age, completely missed this prophetic speech. As Ike passed the presidential baton to a fresh new face, a youthful George W. Bush, like most of his generation, was focused on high school shenanigans, and the American people basked in long-awaited economic prosperity.
Ike knew a thing or two about war, American government, and our nascent military-industrial complex. Eisenhower worried, but we weren’t paying attention — at least in 1961. When asked why he made the film, Jarecki said, "Americans [today] have a visceral sense that something is rotten, but no-one can seem to connect the dots…. I wanted to make this film because we need what Eisenhower called an u2018alert and knowledgeable citizenry’ to compel change, to improve the public’s ability to monitor those in power."
Why We Fight is filmed in a new kind of America. It is still filled with everyday people pulling together for glory, Capra-style. But this documentary carefully and intelligently reveals the present-day fruition of Ike’s darker vision.
Many everyday Americans are featured in Why We Fight. A father who lost his son in the Twin Tower attacks on 9-11. Workers making armaments on massive factory floors, and workers writing global engagement policy prescriptions from inside carefully appointed urban thinktanks. Politicians and contractors and military recruiters and soldiers. These simultaneously common and uncommon people are key to the film’s humanity and its directness — because these people are us.
However, Jarecki’s steady hand reveals that while we are indeed Frank Capra’s Americans, we are today, in Jarecki’s words, " …caught in a vortex of spiraling militarisation and moral and economic bankruptcy, and [we] feel remote from and powerless to change those forces."
Why We Fight grapples with this sense of moral and economic bankruptcy that many feel as we stay the course and fight wars in Iraq, and elsewhere. The film illuminates the "insolvent phantom of tomorrow" that Ike foretold, and it attempts to get underneath the superficial explanations, and ideological perspectives. In Jarecki’s words, "We tend to hunt for heroes and villains, rather than study roots of the problem. I wanted to make a film that goes beyond the focus on the individual."
Jarecki gets it. He understands and clearly articulates how the care and feeding of the American military leviathan has been, and remains, a shared role of both Democratic and Republican Parties. There hasn’t been an antiwar party at the national level for decades, and it is easy to see why. What Cold War competition, massive federalization and sophisticated and relentless government agitprop pitting "us" against "them" has produced is summed up in a Raytheon worker’s reflection on her job. She pauses for a moment, and says, "I’d really rather be making toys for Santa." But she isn’t.
Will Washington, D.C. like the film? It is hard to predict whether the Bush Administration or the loyal opposition in Congress will first launch a stone at Why We Fight. Jarecki has provided an apolitical history and an apolitical reality, portraying an America evolved in the dangerous direction that Eisenhower exactly foretold.
Can the military-industrial-congressional complex be reined in? Should it be? To the extent that Jarecki passes judgment on the latter question, he defers to Eisenhower in the affirmative. It should be "compelled" and controlled by an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, such that "security and liberty" may prosper together. But can it be?
The film is perhaps less optimistic of whether it can be reined in, as an interesting clip with Senator John McCain discussing the growth of the military industrial complex is cut short by an urgent phone call from the former CEO of Halliburton, and Vice President of the United States.
But what I really find inspiring about Why We Fight is that we see the words, thoughts and deeds of the average American in this movie — the factory workers, the fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, the backbone of this nation. To a person, it is these Americans who exude patriotism and deep abiding love for this country. It is these Americans who, with all their faults, are founts of common decency and morality. Jarecki is excruciatingly fair in his portrayal of war-promoting policy wonks and war policy beneficiaries like Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. But the fact remains that these policy designers simply don’t make a hell of a lot of sense.
Jarecki has both artfully and scientifically pulled away the curtain that currently shields the pillars of the present-day American military-industrial-congressional complex. In a time where Abramoff, Halliburton overcharges, and Duke Cunningham-style "congressional leadership" has already publicly embarrassed Washington and the Pentagon, this film will be downplayed by the leadership in Washington, D.C. on both sides of the aisle. These public servants and the defense corporations in league with them will say, "Enough already!"
But Why We Fight will eagerly be consumed and digested by millions and millions of real and loyal Americans who are now weary of strange endless wars in far away places and an economy wasting under the demands of voracious spending on "defense." These Americans, as I did upon watching the film, will begin to really think about what we have become. These Americans will become newly awake, newly alert, newly watchful. These Americans will begin to embrace and assert, as did our forefathers, the blessed idea that we are governed and directed by our own consent, and none other. Eisenhower would certainly approve.