In thinking about the powerful but inevitably redundant broadside Why We Fight, I'm reminded of a singularly infuriating remark I heard on NPR just over three years ago, as we prepared to attack Iraq. One of the most reliable fools in The New York Times op-ed workshop was doing his pro-war pundit thing, and he praised a recent speech by President Bush as signaling "We've had the debate and now the debate is over. We're going to war." When I heard that, I experienced the sort of dizziness one might experience if you were suddenly told that you don't actually exist. What debate was he talking about? There never was a debate, despite the millions who took to the streets around the world in advance protest.
I bring up this remarkable moment in punditry because the question of righteous irrelevance applies to Why We Fight. The film was completed over a year ago, and it played at the 2005 Full Frame documentary festival. Now that it's finally in theaters, it's worth looking at the state of the debate that was declared "over" three years ago. The majority of the American public is opposed to the war, albeit with differing opinions on the specifics: Is it still a good idea? Is Bush managing it well? Should we leave soon or sooner?
To update the pundit's remark, the debate on the war in official Washington remains feeble (alleged Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton still supports it), but public opinion clearly tilts in favor of finding a way to end it. But just as before, outside opinion is irrelevant to those inside the White House bunker. The war goes on.
While fewer people than ever need to be convinced of the disastrous nature of our (recently escalated) war, Eugene Jarecki's film is worth considering for his larger and more tendentious argument, which he lays out in the first minutes by showing Dwight D. Eisenhower delivering his farewell address from the White House on the eve of the Kennedy inaugural in 1961. In a speech that has become one of Ike's most enduring moments, he warned of the encroaching power of what he termed the "military-industrial complex." That this warning should come from a Republican war hero at the height of the Cold War makes it all the more remarkable. (It's worth remembering that JFK ran against Richard Nixon and the Eisenhower legacy from the right, asserting a non-existent "missile gap.")
Jarecki pretends that the title of his film is a question, and he poses it to ordinary citizens at a Fourth of July picnic somewhere in America: Why do we fight? The interviewees scratch their heads, struggle for words and give
bewildered responses. It is, indeed, a good question and Jarecki treats his civilian subjects without condescension.
Ultimately, Jarecki builds an argument that America fights because doing so suits the corporate interests that have taken over our political process. It's the old story: oil companies, weapons manufacturers and the lawyers who work for them. But just because we've heard it before and seen it in Syriana doesn't necessarily make it less true. As retired Army Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski remarks, "If you're joining the military now, you're not defending the United States of America. You're helping certain policymakers pursue an imperial agenda."
With the exception of the passionate and unusually well-positioned Kwiatkowski (she was a member of Donald Rumsfeld's personal propaganda department, called the Office of Special Plans, before she fled the regime), Jarecki wisely avoids the usual anti-war talking heads in his film. Instead of Scott Ritter, Richard Clarke and Noam Chomsky, Jarecki's film has interviews with neocon heavyweights like William Kristol and Richard Perle. Kristol plays the good cop, trying to diminish the influence of his egghead commando unit known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Perle, for his part, assures us that we'll never return to a pre-Bush foreign policy. In other words, the new American century has begun.
Much of the territory covered in Why We Fight converges with a film called Hijacking Catastrophe, which set an early standard for incisive analysis of the neoconservative role in guiding Bush foreign policy (and was shown locally in Indy-sponsored screenings). However, Jarecki takes a cue from Michael Moore in introducing populist storytelling that provides a welcome break from his barrage of archival clips and talking heads. We meet two different New York men. One is Wilton Sekzer, a retired cop who lost his son in the World Trade Center attacks. An ordinary, largely apolitical Vietnam veteran, Sekzer grieved quietly until the war on Iraq began. Believing the insinuations of everyone from George Bush to David Brooks that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, he contacted the military and requested that his son's name be placed on a piece of armament destined for Iraq.
With less dramatic success, Jarecki also follows a vulnerable young man named William Solomon as he's recruited into the military. I may be wrong, but it seems that this portion of the film has been cut significantly from the version shown at Full Frame. In last year's version, Solomon seemed dangerously unsuited for military life and the overall effect on the audience was devastating. In the Q&A afterward, however, Jarecki admitted that the kid seemed to be thriving in the Army. Consequently--and perhaps for other reasons as well--this component of the story seems to have been trimmed, and it has less power this time around.
But if Jarecki has indeed been fiddling with the film over the last year, I rather wish that he'd incorporated the anti-war stance of John Murtha, the hawkish Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. No lefty and no publicity hog, Murtha nonetheless has come out loudly and bravely in favor of a quick end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq. To me, his insistence on the matter seems to suggest that he is speaking for a powerful segment of the military brass. Such high-ranking officers may have unhealthy ties to the military contractors that give them their toys, but they also have very healthy ties to their soldiers and to their own institutions and all their prerogatives. They are, after all, the product of the same culture that produced Dwight D. Eisenhower.
If Murtha really is voicing the sentiments of important people within the uniformed services, it would tend to mitigate the dire visions of Why We Fight. Contrary to the film's thesis, the unlikely emergence of Murtha as an anti-war voice in Washington suggests that there is hope for institutional resistance to the bloody decisions that have been made in recent years by bloodless bureaucrats and ivory tower incompetents.
On the other hand, if the dire predicament outlined by Jarecki isn't corrected, the reported words of a frustrated President Eisenhower, privately fed-up with the machinations of the military-industrial complex, could serve as an epitaph for America: "God help this country when someone sits at this desk who knows less about the military than I do."