Monday, February 13, 2006

Why We Fight: A Radical Film

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“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 must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. 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.”

— Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, January 1961

The very idea of a President of the United States — especially a Republican who had not only fought in war but had actually led an army to victory — warning about “unwarranted influence” from a “military-industrial complex” seems like something out of science fiction today, so thoroughly has what Eisenhower warned about happened. “The total influence [of the military-industrial complex] — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government ,” Eisenhower also said publicly — while privately, as he prepared to leave office, he was telling his aides, “I’m really scared of what will happen when Kennedy gets in. He doesn’t know the military like I do. He’ll hear all the scare stories and think we really need all those weapons.”

Eisenhower’s speech — so often quoted in sound bites, so little read in context — forms the spine of a new film by documentarian Eugene Jarecki, Why We Fight. Inspired by the war in Iraq, it nonetheless goes way beyond it, showing in no uncertain terms that the policy of the American government since World War II has been to maintain a massive military establishment and use it to project power worldwide and essentially boss around other countries, threatening them with military invasion or economic destruction if they didn’t do what we said. As Jarecki shows in his film, even Eisenhower, who ended his Presidency warning about the military-industrial complex, began it by signing on to the CIA’s plot against Iran’s democratically elected leader, Muhammad Mossadegh, which overthrew him and put the Shah of Iran back on the throne. This created a repressive dictatorship that lasted 26 years and so totally suppressed any liberal dissent that when it finally collapsed in 1979, the only force around to take its place was the Islamic fundamentalism of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Jarecki — whose brother Andrew Jarecki directed some less politically charged documentaries, including Capturing the Friedmans and Just a Clown — released a film called The Trials of Henry Kissinger in 2002. Directed by Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney (whose most recent release was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the Kissinger movie was really more a liberal than a radical film. Jarecki portrayed Kissinger as a uniquely evil figure who had moved U.S. foreign policy in a particularly sinister direction, not as merely one cog in a machine aimed at assuring U.S. domination over the world.

Judging from Why We Fight, Jarecki has learned better. His new film exposes the continuity of America’s foreign policy since the end of World War II — fabled as (in Studs Terkel’s phrase) “the good war,” the last one in which the U.S. fought an unambiguous villain. It’s hard even now to conceive of any way the dictatorial, genocidal war machines of Germany and Japan could have been defeated in any other fashion than all-out military force — yet the outcome of World War II also ended U.S. isolationism forever (despite President Bush’s recent attempt to revive it as a straw man to be taken down in his 2006 State of the Union speech) and left us the world’s strongest military power.

It’s a status we’ve gone out of our way to maintain ever since. One of the most powerful shots in Why We Fight takes place on the floor of Congress and features various legislators describing the military weapons produced in their districts, savoring names like “the F-35 joint-strike fighter” and “the FA-22 Raptor” with an almost lubricious delight. As Jarecki pointed out in an interview with David Brancaccio for the PBS-TV program NOW, this is no accident: it’s a deliberate strategy the defense industry calls “political engineering.”

“A part of the B-2 bomber is made in every single state in the United States,” Jarecki explained. “Why? Because they want to make sure not just that they get the program going, but that they keep it going, and that whenever the B-2 comes up for review, everybody on the Congressional oversight committee is getting a piece of the action. … Everybody in that Congress has a job in their home district that they’re trying to protect.”

Another eye-dropping sequence in Why We Fight is a montage of various presidents, from both major political parties — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both George Bushes — using strikingly similar language to explain to the American people why we have to go to war in Viet Nam/Grenada/Iraq/Kosovo/Afghanistan/Iraq (again) or wherever to protect “freedom,” “democracy” and other foundational American values. Indeed, Jarecki took his title from a series of orientation films the great director Frank Capra made for the U.S. Army in 1943 to indoctrinate American soldiers newly enlisted or drafted in what the war they were going to be fighting in was all about,

This part of Why We Fight seems almost like an out-and-out adaptation of Norman Solomon’s recent book War Made Easy, detailing not only all the campaigns that have been aimed at the American people to “sell” them on every war the U.S. has fought since 1945 but the lies at the heart of each one, notably the all-embracing one that this country only goes to war to defend “freedom.” Jarecki’s film not only details that “freedom” — its preservation and protection — is the all-purpose excuse every U.S. government uses as the excuse for fighting a war, he also shows how successful the propaganda has been. When he asked ordinary Americans his titular question, “Why do we fight?,” as he told Brancaccio on NOW, “Invariably, almost to a man or child, the first word out of people’s mouths was, ‘Freedom.’ You sort of stop and wonder , ‘Well, in a free society, what does it say if everybody gives the exact same answer to the question?’”

To their credit, most of Jarecki’s interviewees did start to have their doubts once he asked them follow-up questions, Perhaps the most extraordinary response was one he got from a man who was obviously wrestling with his suspicion that it was all about oil, intellectually conceding it might be while emotionally rejecting the idea that his beloved country could possibly send young people to kill or die for something that trivial, But the film still seems rather creepy in its depiction of the American people and how easily a government can “ring their chimes” to win their support for its military adventures.

Most of the critical attention on Why We Fight has focused on its more bizarre storylines — particularly that of Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer with an accent that makes it seem like he’s just stepped off the set of Law and Order or NYPD Blue. Sekzer’s story began on September 11, 2001, when his son was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center — which Sekzer witnessed from a subway car on his way into the city, from an angle in which the famous twin towers blended into one so he couldn’t be sure which one was hit. On learning that his son was dead, Sekzer decided that the way to achieve closure was to seek a particularly macabre sort of revenge: ask the U.S. military to paint his son’s name on a bomb and drop it on the enemy in Iraq. After getting the bureaucratic runaround from the other services Sekzer got his son memorialized on a bomb by the Marines — only to turn bitterly against the war after President Bush conceded in a speech that Saddam Hussein had had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

But there are plenty of other moving characterizations, too, including former Reagan defense aide Karen Kwiatkowski and Eisenhower’s heirs, son John S. D. and daughter Susan. Expert testimony is given by retired UCSD professor Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire and the man most closely identified with the comparison of America’s current role in the world to that of the ancient Roman Empire — which began as a representative republic and ended as a dictatorship when the burdens of maintaining an empire (money, resources and human lives) proved too much for the people to bear willingly — and Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, who provides context not only for America’s war policy but the repression at home and abroad, including the USA PATRIOT Act (and the illegal Bush wiretaps, unknown to the public when this film was made), the internments at Guantánamo and elsewhere, the tortures at Abu Ghraib and the so-called “extraordinary renditions” of alleged terrorism suspects to other countries for torture, that has accompanied them.

Though a bit long and overwhelming — Why We Fight at times seems like the sort of film that should come with a study guide so people seeing it can absorb its information and “get” the connections at their leisure — Jarecki’s truly radical film is a must-see for any American concerned about their country and its future.