Why We Fight

In Why We Fight (IMDB), director Eugene Jarecki offers a compelling and provocative analysis of why the United States is fighting a war in Iraq. In fact, Jarecki’s documentary illustrates that the war in Iraq is nothing more than the extension of a logic that has been developing over the last half-century, ever since departing President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” that was quickly forming in the aftermath of World War II and in the rise of the Cold War. While the Iraq War, backed by neo-conservatives represented in the film by Richard Perle and William Kristol, is perhaps the best illustration of the expansion of this logic, Jarecki’s film is careful to demonstrate that the expansion of the military-industrial complex cannot be blamed on a single political party or group. In this sense, Jarecki’s film displays an intellectual honesty that I found quite impressive even if I struggled to put all of the disparate pieces together by the end of the film.

As many critics have noted (including Stuart Klawans, in his insightful review in The Nation), Why We Fight opens with a segment from Eisenhower’s famous 1961 farewell speech, in which the outgoing President warned of the dangers of the massive military build-up. In a GreenCine interview, Jarecki commented that he came across this speech while doing research for his previous documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger and finding himself impressed by Eisenhower’s candor, ” knew that it would be the stuff of the next film I would make, the starting point.” In fact, Eisenhower’s speech becomes something of a motif, commenting on and reinterpreting the alliances between the military, industry, and more recently, Congress and neoconservative think tanks, with the film patiently building its case that when wars are profitable, we will continue to see wars, to paraphrase Chalmers Johnson.

This kind of critique might easily lend itself to glib partisan potshots at the Cheney-Bush-Halliburton alliance, and while those potshots might be fun (and deserved), I think Jarecki has created something far more intellectually honest and far more difficult to dismiss (a point that Salon reviewer Andrew O’Hehir also raises). Why We Fight offers conservative critics of US foreign policy, such as John McCain, who generally comes across as a serious proponent of reform (although McCain’s office has been highly critical of the film). Jarecki is also careful to note that members of both parties in Congress and in the Oval Office have interests in sustaining the “collusion” between the military and industry. More significantly, Why We Fight is careful to avoid reducing this historical narrative to the work of a few single indiviuals, avoiding the conspiracy stories that weaken many documentaries (including, I would argue, Jarecki’s previous film).

Instead, we see that the motivations for “why we fight” cannot be reduced to a single explanation or source, and this is where Jarecki’s film manages to grasp the full weight of the complex emotional and psychological reasons that might motivate people to go to war. I have noted that the military-industrial complex is almost certainly motivated by greed, but Jarecki also introduces us to Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam veteran and retired New York police officer whose son was killed on September 11. Sekzer’s grief is incredibly profound, and beliving that Saddam Hussein is partially responsible for his son’s untimely death, he contacts someone within the military and asks them to write his son’s name on one of the bombs to be dropped on Iraq. When Sekzer later learns that the Bush administration has misled the public, admitting that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, his disbelief and disillusionment is quite powerful (although, like Manohla Dargis, I was disappointed that Jarecki never sought to explain why so many people like Sekzer bought these lies). Jarecki also introduces us to William Solomon, a young man who seeing no other options in life after his mother passes away, joins the military. When I first saw the film, I found it difficult to connect these stories to Jarecki’s lrger thesis, but I think Klawans is right to emphasize the ways in which Sekzer, Solomon, and, in a different way, retired Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, all offer three very powerful, very different explanations for why we go to war. Of course, explaining why we fight and explaining how to stop it from happening are two very different questions.

One note on the title: Many people have commented on Jarecki’s borrowing (or stealing, as he freely admits) Frank Capra’s title for a series of documentaries he made to rally support for American involvement in World War II, but I found Jarecki’s explanation for his use of the title somewhat surprising: rather than seeing Capra’s films as mere propaganda, which again is too easy, Jarecki instead aligns himself with Capra’s support of the “little guy” (Mr. Smith, George Bailey) against a corporate power that threatens true democracy. It’s an interesting argument, and given the film’s sympathy with its “little guys,” especially Sekzer, Solomon, and Kwiatkowski, his explanation makes a great deal of sense.

Update: This is about a month old, but here’s a blog entry from the Huffington Post by director Eugene Jarecki.

Update: I finally found Darren’s comments about Why We Fight in an old entry of mine.

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2 Comments »

  1. >> mind the __ GAP* ? Said,

    February 16, 2006 @ 3:25 am

    bagdad bridges

    the chutry experiment recently publishes a lot of remarkable information on various projects and films on Iraq which attempt to catch up for a different angle than most of the media presents today. An update with collected links will follow later the d…

  2. >> mind the __ GAP* ? Said,

    February 16, 2006 @ 3:25 am

    bagdad bridges

    the chutry experiment recently publishes a lot of remarkable information on various projects and films on Iraq which attempt to catch up for a different angle than most of the media presents today. An update with collected links will follow later the d…

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