Peace, freedom, justice, democracy: Such valorous but vague reasons are among those we proffer in response to Why We Fight, both the title and central query of Eugene Jarecki's documentary. It's a provocative look at the creation and growth of a permanent military establishment in the United States.
Jarecki, who previously examined one small part of America's war mentality in 2002's The Trials of Henry Kissinger, borrows his title from a series of Frank Capra shorts produced during World War II. But he draws his thesis from President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address. Eisenhower, a former five-star general and undisputed war hero, decried "a permanent armament industry of vast proportions," what he termed "the military-industrial complex." Among the "grave implications," he warned, was "a disastrous rise of misplaced policy" with no accountability to the American people.
Why We Fight is primarily a series of talking-head interviews interspersed with war footage, but it is no less fascinating for its straightforward approach. Participants include such inside-the-Beltway regulars as conservatives William Kristol, of The Weekly Standard, and policy guru Richard Perle, as well as dissenters Charles Lewis, from the nonpartisan watchdog group The Center for Public Integrity, and foreign-policy vet Chalmer Johnson. But Jarecki also interviews several subjects whose opinions straddle the pro- and anti-military camps: a former Vietnamese refugee who is now at the front line of the army's bomb development, and a disillusioned career soldier who once sat at the Pentagon's Iraq desk.
And one citizen's story is woven throughout, that of an ordinary man whose life hit several critical markers. Wilton Sekzer, now retired, was an old-school New York City cop and a helicopter gunner in Vietnam ("like shooting at dots, not humans"). On Sept. 11, his son died in WTC Tower 1. Sekzer supported the invasion of Iraq, and consequently struggled to reconcile his son's memory with how events unfolded. His story is heartbreaking -- not just personally, but in how it illustrates our culture's easy collusion with war.
Jarecki, in fact, seems stunned by our willingness to go to war. He paints this predilection as a tangle of behind-the-scenes policy analysis, unceasing PR campaigns, a complicit media, a sense of duty as the last remaining superpower, and our constant readiness and vast stockpile of armaments. Jarecki posits that why we fight is in part because we have the skills and the gear. A list of the U.S.A.'s various wars, conflicts and "military actions" since the mid-1950s is illuminating: We're always dumping soldiers somewhere.
While Jarecki cogently traces the rise of the military-industrial complex (even appending two new players -- "Congress" and "policy-oriented think tanks"), his film remains open-ended. Why we fight is a question we must ask of ourselves and of our government. That's especially so, Jarecki argues, because this military-readiness mentality is so pervasive and so seamlessly woven into our lives as to be beyond examination. (Do you ever think what it means when fighter jets fly over a sporting event simply for our entertainment?)
Ultimately, Jarecki suggests that only an informed citizenry can hope to break the stranglehold of the amorphous entity that Eisenhower feared. Yet, you can't help thinking, look at the relative lack of public outrage over the recent warrantless wiretapping: We allow our government to break the law against its own citizens because we are "at war."
Why We Fight really leaves us to play along at home. It's easy now to see the mistakes of the past, the myths and outright lies that sustained misguided policy. Less obvious is the spin we're in -- but analyzing it couldn't be more critical. This film's next installment starts tonight on the nightly news, or in next week's newspaper, or some time soon in another military action in a country yet-to-be named. Be ready. In English, and some Arabic, with subtitles.