A Capraesque Nightmare

“….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.”

--President Dwight D. Eisenhower

With these foreboding and yet incredibly prescient words, President Eisenhower bade goodbye to the White House. And it is that speech that opens Why We Fight, winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. That’s a difficult question to tackle indeed, especially as Eugene Jarecki, the director, does not limit it to the current conflict in Iraq, but attempts to explain why America has become, in the years since Eisenhower’s farewell, such a belligerent nation. Why indeed, are we engaged in seemingly perpetual conflict? Has the system established in the post-war years done more to produce combat than prevent it? The documentary is named after a series of Frank Capra films commissioned by Defense Department after Pearl Harbour to explain the America's entry into World War II. When asked why he borrowed the title, Jarecki replies, “The films made by Frank Capra are extraordinary; he patents elements of the American myth & lore: this idea that we will win, not because we are superpowerful, but because we are a motley collection of everyday people working together despite our differences. My film is still a Capraesque look at America, it’s inspired by the same aspirations of global democracy. It underscores the tragedy in the derailment of those qualities. Words we were supposed to idealise – such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom of expression’, ‘freedom of religion’ are now being instrumentalised as ‘logos’ and used to promote an agenda: we are now delivering ‘democracy’ as if it were a pizza.” “ Americans have a visceral sense that something is rotten, but no-one can seem to connect the dots,” continues Jarecki. “All these crises around them are a kind of ‘blowback’ from previous hidden operations, so the general public is unable to put them into context. There is asymmetric information: people in power want to maintain an information advantage because there’s a belief that ‘we can’t handle the truth’. My job as a filmmaker is to undo that and bring information to the public to challenge and correct that asymmetry. Ultimately, it falls to the citizen to be the watchdog function in the society. I wanted to make this film because we need what Eisenhower called ‘alert and knowledgeable citizenry’ to compel change, to improve the public’s ability to monitor those in power ” And despite the subject matter, the film manages to rise above the glut of partisan political documentaries which invaded our screens, large and small, during the election season. On the phone from New York, the director strongly emphasizes: “I do not have a partisan film on my hands… This film is not about the Bush administration, for his policies were not born overnight, They are just an extension of what has been developing over the past 40 years. We will have Bush administrations forever unless we look at the system that produces them” “Republicans do not own the copyright on warmaking in the United States,” Jarecki points out. “One of the great myths in American life is that Democrats are somehow antiwar – which, as demonstrated by their position on the Iraq war – is clearly not true. As a party they are not very different, because they are beholden to the same phenomena. Our film is an effort to reach out in a non-partisan way to bring people together on issues that affect all of us.”  “This is a look at American militarism and to what extent Eisenhower’s prophecy has come to pass,” he continues. At a time of exploding defense profits, with an unprecedented number of former defense contractors working in government, it seemed right to ask, what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What is it doing to us?”. Today, the term ‘military industrial complex’ is bandied about with great ease, but the film takes the lid off the real meaning of the phrase coined by Eisenhower, and delves deep into the anatomy of the armaments industry.With unparalled access to Pentagon personnel, national security advisors, top military strategists, think tanks, as well as CIA experts, Senators, fighter pilots, decorated veterans, and historians (Gore Vidal, Chalmers Johnson, John and Susan Eisenhower to name a few) Why We Fight weaves together the complex tapestry of how the country got into this sorry mess. Chronicling, with wonderful archival footage, the last fifty years of American foreign policy, the nation’s growing prediliction for war is literally mapped out for us on the screen: it’s a crucial lesson in geography, as distant parts of the globe all fall under the impact of US militaristic might. In the course of the film, some rather disturbing facts and figures are revealed: nearly $750 billion are spent on defense every year, more than all the other budget items combined. The armaments industry has become an unstoppable commercial machine (with parts of B2 bombers manufactured in every state to ensure political support) with huge profit margins, and hence has become a driving force that makes war happen. What is even more alarming, is that this trend shows no sign of abating and is becoming more ingrained in policy making: “ the complex is so pervasive, it's become invisible” warns Sen. John McCain.

But the documentary is much more than a dry inquiry featuring a collection of shocking statistics and distressing soundbites from experts; it also features some humourous moments as well as moving personal stories. A lady at a weapons manufacturing plant confesses she’d rather be “making toys for Santa”. An Iraqi man who lost his family, courtesy of a ‘smart’ bomb aimed at Saddam’s bunker, wonders sadly on the purpose of American intervention. A disenchanted airforce officer who resigned from the Pentagon (out comtempt for the editing of intelligence on Iraq by the nefarious ‘Office for Special Plans’) admits that she does not wish her children to join the army. Meanwhile, in another state, a young army recruit sees the military as his last means of economic salvation.

As Jarecki points out: “ The crucial notion is that we have a poverty draft. It may look voluntary, but it’s not. It’s not semantic to say so, but joining the military is the best game in town for people in the inner cities and forsaken heartland. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is drafting people instead of Uncle Sam’s pointed finger.”  Yet of all the portraits, by far the most poignant is that of Wilton Seltkzer, a retired NYC cop who, struggling with the grief of losing his son in the World Trade Center on September 11, petitions the military to write his son’s name on a bomb destined for Iraq. When it later it becomes clear to Seltkzer that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, he wearily admits his anger at how the government exploited his mourning and patriotism.

Once the editing began, Jarecki realised that the problem was far more complex than he wished it to be. “You want there to be good guys and bad guys, but instead there’s a complex web of forces acting upon and through individuals who, like all of us, combine some sound and unsound thinking,” he explains. “There is nobody in our film that is a villain or a hero; they are simply caught in a vortex of spiraling militarisation and moral and economic bankruptcy, and they feel remote from and powerless to change those forces.” “After making the Trials of Henry Kissinger I realised that the audiences were too focused on Kissinger the man, rather than understanding that he represents the system that employs him,” Jarecki continues. “The cult of personality, which dominates American thought, gives you a limited outlook. 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.” When asked how he feels about Donald Rumsfeld, Jarecki tactfully replies “I feel sympathy for any man who has to walk the dirty plank of American imperialism, to be the tip of the spear. It is politically useless to attack the man, as I see a system in need of repair or overhaul; the functionaries are irrelevant .The machine is so brilliantly designed that it capitalises on private aspirations of the individual” So has the current administration seen the documentary? “Even if the film lives in a non-partisan world, it does not mean that others do. The White House does not take well to introspection,” responds Jarecki, adding though that “German and British forces have asked to use the film for recruitment of their troops.” Forty-five years later, Eisenhower’s prognosis has come true; what was were once words of warning have turned into a blueprint for US foreign policy. As the casualties and bloodshed continue in Iraq, it seems that democracy is closer to becoming “the insolvent phantom of tomorrow”. With none of the heavy hand of Michael Moore, no agit-prop techniques, but merely letting the footage convey its message, Jarecki is part journalist, part sage, part poet, part historian: the result is a terrifying, dispiriting, haunting, yet wonderful film – the necessary dose of strong medicine needed to awaken what Gore Vidal calls the ‘United States of Amnesia’. Why We Fight, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, will begin its theatrical run on Jan 20th (with an advance screening on January 17th at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas on the 45th anniversary the legendary farewell address.)

Originally printed in Documentary — February 2006