“Parenthetically, he looks a lot like my grandfather, so I was sort of stopped by that,” documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki said of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose 1961 farewell address, in which the outgoing chief executive issued his famous warning about what he called “the military-industrial complex,” he first encountered back in 2002.

“I was in the middle of making ‘The Trials of Henry Kissinger,’”–a film adaptation of Christopher Hitchens’ accusatory argument that the former Secretary of State deserved treatment as a war criminal–“and that put me deep in the television archives about our century of war,” Jarecki recalled during a recent Dallas interview. “I think no study of that can go very long without bumping at some point into the farewell address of Eisenhower–both into the career of Eisenhower, which is interwoven with our history of war, but also then with this extraordinary moment at the end of his career, when so many of the thoughts and impulses that had come before manifest themselves in this extraordinary farewell moment.”

Jarecki was on tour to promote his new documentary, “Why We Fight,” and he explained, “The film was inspired by that speech in no uncertain terms. I’d never seen that speech before, and when I saw it, the combination of candor from a president, and such a deep level of concern in his eyes, was totally arresting for me. I’ve never felt anything like that. It felt as though he was talking directly to me. It said to me immediately, this is a significant moment, and I’m not sure why I don’t know more about it. And whenever I see something that’s that significant, and seems unknown by people, it sort of feels like my job to explore it with people.”

It was that experience that led Jarecki to undertake a documentary investigation of the country’s post-war policies, with its heavy emphasis on defense spending and the use of force, against the backdrop of what he saw as Eisenhower’s prescient analysis. But something intervened to give the historical emphasis a topical twist. “When the Iraq war started,” he said, “the film continued to be film about fifty or sixty years of our foreign policy, but it meant you also had to deal with the war happening in your back yard right now. You couldn’t ignore it. And to deal with the war meant to deal with the people touched by it. On the giving end, those people making the bombs, those people dropping the bombs, those people risking their lives, those people in Washington not risking their lives but risking the lives of others for policy reasons. And then you also had to go to the receiving end, to Iraq, to understand the cost of war both to others and to ourselves. The film tries to juggle those elements–the human stories of people whose lives are touched and interwoven by and with the war, and then the theoretical viewpoint, to try to put that into some historical context.”

In constructing the picture from found footage and contemporary interviews with experts, soldiers and ordinary citizens from all sides of the political spectrum, Jarecki took pains to work against what he called “this debilitating and bankrupt partisan game that’s being foisted on all of us. I’m trying to get out of those classifications. I try to make sure that as I go through the film, there’s a vibrant dialogue happening. I’m tired of heavy one-sided communication in my media.” His aim was “to break the unfortunate obsession we have with today–and today is characterized by a partisan shouting match in Washington that isn’t, in my opinion, leading us toward a real understanding of this society and what its challenges are. So as someone who cares deeply about this country and cares deeply about truth and the pursuit of truth as an ideal in an open society, Eisenhower seemed an extraordinary friend to try to work with–to try to look at this lovingly but critically, bringing others into the process.”

Jarecki’s admiration for the former president’s integrity and courage, and for the accuracy of his insight, is obvious as he speaks. He calls Eisenhower “an extraordinary messenger who stopped at a moment along the way and shook us by the lapels and said, ‘I even created this thing, and I’m worried about it.’ You have to imagine what it took for a general and a hero of World War II and a two-term president to use his final moments in office not to say, ‘Look what a great job I’ve done, the state of the union is strong,’ but actually to say, ‘I actually have faced some challenges, and the state of our union should be of great concern to us, because there are threats from within as well as from without.’ That takes an incredible amount of courage–I mean, it’s unheard of today. Eisenhower will tell you there’s such a thing as too much security, because it’s the enemy of republican liberty. You are destroying from within, he said, that which you’re trying to protect from without.”

He continued, “Eisenhower didn’t mean a conspiracy theory, because he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist. Nor was he a dove. He was a general, and then he was a president, and he had sat at the policy-making table, and he had seen how policy is made first-hand. And he warned us: by calling it the military-industrial complex, he was saying this is something that can happen to any society, even with the best of intentions–that a society can lose its way. We started out as a republic, and the idea was we broke off from an empire…to avoid repeating the errors of past empires. A lot of things have happened over the last couple of hundred years. And for a lot of reasons–including some very good ones, like winning World War II and seeing a broken and hurt world and taking a more controlling hand in it–we have become the very thing we sought to avoid. I mean, if there’s a better word for what we’ve become than ‘empire,’ I haven’t heard it. Now we are the very thing we were founded to avoid. And the American people see the writing on the wall–they see the challenges. And Eisenhower is one of the first ones, the first visionaries, to warn us that one of the challenges of empire is that unlike republics, empires require permanent military preparedness…to hold down the ramparts. And if you need the military ready, you need money–tremendous resources. And where do you get those resources? You get them from other parts of your national life. So you start gutting crucial parts of your national life, like education, health care, infrastructure, and directing those resources disproportionately into the most blunt expression of national power. It’s like a body-builder who only builds his right arm and lets the rest of the body atrophy. That’s what Eisenhower meant. Before long the public starts to find it totally normal to see the military doing everything. It can happen in any society. It happened to Germany, it happened to Russia, it happened to Rome, it happened to Britain. Eisenhower was basically saying the military-industrial complex is a name for that imbalance that happens to a society when things become tilted toward militarism.”

So what the former president was talking about, Jarecki said, was “a system that’s lost its way…the kind of priorities problem that takes hold when common sense stops driving us and private interest starts driving us by pretending to shepherd the public good.” The result is a system whose obvious corruption saps the people’s faith in their government. “There’s a wretched kind of pragmatism that’s crept into Washington,” he said. “It’s all about money flow, it’s all about the extraordinary money that’s in the system. And that’s got to get broken–and only the public can break it.” He intends his film as a small contribution to the job of awakening the public to the problem which Eisenhower had warned the nation about, and encouraging them to take action to rectify it.

Among the audiences to whom Jarecki shows “Why We Fight” are military ones, and their reaction has made him appreciate men and women in uniform even more than before. “They teach me a great deal about the war, about war, about what they’re living and dying for that I didn’t know,” he said. “We got to West Point the day after the cadets had lost their own instructor the night before in Iraq. So they’re looking at my film with completely different eyes than an audience of civilians, for which it’s important but not first-hand. And the kind of commentary they give and the kind of viewpoint they express reflect a kind of deep thought that the public doesn’t associate with the military.” Their reaction, he adds, is “very positive, but never blindly so. It’s very surgical. They know what they agree with, and they know why. They’re by and large non-partisan. And so am I.” Jarecki was especially impressed by the sorts of moral and ethical questions he found prevalent nowadays in military training–such as whether there are orders that should not be followed.

An observation that might have made President Eisenhower, an old military man himself, very proud.