The nexus between the defense business and the armed forces that’s been instrumental in driving the muscular–or, in the view of many, imperialistic–post-World War II U.S. foreign policy is the subject of this documentary by Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”). “Why We Fight” lays out the argument that corporate financial interests have largely controlled governmental decision-making (and especially the frequent use of force) over the last six decades against the backdrop of the famous warning against the baleful influence of “the military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower delivered as his farewell address in 1961. Jarecki’s technically conventional picture melds historical footage with modern interview material to contend that the former president’s worst fears have been realized, to the country’s general detriment. The picture is, like the vast majority of documentary films made on political matters today, from both the right and the left, a polemic. Though it presents data from both sides of the divide between those who support the active use of the military (especially in the post-9/11 world) and those who believe that post-war policy has fallen into the trap that Eisenhower warned against, it’s doesn’t take long for its own point of view–that what the former president feared has in fact come to pass, with unhappy effects for the nation–becomes not just clear but dominant, and the pretense to even-handedness seems just that, pretense. To argue a position is nothing new in nonfiction filmmaking, of course. It’s just done more bluntly now than used to be the case. And though “Why We Fight” isn’t as blatant as some documentaries in this respect, its ideological assumptions aren’t exactly hidden.
In its unabashedly activist fashion, however, Jarecki’s film makes its points tellingly. It certainly demonstrates the enormous resources that the United States chooses to spend on arms and weapon development rather than social needs, and draws clear connections between that decision and the profit motive among not only industry executives but politicians and government bureaucrats. And it amply records the frequency with which the U.S. has resorted to the use of force rather than diplomacy over the decades. But that’s not quite the revelation Jarecki apparently thinks. The film is also somewhat less successful in creating a broader historical context for the discussion, at times being awfully free in ascribing motives to actors that seem oversimplified (as with Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb). And despite a halfhearted claim to objectivity, it seems almost derisive in offering the viewpoint of those (like Richard Perle or Bill Kristol) who speak from the other side of the political spectrum. (Of course, one’s reaction to their remarks in part arise from the viewer’s own pre-set opinions, which will necessarily color one’s view.) From the historical perspective, in fact, the film’s most beneficial aspect is to throw on spotlight on Eisenhower, whose experience in the military made him acutely aware of the horrors on combat, and on the details of his speech, which–as the picture shows–had a degree of specificity and power only hinted at in the customary single-phrase allusions made to it nowadays. The presence of two of the president’s children talking about the his attitudes adds to the impact, particularly as they do so with such dignity and directness.
The other major strength of “Why We Fight” is the material it includes to personalize the subject from the perspective of ordinary Americans. Particularly affecting are periodic insertions from the story of William Sekzer, an ex-cop who reacts to his son’s death in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers with a patriotic zeal that eventually extends to a request that the young man’s name be inscribed on a bomb that’s going to be dropped on Iraq, but is crushed when President Bush publicly admits that there was no link between the tragedy and Saddam Hussein; Sekzer’s pain at concluding that he’d been duped by his own government is palpable. An open-ended segment following the decision of William Solomon, a young man feeling adrift in civilian life, to enlist in the army is almost equally touching (one wishes it were possible to follow the kid through basic training and into his actual service). And the comments of the two Stealth pilots who dropped bombs on Baghdad at the very beginning of the Iraq invasion in a vain attempt to kill Saddam are reserved but wrenching; when listening to them one might flash back uncomfortably to the crew of the Enola Gay in one’s mind.
“Why We Fight” takes its title from the series of World War II films made by Frank Capra for the government, and was surely chosen to suggest that just as Capra used his talent to warn ordinary Americans of the threat facing them externally in the 1940s, Jarecki–following in Eisenhower’s footsteps–wants to warn of the threat arising from the abuse of our democracy today. But it could be said that the title also fits because in its own way, Jarecki’s film is as propagandistic as Capra’s were. But though it’s open to criticism on grounds of partiality, overall it offers a salutary voice at a time when the apparatus of officialdom has been so effectively monopolized by the other side, and one can only hope it will reach the ears of people who need to be opened to alternative views. (Truthfully, though, that seems unlikely. It will probably be another case of preaching to the choir.) It can criticized for oversimplification–certainly the comparison to the Roman state, which is blithely described as a democracy turned into an imperialistic state, is much too easy (as well as historically unsound, since the Roman Republic was never truly democratic). But despite its unevenness, in its direct, firm but not manic way it builds considerable impact, and proves an intelligent use of non-fiction film to argue a particular socio-political perspective. Even (maybe especially) those who already know (and agree with) most of what it has to say will find it an impressive achievement.