During World War II, Frank Capra made a series of films called Why We Fight. America was entering a war she had been drawn into by a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Once we started fighting, there was no question it was the right thing to do. Japan and Germany both had imperial dreams, and Germany was committing genocide. Worldwide freedom really was at stake.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki has been asking Why We Fight (the title of his new film) in Iraq. “I’ve asked Americans in about 30 states why we fight. I’ve stopped everyday people on the street in the middle of nowhere and said to them ‘what are we fighting for?’ And invariably people very often say ‘freedom.’ It’s the first word they say. But [...] you could see that the very next question I ask, the people suddenly have doubts. And they say, ‘well actually... on second thought... maybe there’s more to the story.’”
Jarecki’s Why We Fight is unlike Capra’s unabashed propaganda films. It’s a dense, intelligent exploration of why America has gone to war every decade since Eisenhower stepped down from the presidency.
Included in the interviews are such notable and diverse thinkers as William Kristol, John McCain, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle and Gore Vidal. We also meet two of President Eisenhower’s children who speak about their father’s concerns.
“Eisenhower was one of the early ones who saw the writing on the wall,” says Jarecki, explaining the film’s strong focus on Ike. Why We Fight opens with Eisenhower’s farewell address. Superficially, the speech is known for coining the term “military-industrial complex.” But Jarecki lets the speech run longer, letting Eisenhower warn his audience about the dangers of a runaway military budget.
In his “Chance for Peace” speech (heard, in part, in Why We Fight), Eisenhower spells it out more clearly: “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals....”
Jarecki finds Eisenhower’s words chillingly prescient. “We have a situation in which young people have so few options that one of Eisenhower’s greatest fears has come to pass, which is that we have taken resources away from other parts of our national life and moved those resources into the defense industry. So when a flood comes we don’t have the basic infrastructure to meet the needs of the flood, so we send in the guard.”
Jarecki says the same can be said for education; when poor Americans can’t afford good schools, the military can step in and offer money for tuition. “This is the problem that Eisenhower was afraid of — when every problem seems to have a military solution. You end up strangling [Americans’] options until [the military is] the only game in town. And when that happens, now you have a situation where you don’t have people fighting and dying for this country because they believe in it, but they’re fighting and dying as mercenaries.”
Jarecki, who talks fast and non-stop, pauses here to let that last idea sink in. Capra-esque sacrifice for the noble ideals of a nation fades into hired killers doing the dirty work of monied interests....
Political documentaries are open to complaints of political bias. Since Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore seems more popular than Jane Fonda as a target for attacks from the right. But Jarecki doesn’t seem concerned about being tarred by the “Michael Moore” brush. Jarecki recalls, “Bill O’Reilly called the film un-American, but then confessed he hadn’t seen it.”
Mike Rosen, a conservative from Denver, had invited Jarecki onto his talk-radio show earlier in the morning. Jarecki said that the host “seemed to take issue with some things in [the movie], but he actually confirmed that he also thinks that the military-industrial complex is a real thing and needs monitoring and needs controls.
“I think no one who understands anything about national defense is going to disagree with Dwight Eisenhower, who after all was the steward of this country in one of the most dangerous times in our history, about what he called balance in our national programs.”
Besides, says Jarecki, “War is party-blind. It doesn’t care who is in the oval office. The forces that drive us to war don’t care whether it’s Republican, Democrat, or other. The fact is, these parties are prey to special interests. That is something Eisenhower was afraid of.”
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies