Eugene Jarecki's documentary Why We Fight takes its name from Frank Capra's famous World War II propaganda series, but the similarity ends there. Where Capra's films were meant to mobilize Americans in support of the war effort, Jarecki's questions the reasons behind America's latest military adventures. Jarecki assembles a large cast of Washington elites for this hydra-headed study of power -- John McCain, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Donal Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and George W. Bush among them. He also travels to picnics and parades across the country asking the question, "What are we fighting for?" The response is knee-jerk, automatic, in the children who respond it seems almost programmed, "For freedom." Who can argue with such an abstraction?
The film's starting point is President Eisenhower's January 1961 farewell address in which he coined the phrase "military-industrial complex." On leaving office, the former five-star general warned that Americans must guard against the "acquisition of unwarranted influence" by an armaments industry that was (during the Cold War, when the U.S. became permanently militarized to fight communism) gaining serious political and economic clout. Forty-five years later, those interviewed for the film add "congressional" to the term, pointing out that all 50 states are in some way involved in the lucrative business supporting the military and that all congressional representatives, regardless of political stripe, are involved in protecting the jobs and prosperity that flow from military spending into their districts.
War, says Jarecki, is our biggest business and the captains of this enterprise will go to any lengths to insure continuous commerce. Americans spend more on the military than on all other government programs combined. In 2006, the president's budget increases military spending to a whopping $439 billion, which does not include the additional $120 billion he will use to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aside from regular military spending, $320 billion has already been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
As one person in the film remarks, "When war becomes profitable, you'll see a lot more of it." Now that many of the services previously provided by the military are commonly outsourced, like transportation, food service and even "security," the industry surrounding war is booming. Though our political rhetoric is centered on "democracy," our spending priorities seem aimed more toward maintaining the security of capitalism, and when war is such a lucrative business, how can we not support it?
Sleek and crafted like a weapon itself, Why We Fight slowly reveals the cruel deception it takes to foster this mega-business. Maps illustrate invasion after invasion at points around the globe. The filmmaker asserts that, since WWII, the U.S. has never stopped waging war. Jarecki carefully sets us up to start asking vital questions. Is the world a better place for our domination? Is our cowboy culture of macho violence coming back to bite us? Though we export violence in arms sales, Hollywood films, video games and actual military expeditions, we are stunned when violence flows back toward us.
Pervasive and solidly embedded in the fabric of politics, commerce and society, the military-industrial complex has become almost invisible to the citizens who unwittingly provide the money and children for its un-win-able enterprise. The film reminds us that financial elites have a different cost-benefit analysis of war than the folks whose kids will end up fighting. In fact, now that we are in a war against terrorism, the dream of a perfect, unending state of war (one that presumably continues to reap profits) has been realized. This blog is being posted on the world wide web, a technology conceived and nurtured by the military. Who is not touched?
The international face of the USA, as painted by this film, is not a kind one. But will Americans be able to see such a dark self-portrait? Shots of American families wowed slack-jawed by the Blue Angels at a "Celebrate Freedom" Air Show don't provide much promise that we can. This is a horror film that requires an epiphany of its viewers, a film that successfully transcends its design and leaves one feeling that we could easily walk an embered earth.