In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower warned Americans that an insidious new force was taking hold in the country. He called it the "military-industrial complex." Born of necessity during the Second World War, this once valuable conjunction of the military, the federal government, and the armaments industry was suddenly taking on a life of its own and threatening to spin out of control.
Why We Fight, the sobering documentary from Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), examines the rise of this behemoth and the perils it holds for our democratic way of life. Nowhere near as polemical as Jarecki's earlier indictment of Kissinger, the film is not a broadside against the Bush administration. It stresses that Democrats and Republicans alike are responsible for where we find ourselves today, though it also charts how the situation has intensified during the past five years.
Jarecki's film, which walked off with the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005, takes its title from a series of World War II-era propaganda films that Frank Capra made at the behest of the U.S. government. Those films were intended to rouse the American public to stand up and fight for democracy. Jarecki's goal is similar, but rather than focusing on dangers from abroad, he is concerned with threats from within specifically, how the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the government, the military, and the defense industry jeopardizes the very principles upon which the country was founded.
War has become big business in the United States, driven by powerful forces whose livelihoods depend upon maintaining a permanent state of armed conflict. Former CIA consultant and noted political scientist Chalmers Johnson points to how all parties have a financial and/or strategic interest in expanding the government's arms budget. "When war becomes that profitable, you see more war."
Rather than placing controls on this mutually beneficial alliance, many in Congress have joined it, relying upon campaign contributions from interest groups that have enormous stakes in maintaining the status quo. "[Today's] priorities are set by what benefit s corporations, not our country," says Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.
A variety of political perspectives are offered in the documentary, including those of well-known neo-Conservatives such as William Kristol and Richard Perle, and dyed-in-the-wool liberal Gore Vidal. The majority of those interviewed, however, are former government and/or military officials with no political ax to grind; many of them are sympathetic to Bush's aims but not his methods.
It should be noted that Why We Fight was made with the cooperation of the Department of Defense, which helped facilitate many of the interviews, including the two Air Force pilots who conducted the first stealth bomber strikes on Baghdad. Also adding their voices to the debate are Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and retired Brigadier General John S.D. Eisenhower, a military historian and son of the late president.
The film's most poignant moments belong to retired New York City police officer Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam vet whose son died when the World Trade Center was struck. If Why We Fight can be said to have a main character, it is Sekzer, who, upon hearing President Bush suggest that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9-11 attacks, lent his unequivocal support to the invasion of Iraq. He spent months appealing to Congress and the Pentagon to paint his son's name on the side of one of the bombs that would be dropped on Iraq. When Bush, months later, tried to say that he had never made a Saddam/9-11 connection, Sekzer was devastated.
The other, most personable individual is retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who was in the Pentagon when it was hit on 9-11. A 20-year military veteran, she resigned her commission when Bush declared war against Iraq. Privy to all of the intelligence that was gathered on Saddam Hussein, she states unequivocally that "the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism."
An even more damning indictment may be her comment that, in light of the direction our country has taken during the past three years, "I will not allow my own kids to join the military." The power of that simple sentence cannot be overstated, nor can the effect of seeing President Eisenhower's actual farewell address. Adding to the film's underlying sense of urgency and unease is composer Robert Miller's haunting score, so reminiscent of Philip Glass's music for The Fog of War.
One statement above all others sends a chill through the audience. It is a remembrance by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the late president and an expert, in her own right, on international security and arms control. She quotes her grandfather as having remarked, "God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."
God help us, indeed.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.