Why He Fights

Name that war: 'Why We Fight'
Sony Pictures Classics

At once more historically rigorous and psychologically accessible than The Fog of War, Why We Fight assumes our investment in military conflict as being not just financial or even emotional. Expertly drawing from a treasure trove of archival footage and contemporary interviews as it follows the American train of thought from the end of WWII to the start of Shock & Awe and beyond, this Sundance award-winner by self-taught documentarian Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) dares to seek an audience as wide as that for the evening news. Its masterstroke is the characterization of middle-aged New York cop Wilton Sekzer as plainspoken representative of both the U.S. and us--a man whose post-9/11 bloodlust turns to a different kind of rage upon the realization that Iraq's so-called smoking gun isn't even a leaky water pistol.

The 36-year-old filmmaker is plenty wise to preach to the unconverted, though his message wouldn't appear out of place in an activist strategy meeting--or in the classroom. Just as Why We Fight plays like a near-scholarly dissection of what Dwight D. Eisenhower first termed the "military-industrial complex," Jarecki discusses the movie and its issues in paragraphs rather than sentences, talking at points like a veteran professor of American history. We need more filmmakers with Jarecki's ambition and intelligence. But that doesn't stop one from thinking that he maybe ought to run for office.


City Pages: Has the film changed at all in the year since it premiered at Sundance?

Eugene Jarecki: It's sort of a sad statement of the times that, no, we didn't have to make any changes. Except we've kept having to increase the casualty figures that are listed in the movie with regard to the Iraq war, because the body count keeps going up.


CP: The film argues that the forces now at play in Iraq aren't a few years old, or 15, but 50 or 60. Why is that perspective so rare even among progressives in the U.S.?

Jarecki: There's a tendency to lay all our problems at the feet of George W. Bush, to want to see him as taking a radical departure from the traditions of U.S. foreign policy. But Bush wasn't born overnight: He's the product of decades of movement by this country away from its origins and ideals, and toward something more aggressive, more arrogant, more imperial. The Iraq war certainly isn't the first time that the reasons we were given to go to war have turned out not to be the real reasons why we went. Ultimately I think it's a political distraction for us to be obsessed with Bush or any other single figure. The larger forces that the film examines are those--including the military-industrial complex--that are undoing the very fabric of the democracy we're fighting for. It's what Eisenhower meant when he said, "We must avoid destroying from within that which we are trying to protect from without."


CP: What seems to have changed more than anything since, say, the Vietnam War is the volume of protest.

Jarecki: I don't want to sound like a nutcase, but I don't see that at all. In 2003, 10 million people around the world marched in protest even before a single shot had been fired in anger. A lot of us have complained that Americans are apathetic. And it's convenient for those in power to say that we're apathetic, though what we really are is helpless. We live in a complex society that bears a heavy weight on us. Still, that didn't stop hundreds of thousands of Americans from participating in those protests. If you take the analogous year in Vietnam--1963--I think there were maybe 14 Quakers who marched down Fifth Avenue.


CP: Those hundreds of thousands weren't seen much on network TV, which is where Why We Fight could best reach the unconverted, right? The film was aired on the BBC in March, and, absurdly, that's how it was deemed ineligible for an Oscar nomination.

Jarecki: I have every confidence that the film, after showing theatrically all over the U.S., will make it to [U.S.] television and reach that audience. As for the Oscar [ineligibility], it seems there's a little bit of jingoism in the Academy's rules. The chief of the BBC talked to me about this. He said, "You know, it's funny that films can't qualify for Academy consideration here in Europe, but they can disqualify." It's just sort of ironic. The only reason we had to go overseas for funding is that the media system here is suffering.


CP: Do you think that if Eisenhower were alive today, his chosen term would be the "military-industrial-media complex"?

Jarecki: In early drafts of his speech, he actually referred to it as the "military-industrial-congressional complex." Eisenhower was keenly aware of the fact that without the acquiescence and collusion of our members of Congress, the aspirations shared by the military and their friends in industry cannot be made manifest. It takes a member of Congress who wants defense jobs in his or her home district, who needs campaign finance funding that only a major corporation can provide. And so in a sense we can look at Eisenhower's warning to our society as being a warning about runaway corporatism--the public good being served by private interests, corporations being given greater license to do what they wish with our public space and our public policy. In his farewell address, Eisenhower said, "The power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded." I don't think anyone--Republican, Democrat, or other--could have said it better.


CP: When you look at TV news, aren't you amazed at how much money is spent on representing--or misrepresenting--what's going on in the United States?

Jarecki: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study of coverage by the major [TV] networks in the two weeks leading up to Colin Powell's appearance at the United Nations [in 2003]. During that two-week period, they saw 396 programs that focused on war; of those 396 programs, three of them featured voices that were in any way antiwar. You see that and you have to ask yourself: In a state-controlled media, how would it be any different?


CP: We supply our own control, huh?

Jarecki: I think Eisenhower would say that when you have a society that disproportionately allocates its resources toward defense--when you're printing textbooks and building bridges for the people of Iraq while your own children are uneducated and drowning in the streets of New Orleans--then you've got a priorities problem. If you put all your money into the military, then every problem that arises seems as though it requires a military solution. If there's a bomb that goes off, you send in the Marines. If there's a flood, you send in the National Guard. And that means you don't have a developed apparatus in other parts of your national life.


CP: If the short answer to the question posed in the title of the film is "We fight for the money," do you think the Iraq war makes sense even at that level?

Jarecki: I think the answer to the question of why we fight is a really complicated one throughout our history. In terms of Iraq, some people think [the war] is about oil; some think it's a race against the Chinese for global dominance; some think it's George W. Bush's revenge for the theoretical assassination of his father. The reason still emanating from Washington is that we're fighting to bring democracy to the people of Iraq. The film's goal isn't really to answer the question of why we fight: It's to raise the question--and to remind ourselves that the reasons we're given [to go to war] aren't often the real reasons.


CP: Certainly the title of your film means more than the title of the Frank Capra series--even though it's the same title.

Jarecki: I don't know about that. People have asked, "So why did you borrow Frank Capra's title?" And I've said, "We didn't borrow it--we stole it." In fact, I think we stole his movie.


CP: How so?

Jarecki: I think if Capra were alive today, he'd make precisely the kind of movie that I've made. Capra was a dedicated advocate of democracy; he used his films to tell the stories of everyday people--little people fighting great forces, fighting corporatism in their societies. In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is fighting to protect little Bedford Falls from, essentially, Wal-Mart. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith is going out to protect his beloved Willet Creek from the dam that's being planned by special interests. When Capra was asked by the American military to make the Why We Fight series for the troops, he tried to mobilize the troops to fight for freedom. I would say that I, too, am trying to mobilize Americans to fight for freedom. Because I think democracy in this country is in peril.

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