Video Vault: Why We Fight

Why We Fight
2005: Eugene Jarecki
PG-13 – 98 minutes
Vault Rating: 10

“Why We Fight” is director Eugene Jarecki’s polemic on America’s predilection toward armed conflict.

It traces the use of the U.S. military from the watershed moment after World War II to the current day. The decision then to reload and maintain standing armies was historically significant for it fueled the beginning of the cold war and laid the foundation of virtually every American conflict (there have been about 36) since.

Why America fights is a question with various answers depending on the many points of view expressed in this, a perfect documentary.

The easy answer is that America fights for freedom. The common man on the street will often toe this line, but many others, starting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, are skeptical.

“Ike” famously warned of something called the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. This alignment of corporate, governmental and military needs was getting too big for its britches, thought Eisenhower, and the effects on the democracy might prove dangerous one day.

Jarecki goes about interviewing people all along this powerful nexus, examining the source of its power. He speaks to women on a production line who earn their living making ordinance. He speaks to two stealth fighter pilots who dropped the first bombs (at Dora Farms) in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most enlightening are the Pentagon staffers and analysts who describe the “revolving door” of corruption in Washington, D.C. and how weapons systems get adopted by the government. It is noteworthy that those who speak most openly are those who have retired.

“Basically what you do is you come in and you lowball the original estimate,” says former Department of Defense analyst Franklin Spinney. “You over-promise what it’s gonna do and you underestimate the kind of burdens it’s gonna impose. Once the Air Force signs off on it then you start flooding money to as many congressional districts as possible as quickly as possible.”

Chalmers Johnson, who worked at the CIA during Vietnam follows up on this point. “The B-2 bomber has a piece of it made in every single state to make sure that if you ever try to phase that project out, you will get howls from among the most liberal members of congress.”

“When you look at the history of the United States,” says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, “For almost every president, there is something we don’t like somewhere in the world and we’ve got to dispense military force. This is not about one president or one party. We fight as a nation because we perceive it is in our interest to fight and we then mention words like ‘freedom’ and nice common values … when, in fact, much more has been going on privately.”

The upshot is that America’s defense spending is unparalleled on Earth, spending triple what Russia, China and the entire Axis of Evil spend combined.

“And when war is that profitable,” says Johnson, “I guarantee you’ll see a lot more of it.”

Jarecki takes his cameras to armament shows in D.C. where a KBR huckster is doing magic tricks and shmoozing passers-by. While mothers hold babies on their shoulders, salesmen are talking about the comparative killing power of their weapons. Irony shoots through this film like a tungsten-tipped hollow-point.

Moving personal stories are woven throughout. Jarecki introduces Wilton Sekzer, Vietnam veteran and a retired New York City cop, who grieves the loss of his son on 9/11. He seeks a concrete way of memorializing his son and seizes upon a grisly idea.

Another is the story of William Solomon, age 23, of New York. After the death of his only living kin, his mother, and faced with harsh economic realities, we follow him as he decides to join the army.

“We appeal to people’s self interest and then put them in a position of self sacrifice,” says Spinney, who points out the all-volunteer army was one of the ways the military adapted to failures in Vietnam. “We got out of Vietnam effectively when the lottery started and middle class kids were getting killed.”

Vietnam also taught the Pentagon that it had to control the images of war to maintain popular support for it.

Fast forward to today and these lessons are put into play with every “embedded” reporter. Pictures of flag draped coffins returning to our shores are strictly controlled. The theater of war in the middle-east has been clamped down to keep journalists from reporting the ugliness of war.

Remember folks, when a reporter is embedded, somebody’s getting screwed. This film makes the strong case that a big part of war-making is based on lies and media domination.

“We have been lied to in every military escapade, frankly, over the last 50 or 60 years without exception,” says Lewis. “This is a ritual that we have been seeing for decades.”

Other voices in this penetrating film include those of Iraqi civilians. One man complains of the satellite bombing near Dora Farms, which missed its mark.

“A family sleeping inside their house and they bomb them,” he complains. “Is that smart? Is that a smart missile?”

Jarecki alleges that during the first six months of the Iraq war, 50 precision air-strikes were conducted against Iraqi leadership. Of these strikes, none hit its intended target. Most people wouldn’t believe such a statistic today, probably because of the successful media penetration of a pro-war message. But Jarecki’s witnesses lay bare the myth that we can fight a war and limit “collateral damage.”

Chalmers says the idea that we can now fight wars with precision guidance to limit civilian casualties simply isn’t true. “The missiles aren’t that reliable,” he says.

“Minimum of collateral damage? It’s B.S. as far as I’m concerned,” says Spinney.

To augment this point, Jarecki interviews Naji Sheesan, the director of the Baghdad morgue. Like no morgue you’ve ever seen, the facility is a rudimentary block structure filled with heaps of dead. Ninety percent, he says, are civilians.

“I have the records. I can show you my books,” he says. Fighting to stay composed, he displays his thick, ragged book with its hand written entries.

“There’s no security,” says a forlorn Sheesan. “No freedom. There’s nothing.”

“Why We Fight,” in the final analysis, is a dark picture. It supposes there is a constant battle between corporatism in the form of the military-industrial complex and democracy and it says here that the point is completely logical.

“We don’t like to think of ourselves as a militant nation,” says Lewis. “But in fact, we are an incredibly militant and militaristic nation. It’s not a view of ourselves that we want to carry around, but the fact is we are.”

There is a telling segment where Johnson details, essentially, the roots of terror and the term “blowback.”

He describes the U.S. overthrow of the Parliamentary government of, get this, Iran in 1955. Prime Minister Mossadegh tired of the British cheating Iran out of its share of its oil riches and moved to nationalize Iran’s oil, much the way Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is doing today. The British enlisted the U.S., who quickly branded Mossadegh a communist and set the CIA to toppling his government.

The overthrow brought a brutal regime to power that, in the textbook example of blowback, gave direct rise to the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that we’re faced with today.

“Blowback is a CIA term,” says Johnson. “It means the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public. So that when the retaliation comes, the American public is not able to put it in context; to put cause and effect together. So they come up with questions like ‘Why do they hate us?’ Our government did not want the forensic question asked, ‘What were their motives?’ and instead chose to say they were just evildoers.”

“Why We Fight” very much provides the context necessary to understand our world today. The film is not an entertainment, but a crucial civics lesson; a trip to the woodshed. Vault has never seen so many true things laid end to end in any film. This one is required viewing on so many levels, not the least of which is a film clip of President Bush admitting that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.

“Why We Fight” is required viewing because it pulls the plug on a sea of disinformation that the American citizenry and the world has been subjected to in the name of war. There is no reason that this film should not be seen by every responsible citizen. I give it my highest recommendation.

View the trailer

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